While the cinema schedules in Japan at this time of year are traditionally filled with youth dramas and anime franchise flicks, there’s another, less celebrated seasonal staple: the late-summer drama.

These tend to be intimate, character-driven films with handsome aesthetics, where the sultry atmosphere is offset by an air of melancholy: think Mipo Oh’s “The Light Shines Only There” (2014) or Haruhiko Arai’s “It Feels So Good” (2019). They’re movies that remind us that, in Japan, summer is a season not only for the living, but for the dead.

Bunji Sotoyama taps into this tradition (such as it is) with his second feature, “Soiree.” Working from his own script, the director uses the format of a lovers-on-the-run movie to tell a story of trauma and rebirth, evocatively shot by cinematographer Naoya Ikeda.

Soiree (Soware)
Run Time 111 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Aug. 28

In the opening minutes, a theater troupe from Tokyo heads to rural Wakayama Prefecture to conduct workshops at a retirement home. Among their number is Shota (Nijiro Murakami), a gifted but shallow actor with a side job as a con artist, for whom the trip is also a homecoming to the town where he grew up.

At first, he barely even notices Takara (Haruka Imou), a reticent, emotionally damaged woman working at the care home. She’s been scarred by childhood abuse, the awful extent of which becomes clear when her father shows up at her home, fresh out of jail, and promptly tries to assault her.

When Shota intervenes, Takara dispenses some impromptu justice, and the pair impulsively absconds together. Their ensuing journey is as much emotional as geographical, as they wander through the sparsely populated countryside, and later try to eke out a living in the city.

“I’m good at hide-and-seek,” Shota declares, but he quickly discovers the limits of his ingenuity. It’s Takara who comes into her own, as she gets a taste of the life she was previously denied. When she finds work at a bar and briefly allows herself to forget her past, she seems to become a different person altogether: a poignant glimpse of the woman she might otherwise have been.

For Murakami, the film offers his best role in years, and he manages to convey the many emotions — compassion, fear, doubt — that Shota keeps hidden behind his feckless exterior. But the movie’s real revelation is Imou, who evokes the effects of trauma with more subtlety than Sotoyama’s sometimes overly literal script. It’s a beautifully modulated performance, with a total lack of vanity.

Sotoyama makes some bold choices, both in the movie’s structure and the way it balances observational realism with occasional flights of lyricism. The film’s title doesn’t appear on-screen until over half an hour has elapsed, and what comes before feels almost like a different movie, with a distinct aesthetic and cast of characters who are mostly forgotten later on.

The director is fond of symmetry and foreshadowing. A seemingly inconsequential rehearsal at the care home lays the groundwork for one of the movie’s most beautiful sequences. But the neatness of the story can also strain credulity, especially in the contrived revelations of the final scene.

Nevertheless, “Soiree” casts a powerful spell. Given the precarious state of the movie industry in 2020, it’s reassuring to know that Japan’s late-summer tradition is in good hands.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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