When I was a teenager in a Pennsylvania mill town “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by The Animals was my personal anthem, as it was for American soldiers then fighting and dying in Vietnam. I finally made my escape, thankfully.

Koji (Tappei Aono), the earnest protagonist of Masaki Tsujino’s “A Tale of the Riverside” also wants out of a bad situation, stuck as he is managing a busy minshuku (Japanese-style inn) alone in a natural beauty spot in the middle of nowhere. His single dad (Yoshimasa Kondo) has eloped with a secret girlfriend, leaving the family business to his younger son.

This opening promises comedy, and Tsuijno, who is making his feature directorial debut at age 50-plus, tries hard for laughs, mostly supplied by motormouth characters who might as well be carrying signboards saying “comic relief.” But taking inspiration from Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” and Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” Tsujino shifts the story toward awkward romantic drama, with the two principals pursued by darkness in their pasts.

A Tale Of The Riverside (Kappa No Onna)
Run Time 107 min.
Language Japanese
Opens July 11, 2020

This combination of raucous comedy and New Hollywood influences is not easy to pull off and Tsujino, working with unknowns who survived a mass audition process organized by the Enbu Seminar drama school, has made a film edging on twee and derivative. But its energy and charm win out, similar to Enbu’s biggest hit, the 2018 zombie comedy “One Cut of the Dead.” It even achieves something like the earlier film’s feel-good ending, if not with a similar out-of-nowhere twist.

Harried by his guests, Koji struggles to keep the business going until the arrival of Miho (Aki Goda), a woman he first sees seemingly drowning in the river next to the inn. Although he reluctantly dashes to her rescue, it is he who really needs help. Miho, after confessing that she has run away from her home in Tokyo, offers to work alongside him in exchange for lodging.

Miho proves to be just as hard-working as Koji and, in a two-shot of them greeting four minshuku restaurant regulars, they look just like a husband-and-wife team.

Before romance blooms, however, they must deal with their respective traumas — or rather, self-perceived sins. Koji’s fears are tied to his childhood and involve a kappa — a mischievous water sprite from Japanese folklore that lives by rivers and is said to drown the unwary.

Miho’s issues are more recent and have drawn the attention of the police, with two cops nosing around the vicinity of the inn. Once Koji has heard her story, he becomes determined to protect this woman he now cares about, something he once failed to do as a boy and deeply regrets. Miho, meanwhile, sympathizes with Koji, an obvious prelude to love.

So why don’t they follow Dad’s lead and make a new start somewhere far, far away? Koji has his reasons, while the arrival of his black sheep older brother Shinichi (Riku Saito), back from an unsuccessful foray to the big city, and a trio of goofball YouTubers, eager to learn about the river’s “real” kappa, create harum-scarum complications.

Everyone, even the characters tossed in to stir up the plot, turns out to be likeable. This is typical enough, but Tsujino, who also wrote the script, doesn’t fall back on now-standard tricks to hold the audience’s attention, splashy computer graphics among them. Instead, he rallies his large cast of characters for a wild, bang-up climax. Plus we finally get to see that kappa.

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