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Shinji Aoyama directs serious films that have won prestigious awards at festivals overseas — his 2000 drama “Eureka” won two prizes at Cannes, for example. He has also taught film at the Tama Art University and the Film School of Tokyo, all while publishing volumes of film criticism.

Accordingly, he would have once topped a list of directors unlikely to collaborate with Exile Tribe — a collective of all-male pop groups that bestrides the Japanese music scene like a sequined colossus.

And yet, after a gap of seven years since his last theatrical feature, Aoyama is back with “Living in the Sky,” a film based on a novel by Exile Tribe lyricist Masato Odake and starring Takanori Iwata, a member of Exile Tribe groups Exile and Sandaime J Soul Brothers.

Living In The Sky (Sora Ni Sumu)
Rating
Run Time 118 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Oct. 23

“Living in the Sky” is not just targeted at core fans, however; its story of women facing turning points in life has a broader appeal, as well as a complexity not found in the usual Exile Tribe production.

That complexity also comes across as scattershot, however, since the story’s focus shifts from the protagonist’s workplace troubles to her love life, her colleague’s unplanned pregnancy and her concern for her pet cat, who is getting on in years. In the last thread lies the film’s true emotional core.

I was reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s 1993 “Madadayo,” whose protagonist, an elderly professor, spends much screen time in search of his lost kitty. It struck me then as a sign that the director of “Seven Samurai” was losing his grip. Aoyama’s case does not quite reach the “twilight of his career” level of dire — yet.

His heroine is Naomi (Mikako Tabe), a nerdy editor at a small publishing house working with a restless author (Nao Omori) who has just won a major literary prize. She and her easygoing, brainy boss (Yo Takahashi) huddle about how to deal with their literary prima donna.

After work, Naomi returns to a luxurious apartment in a building managed by her fun-loving uncle (Shingo Tsurumi) and aunt (Rie Mimura). She moved in at their invitation, following the recent deaths of her parents. Needless to say, she pays no rent.

On the elevator, Naomi keeps running into Morinori Tokito (Iwata), a movie star who lives a couple of floors above her. Coolly self-confident, he insinuates himself into her apartment and bed.

The contrast between the unworldly bookworm and the full-of-himself actor hints at the start of a rom-com, but after a few laughs provided by Naomi’s deer-in-the-headlights response to Morinori’s advances, the story fragments in the aforementioned directions.

A common theme, though, is the difficulties the characters’ relationships bring to their lives. Naomi wonders if she is uncaring for not crying at her parents’ funeral, while resenting their indifference toward her. Naomi’s pregnant colleague, Aiko (Yukino Kishii), tells her that the baby’s father is not the fiance — and that she will lie to keep her betrothed from knowing the truth.

Then Naomi hears something about Morinori that leaves her feeling used. Her cat, it seems, is the only one she can trust. “Animals are better than people,” Morinori sagely informs her — and she doesn’t disagree.

As expected from Aoyama, the dialogue is intelligent and pithy, while Tabe’s portrayal of Naomi ranges from spacey charm to laser-eyed sternness, underlaid with a melancholy and loneliness that feels of-the-moment. “Living in the Sky” is a movie for the coronavrius era, minus the masks.

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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