Though it’s a time of life that many people will recall with nostalgia, in reality, being 14 is a drag: a hormone-ravaged purgatory, caught between the comfortable certainties of childhood and the privileges and freedoms afforded to the fully matured.

Tsubame (Kaya Kiyohara), the protagonist of Michihito Fujii’s “The Brightest Roof in the Universe,” has a few added concerns. As her father and stepmother prepare for the arrival of their first child together, she feels her own place within the household is under threat. She also has boy problems at school and is infatuated with her college-aged neighbor, Toru (Kentaro Ito), though she’s already having second thoughts about the overly affectionate birthday card she just dropped in his mailbox.

Such are the problems burdening Tsubame when she escapes on a summer evening to her favored hideaway, a scenic rooftop above the classroom where she takes calligraphy lessons. Only this time, she discovers she has company: an eccentric old woman calling herself Toyo Hoshino (Kaori Momoi), who appears to be in possession of magical powers and may also be a figment of Tsubame’s imagination.

The Brightest Roof In The Universe (Uchu De Ichiban Akarui Yane)
Run Time 115 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Sept. 4

When the troubled teen catches a glimpse of Toyo riding her kick scooter through the firmament, the latter shrugs it off: “You can do a lot of things when you get older.” In exchange for food, Toyo offers to help solve her young companion’s problems, starting with that embarrassing card sent to Toru and moving on to some deeper personal issues.

This lightweight fantasy, adapted from a 2003 novel by Tomoso Nonaka, is a change of pace for Fujii after the downbeat dramas he released during 2019: the under-appreciated “Day and Night” and “The Journalist,” a political polemic that became a sleeper hit and went on to win best picture at the Japan Academy Awards.

Nonaka’s novel is clearly geared toward a younger audience, but Fujii (who also wrote the script) paces his adaptation so languidly that it may not hold the attention of its target demographic. While it’s a very different film from “The Journalist,” its visual aesthetic is surprisingly similar, with muted colors, shallow focus and a camera that seems to glide through the action.

As with “The Journalist,” “The Brightest Roof in the Universe” can raise suspicions that the director is more concerned about whether his scenes look good than if they actually work.

The movie’s leisurely tempo — not so much dreamy as soporific — works against the vigor of its leads. Kiyohara is a delight, conveying Tsubame’s gawkiness with furtive eye movements and diffident smiles that suggest a hitherto untapped talent for comedy. She also manages to hold her own alongside Momoi, which is no small feat. The screen veteran gives a typically salty performance as Toyo, whose ever-present thermos clearly contains something more potent than barley tea.

Ito has an easy charm, and there’s some nice support work from Maki Sakai and a typically moist-eyed Hidetaka Yoshioka as Tsubame’s parents, and Takashi Yamanaka as her calligraphy teacher.

The latter encourages his student to try her hand at sumi-e ink painting, which becomes a running motif in the film, down to the title cards that intersperse each chapter. The pictures that Tsubame eventually creates have something in common with the movie itself: whimsical, lovely to look at and a bit flat.

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