It’s the tortured artist types you want to watch out for. Playwright Nagata (Kento Yamazaki), the protagonist of Isao Yukisada’s “Theatre: A Love Story,” seems to have been taking cues from Osamu Dazai, the godfather of nihilist literary posers. When he isn’t poring over handwritten manuscripts in vintage coffee shops, he’s either wasting time or getting wasted.

Never mind that evidence of his genius is in scant supply: He claims to be so thoroughly devoted to his art that he doesn’t need to trouble himself with things like paying rent, or extending the smallest kindness to his inexplicably long-suffering girlfriend, Saki (Mayu Matsuoka).

Japanese cinema is rich with such protagonists — invariably male, seldom interesting. But it’s fair to say that Nagata is a jerk, and your mileage with “Theatre: A Love Story” is likely to vary depending on how insufferable you find him.

Theatre: A Love Story (Gekijo)
Run Time 136 min.
Language Japanese
Opens July 17 (Theatrical/Streaming On Amazon Prime)

The film is based on a hit novel by comedian-turned-author Naoki Matayoshi, whose 2015 debut novel, “Spark,” turned him into a literary sensation. Yukisada’s adaptation, working from a script by Ryuta Horai, brings a vivid sense of place to the story, though it often leaves viewers in the dark about where exactly in the story they are. You have to pay attention to notice how quickly the years are passing by, even as the film’s protagonist remains unchanged. That’s kind of the point.

When Nagata first meets Saki, she’s a fashion student and aspiring actress, while he’s down on his luck after the theater company he started with a former classmate shuts down under a barrage of bad reviews. (If you’d lazily assumed Japan’s fringe theater scene was rife with mannered acting and excessive earnestness, the film won’t do much to convince you otherwise.)

Saki’s seemingly endless reserve of positive energy is a welcome contrast to Nagata’s all-consuming narcissism, and he casts her as the lead in his next play. Soon enough, he moves in to her dowdy apartment, which they declare their safe place, and the film bathes in a romantic glow.

Things go well at first, but Nagata’s dramatic ambitions seem to get lost somewhere along the way, and as their relationship becomes strained, the light slowly fades from Saki’s eyes.

Portraying a character with a tendency to slump into sullenness is always a challenge, but Nagata’s ever-present voiceover serves only to confirm how conceited he is. Yamazaki, sporting a wispy goatee and shaggy hair, is good at conveying his character’s flaws, though not whatever magnetism keeps Saki in his thrall. It certainly isn’t physical, theirs being the least demonstrative relationship imaginable.

Matsuoka manages to suggest depths in a character who could easily have been seen as a pushover, but she only really comes into her own during the film’s latter half, when Saki’s hurt wells to the surface. Sairi Ito, in a small but significant role, manages to be the most interesting thing in every scene she’s in.

Like much of Yukisada’s work, there’s enough intelligence and craft on display to make the film’s shortcomings more frustrating.

As the final sequence makes clear, “Theatre: A Love Story” wants us to see its central couple as people doomed to bring out the worst in each other. But by treating Saki’s suffering as a stepping stone for Nagata’s success, it isn’t the bittersweet denouement the filmmakers presumably had in mind. It’s just bitter.

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