When does youth end and adulthood begin? After watching dozens of seishun eiga (“youth films”) in which high school kids give up a beloved sport or activity to cram for college entrance exams, I have come to think that, for many in Japan, youth in the free and footloose sense comes to a shuddering halt at age 16.

In Atsuro Shimoyashiro’s “The Modern Lovers,” however, the 30-year-old salaryman Tatsuo (Ryu Morioka) is still clinging to his youth — or rather his illusion of it. Bored with his job and marriage, and stuck in the backwoods of Gunma Prefecture, he plots a temporary escape to Tokyo where once upon a time he wrote scripts, made films and found love. He hopes to recapture some of that lost glory and passion, while knowing he can’t ditch his present existence entirely.

If this sounds pathetic, it is. Tatsuo is less an artist manque agonizing over imagined masterpieces, than a conventional sort who deluded himself into believing he could turn a flurry of youthful creativity into a career. A sympathetic type he is not.

The Modern Lovers (Tokyo No Koibito)
Director Atsuro Shimoyashiro
Run Time 81 min.
Language Japanese
Opens June 27, 2020

Also, the script by Shimoyashiro and Naoaki Akamatsu spells out Tatsuo’s dilemma and telegraphs his fate so obviously that the film feels as though it’s running on rails to a predetermined destination.

Unfolding over the course of three days, the story begins with Tatsuo’s reunion with Komazawa (Tomoki Kimura), a college senpai (upperclassman) who was once a promising director with a film invited to Cannes, but is now an unemployed alcoholic married to a prostitute. After staying the night with this object lesson in the pitfalls of the indie film life, Tatsuo reconnects with Marina (Nanami Kawakami), his free-spirited former girlfriend.

Now married to a well-off man she doesn’t love, Marina calls herself an ordinary woman who wants ordinary things, including the unborn child she has just learned she is carrying. She is also more comfortable in her skin than the wishy-washy Tatsuo. As they reminisce about and relive their younger days, from the classic pop tune “Love You Tokyo” by the band Akira Kurosawa & His Los Primos that serves as a nostalgic touchstone, to a photo session that ends with hot sex in a hotel room, it becomes clear that Tatsuo tossed his big chance for happiness. And for what?

“It’s like a dream being with you,” he tells her, but she remembers how callously he broke up with her. In anger, she had told him he would be sentenced to 18 years of bachelorhood, referencing the title of a famous Noboru Ando yakuza film. That was seven years ago and she is now more forgiving. “We were Tokyo lovers,” Marina, a Saitama native, tells Tatsuo, the hick from Gunma. “There was nothing memorable about us,” is his response. What a drip.

Playing Marina, Kawakami is the film’s prime energy source: Sensual and uninhibited, outspoken and effervescent, she is the woman Tatsuo could never bring home to Mom — or forget. A popular AV (adult video) actress who moved into straight features with the 2015 ensemble comedy “Makeup Room,” Kawakami inhabits the role as naturally as she poses for Tatsuo’s camera, which is to say she is a thorough professional who makes acting look effortless.

She also makes this otherwise unexceptional film worth watching.

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