When it comes to romance, few things are as painful as unrequited — or unnoticed — love. But making your feelings known can be scary. Who wants to be rejected, especially by someone you feel is The One? No one.

In “The Girl I Like,” Shinya Tamada’s relationship drama based on an essay by comedian Naoki Matayoshi, the main character stoutly maintains his “just friends” status with a woman he clearly longs for. Is he a nice guy, an immature boy who needs to grow up or just a coward? The film, which Tamada also scripted, considers all these possibilities with nuance, humor and, in the end, pathos.

Whenever I’m about to dismiss the protagonist, Kato (Daichi Watanabe), with the contempt he seemingly deserves, he says or does something that makes me reconsider, for the moment.

The Girl I Like (Boku No Sukina Onnanoko)
Run Time 90 min.
Language Japanese

Kato, who resembles the puppy-doggish salaryman Watanabe played in his 2017 breakthrough “Tremble All You Want,” struggles mightily with his demons — or rather his inner 13-year-old, who tries to joke away his real feelings. At the same time, he presents himself as a successful scriptwriter, sensitive to the complexities of romance.

The film’s more mature adults, who happen to be mostly women, see through this facade to the uncertain, insecure man behind it, to bracing and enlightening effect.

Kato’s best buddy, Miho (the single-named Nao), is not one of those women. Sporting a knit cap and an impish grin, this aspiring photographer radiates glee and mischief. She calls Kato by a succession of nicknames (Katz, Ka-toon, Toon and Apollo) while messing around with him as if they are two carefree kids.

All this could have been annoying, but Nao, who parlayed performances in last year’s “Your Turn to Kill” and other TV dramas into a thriving career in films (six in 2020 alone), does not play Miho as a cute airhead. Like Kato, she wants something more than a feckless good time, but unlike her pal, she goes out and gets it in the form of “real” boyfriends. While the first beau is unseen, the second is a salaryman (Taiga Nakano) who may be Kato’s age, but is also everything Kato is not: focused, serious and grown-up.

All this plays into a cynical belief shared by certain men (if not Kato) that even arty bohemian women, with Miho being a prime example, ultimately want security and stability. “The Girl I Like,” thankfully, pushes back against that stereotype, though Tamada, who has a theater background, has produced a talky script with scenes that could have been delivered from a stage.

Also, the story’s final destination is apparent from the beginning, but Tamada cleverly finesses this sense of inevitability with a sleight-of-hand ending.

His script also leaves Miho’s motives something of a mystery. Is she playing with Kato as she might with a child? Or does she sincerely feel that theirs is a love doomed never to be? Nao’s performance doesn’t overtly clarify this question — which turns out to be a good acting decision.

Meanwhile, Watanabe’s portrayal of Kato is about as hard to read as a cereal box. With mobile features that amplify every expression, goofy or heart-stricken, he nonetheless avoids turning Kato into a cartoon. Instead, he allows pain and awareness to flicker across his face.

The lesson we learn is in the lyrics to an old Mickey and Silvia song: “Love is strange. Lots of people take it for a game.” But not the smart ones.

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