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In “Any Crybabies Around?,” the first theatrical feature by acclaimed short film director Takuma Sato, the real “baby” is the protagonist, a native of the Oga Peninsula in Akita Prefecture, who is an adult in age but still a foolish, irresponsible kid at heart.

He is also a participant in the Oga tradition of Namahage, in which local men dress themselves as folklore ogres and, on New Year’s Eve, go from house to house scaring tots with the approval of their smiling parents. The idea, a pompous Namahage leader tells a TV reporter, is to instill ethics in impressionable youngsters. “They learn that fathers protect children,” he says.

Just then our hero, Tasuku (Taiga Nakano), wanders in front of the TV crew’s camera — wearing only a mask. Ignoring warnings from his wife, Kotone (Riho Yoshioka), who is exhausted from caring for their infant daughter, Tasuku stayed out late with his pals and got thoroughly drunk. Now he is a national laughingstock, soon to become a town pariah.

Any Crybabies Around? (Naku Ko Wa Ineega)
Rating
Run Time 108 min.w
Language Japanese
Opens Nov. 20

Based on Sato’s original script and made with the support of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Bun-buku production company, the film premiered at this year’s San Sebastian International Film Festival, where it won the prize for best cinematography.

Tasuku, however, is not the easiest of heroes to like. After two years of drift and indecision in Tokyo, he returns to Oga to beg and plead his way back into the life of Kotone and his daughter. But he is still as childish as ever, if more pathetic.

Learning that Kotone is working as a club hostess, he urges her to quit, but his only sources of income are a part-time gig at a beachside ice cream stand run by his indulgent mother (Kimiko Yo), and whatever he makes helping his feckless pal Shiba (Kanichiro Sato) illegally harvest shellfish for a dodgy restaurant owner. A pillar of upright, hardworking manhood he is not.

Like his mentor Kore-eda, who is best known abroad for his naturalistic family dramas, Sato rejects formulas designed to pluck heartstrings. His film depicts the harshness of life in the provinces — having disgraced his town, his family and his mates, Tasuku becomes an outcast — but does not oversell it. Tasuku is not a blameless victim of cruel fate, deserving of pity or tears.

Instead, he is a familiar contemporary figure — a nobody who made a public spectacle of himself in the media and had his life ruined as a result. His mother has the best advice for him: Give up trying to reclaim the past. But unable to shake his childlike mindset, he thinks saying “I’m sorry” solves everything.

Similar to other Japanese indie films set in the countryside, including the 2019 Kore-eda-produced drama “His Lost Name,” Sato’s seems headed toward a quiet, elegiac and gently depressing ending.

Not to give anything away, but the film betrays that expectation loudly and powerfully, without doing violence to what we know of the characters and their stories. Enough to say that the title, a phrase shouted at children by the Namahage ogres, figures into it.

Kudos to Nakano, who reveals Tasuku’s weaknesses without making him totally contemptible. Whether the character is redeemable or not is another story, however. As Nakano shows with raw clarity, what the heart wants is not always what life allows.

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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