Verbal battles of the sexes are a standard feature of romantic comedies, usually as the start of an enemies-to-lovers story arc. When married couples go to war with words in films, though, it’s often the prelude to a break-up, with the climatic quarrel between Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s characters in Noah Baumbach’s 2019 drama “Marriage Story” being a much-praised example.

In Japan, the kakādenka — the sharp-tongued wife who lords it over her cringing husband — has long been fodder for jokes, if not a central figure in many feature-length films. So “A Beloved Wife,” Shin Adachi’s comedy based on his own 2016 semi-autobiographical novel, “Chibusa ni Ka” (“Mosquito on the Breast”), is a stand-out.

Premiering in competition at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, this film about a struggling scriptwriter, Gota (Gaku Hamada), and his hot-tempered wife, Chika (Asami Mizukawa), gets laughs from the couple’s power imbalance, with Gota meekly enduring blast after blast from his irritable spouse, but it’s more than a gag fest.

A Beloved Wife (Kigeki Aisai Monogatari)
Run Time 117 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Sept. 11

Adachi, who won TIFF’s best screenplay award for his script, not only shows us why Chika married Gota, but also why she has chosen to stick with him despite his loser ways. But when her tirades escalate to thunderous proportions, the survival of their marriage is suddenly in doubt — and the film takes a serious turn that feels right with the groundwork carefully laid.

“A Beloved Wife” begins as a mid-marriage sex comedy. In addition to his professional woes, Gota has long been exiled from the marital bed and is scheming to get back in. But Chika, as she confesses to a close friend (the single-named Kaho), hardly regards him as a man anymore. Yet, as we see in flashbacks, she was Gota’s strongest supporter when he was starting out, even buying a pair of “lucky” red underwear that she faithfully wore, despite his disdain for what he called “superstition.”

The plot, however, turns less on Gota’s absurd quest for sexual relief, and more on a “reporting trip” to Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku that Gota persuades a skeptical Chika to take. His object: to find a teenage girl who reportedly makes udon noodles — a Kagawa specialty — at a blistering pace, which has given him an idea for a movie.

Forced to radically economize since their bank account is trending to zero, Gota and Chika, together with their young daughter, arrive bedraggled at their destination, only to encounter screwups and disappointments large and small. Chika finally announces that she has had enough — and the aforementioned eruption begins.

Playing Chika, Mizukawa lays the scorn and anger on thick, but as we become better acquainted with Gota’s wimpy personality, we start to sympathize with her frustrations. Also, Mizukawa adds an undercurrent of humor to Chika’s outbursts that, delivered straight, might have made her sound like a bellowing shrew, rather than the title “beloved wife.”

As the woebegone Gota, Hamada is funny while managing to be less than totally contemptible. Even after enduring rejection after rejection, and scolding after scolding, he somehow retains his love for both his work and his wife.

Is he a saint? Not really, but he is also no fool. And at the end of this cacophonous but charming movie, I was misting up. Shin Adachi, c’est moi.

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