“Zokki,” the introduction on the film’s website tells us, “is impossible to categorize … Zokki is Zokki.” Fair enough, but all films, by an iron law of reviewing, must have a label and the one that fits best in this case, if crookedly, is “quirky comedy.”

Seeing it at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, I went in expecting “Zokki” to supply belly laughs but left disappointed. Seeing it again, I realized that it was closer in sensibility to the work of celebrated maverick Yoshiharu Tsuge, whose surreal, absurdist manga has inspired several films, including “Nowhere Man” (1991), the directorial debut of actor Naoto Takenaka.

So it’s fitting that, nearly three decades on, Takenaka is one of the directors of “Zokki,” together with fellow actors Takayuki Yamada and Takumi Saitoh. Each member of this trio did his own casting, though they worked from a common script by Yutaka Kuramochi, with its clever repeated motifs and interwoven storylines, based on short stories by manga artist Hiroyuki Ohashi.

Run Time 113 mins.
Opens Now showing

As a result, “Zokki” has a more seamless feel than the usual anthology film. It exists in a comically skewed, gently inviting world of its own where even oddballs and misfits can find their own version of contentment. After more than a year of the pandemic, I found it a relaxing, goofy escape from reality. This time, I left it with a smile.

The unifying theme, suggested in the opening segment by an old man imparting wisdom to his grown-up granddaughter, is that “secrets and lies make the world go round.”

We find out what that means in the course of five stories. One involves a quiet loner, Fujimura (Ryuhei Matsuda), riding his commuter bike on an aimless journey of self-discovery (though he refuses to call it that). Arriving at a seaport, he meets a friendly old fisherman (Jun Kunimura) who invites him for a meal, which turns out to be the fisherman’s eventful birthday party.

Another segment features a nerdy high school boy, Makita (Yusaku Mori), who finds a friend in Ban (Joe Kujo), a gawky, decidedly strange classmate whose favorite phrase is “I want to die!” They get along swimmingly until Ban becomes obsessed with Makita’s older sister, who turns out to be nothing more than an overheard rumor. But to please his pal, Makita keeps up the illusion.

Then there is the kid (single-named Yunho) who begs his unemployed father (Pistol Takehara) to take him to an amusement park, but Dad has a better idea: drive to his old high school at night and steal a punching bag from the boxing club’s clubroom. Just as they’re making their getaway, they are paid a terrifying visit by a female mannequin.

Finally, we meet Fujimura’s next-door neighbor, Ito (Fuku Suzuki), who works alone in a video shop and writes a note at the end of each shift (sample: “Good morning”) to greet him on the counter the following day. Then one morning, he sees that the note has moved. What gives?

All this may sound like mildly amusing randomness, but “Zokki” contains a wealth of unifying comic detail, such as a porn star whose image keeps popping up at odd moments, as well as a climax that draws plot strands together in a satisfying way. But please don’t ask me what the title means.

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