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By winning audience awards for her whimsical, heartwarming rom-coms “Tremble All You Want” and “Hold Me Back” at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2017 and 2020, respectively, Akiko Ohku has proven her ability to connect with ticket buyers (and this reviewer). The second win was especially impressive since it was for the only prize awarded in the festival’s 32-film Tokyo Premiere 2020 section this year.

Based on a novel by Risa Wataya and scripted by Ohku, “Hold Me Back” has much in common with the director’s breakout hit, “Tremble All You Want.” Both feature single protagonists who are on the gauche and quirky side, played by actors — Mayu Matsuoka in the former film and the single-named Non in the latter — who exude natural charm and offbeat comedic talent.

Matsuoka has gone on to appear in serious roles, including as a sex worker in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters.” Non, however, has basically always been Non, whose one-of-a-kind combination of cute and vulnerable make her seem as though she has grown up without having matured. One comparison is the young Marilyn Monroe, with her gift for getting laughs while seeming, like a child, to make no effort at all.

Hold Me Back (Watashi o Kuitomete)
Rating
Run Time 133 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Dec. 18

I used to think that directing Non would be like directing a puppy: Point the camera in her direction and hope for the best. But in “Hold Me Back” she shows that she can be both the ingenue audiences have come to love and an experienced actor able to carry a film.

Non plays Mitsuko Kuroda, a 31-year-old OL (“office lady” or clerk) who talks to a male advisor in her head that she calls A. Her tete-a-tetes with him help her deal with her own insecurity, specifically regarding matters of the heart. And A, as he often reminds her, is really her, not some guardian angel whispering in her ear.

Mitsuko has an office ally in the down-to-earth Nozomi (Asami Usuda), and her boss (the always wonderful Hairi Katagiri) is an understanding type. Her love life, though, is nonexistent, save for a guy she calls Tada-kun (Kento Hayashi), a shy salesman who visits her office, lives in her neighborhood and regularly shows up at her door to receive samples of her home cooking, but never sets foot inside.

It seems almost too predictable that Tada-kun will step past her genkan (entryway) and into her life, but Mitsuko frets about the age gap (Tada-kun is two years younger) and worries whether he already has a girlfriend. She also dreams of seeing her college pal, Satsuki (Ai Hashimoto), who now lives in Rome with her Italian husband. On top of everything else, she dreads the day that A, who can go silent without warning, will abandon her entirely.

All of these issues boil down to one major point: Mitsuko is lonely but finds relationships hard, so she tries to convince herself that being on her own is best. The tension between her ideal (blissful singledom) and her reality (existential anxiety) finally explodes. Expecting rom-com fluff, I instead bore witness to one memorable on-screen breakdown.

If and how Mitsuko is reunited with her best friend in Rome I will not say, but she already has her own Mount Etna of emotions seething inside. The result is an entertaining eruption of laughs and tears, with no holding back.

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