The portrait business isn’t what it used to be. Working at the photo studio that he inherited from his father, the protagonist of “Woman of the Photographs” looks like a throwback to a bygone era, complete with white three-piece suit and ever-present cigarette.

Yet Kai (Hideki Nagai), the tight-lipped photographer, has adapted with the times. While he’s a wiz with a camera, he’s a master at Photoshop: lightening skin, removing blemishes and performing the kinds of cosmetic enhancements that would normally require expensive surgery. It’s a dishonest profession, but someone has to do it.

The gap between reality and the version of life that we choose to present to the world is a central concern of writer and director Takeshi Kushida’s debut feature. This offbeat fable riffs loosely on author Kobo Abe’s existentialist novel, “The Woman in the Dunes,” without overplaying the resemblance.

Woman of the Photographs (Shashin no Onna)
Run Time 89 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Jan. 30

In Abe’s story, an amateur entomologist is forced to shack up with a woman who spends her nights endlessly struggling to save her home from encroaching sand dunes. Kai’s own Sisyphean labor, however, takes place in front of a computer screen, while for Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki), the titular “Woman of the Photographs,” it’s on Instagram.

A former ballerina turned social media influencer, she comes tumbling into Kai’s life while he’s out photographing beetles in the woods. Kyoko’s latest selfie attempt has left her stuck halfway up a tree, and with some nasty scars to show for it — though nothing that a spot of retouching can’t fix.

Most photographers would be eager to meet such a statuesque model, but Kai isn’t one of them. Like Abe’s protagonist, he’s an insect enthusiast, and he seems to have learned all he knows about gender relations from his pet praying mantis. That would explain his visceral aversion to members of the opposite sex; the mantis, lest we forget, is an insect whose mating ritual tends to involve the female gobbling up the male.

Somewhat reluctantly, Kai agrees to let Kyoko stay at his studio, and starts shooting elaborate portraits for her Instagram account, with her scars discreetly removed. But she begins to have second thoughts about presenting an airbrushed version of herself to the world, and soon discovers that there’s only a thin line between self-promotion and self-harm.

Kyoko’s counterpart is a pushy customer (Toki Koinuma) who entrusts Kai with creating a portrait that will help her snag a husband, then keeps demanding more radical modifications. Urging him on in an affectless monotone, she watches approvingly as the onscreen image of herself transforms into something more resembling an anime character.

Who cares if it looks nothing like her? As she declares: “My photo is going to become my real self.”

Kushida’s mix of dry humor and occasional splashes of surrealism could easily be dismissed as quirky, were it not for the elements of body horror (both real and virtual) running through the story. There are some striking images here, some of which definitely aren’t for the squeamish, and they leave a deeper impression than the script’s rather clumsy observations about social media.

The film fares best when it adopts the approach of its taciturn protagonist, and lets the visuals do the talking. Unlike the improvements that Kai makes in Photoshop, “Woman of the Photographs” has a way of getting under your skin.

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