Films about caregivers typically feature adult children dealing with aged parents in terminal decline. In Japan, the ravages of dementia have inspired many such films, which is understandable given the rapid graying of the society.

Going against the grain of this downbeat genre was “The Intouchables,” the 2011 Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano film about a grouchy white quadriplegic who bonds with his free-spirited Black caregiver. It was on my mind as I watched “Just the Two of Us,” Keita Fujimoto’s barbed, engaging drama based on Ryuichi Matsushita’s award-winning script.

It doesn’t equal “The Intouchables” in laughs, though it does have flashes of puckish humor. Similar to the French film’s central pair, however, who bicker and quarrel before becoming pals, the caregiver and client in “Just the Two of Us” start by locking horns. One major difference is that the caregiver, Hanae (Shiori Doi), is blind, while her client, Shunsaku (Masatoshi Nagase), is a painter who broke his neck in a motorcycle accident years earlier and is now angry and embittered.

Just The Two Of Us (Futari No Sekai)
Run Time 104 min.
Language Japanese
Opens July 10

The premise of a blind woman caring for a quadriplegic man might have strained credulity, but Matsumoto’s script lays the groundwork carefully. As the story begins, Shunsaku is living alone with his white-bearded grandfather (Motomi Makiguchi). Facing his own health issues, the grandfather tries a succession of caregivers, but Shunsaku drives them all away until Hanae shows up and refuses to be cowed by her new client’s rude behavior. When the grandfather checks himself into a hospital, he turns everything over to Hanae, bank card included. “What if I take the money and run?” she asks. “I trust you,” he says.

Shunsaku has one friend, Goto (Kazumi Kondo), who brings him adult videos and otherwise keeps tabs on him, but Hanae becomes his live-in caregiver, putting up with everything from his insults to a seizure that knocks him out of bed. Nothing, however, can completely wipe away her smile, alternatively teasing and indulgent. What is her motivation for staying, given that Shunsaku is the client from hell?

Hanae’s reasons, it turns out, lie in her tumultuous past before she lost her sight. Also, a change in Shunsuke’s circumstances brings family members out of the woodwork to take charge — and advantage. Shunsuke realizes that Hanae understands him better than his own flesh and blood, and begins to open up. Miracle of miracles, he even starts to smile back.

In demand since his breakthrough role in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 “Mystery Train,” Nagase also played a character with a disability in Naomi Kawase’s 2017 drama, “Radiance,” but in this film he goes several shades darker, to at times abrasive effect.

Holding her own against his formidable presence is Doi, who first worked with Nagase in the 2013 Kaizo Hayashi film “Miroku.” With her air of self-confidence and stubborn determination, she commands attention in every scene. But she also displays a vulnerability that invites sympathy, despite the melodramatic turns her story takes.

The co-producer is Kaizo Hayashi, a veteran indie director who made the hit “Maiku Hama” neo-noir trilogy in the 1990s with Nagase as the private eye lead. In 2014, when he was teaching film at Kyoto University of the Arts, Hayashi assembled a mostly student production team to make “Just the Two of Us,” but the result is thoroughly professional. Still, I’d like to see the formidably talented Hayashi in the director’s chair again, even if he’s not making another “Maiku Hama.”

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