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Rikiya Imaizumi is a chronicler of love among urban 20-somethings in present-day Japan, which may sound like a description of every other TV drama director here.

But starting with “Sad Tea,” a selection title at the 2013 Tokyo International Film Festival, Imaizumi has carved out his own distinctive niche directing films that combine quirky comedy with close observation of human frailties; well-crafted story arcs with naturalistic dialogue. In the process, he has acquired a local fan following, if not a lot of international recognition.

I used to find his films precious and self-referential, but they’ve grown on me. Or rather, Imaizumi has refined his style and concerns, as seen in his latest, the shambolic but clear-eyed “Over the Town.”

Over the Town (Machi no Uede)
Rating
Run Time 130 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

Once again, he is working from an original script, this time co-written with Hiroyuki Ohashi, and the story centers on a shaggy-haired slacker living in Shimokitazawa, a Brooklyn-esque neighborhood of artsy shops, clubs and theaters in Tokyo. Named Aoi Arakawa (Ryuya Wakaba), he works at a used clothing store and spends much of his downtime at a hole-in-the-wall bar.

The episodic story mostly concerns Aoi’s serial failures, starting with an aborted career as a singer-songwriter seen, thankfully, only in flashback. In the pandemic-less present, his girlfriend (Moeka Hoshi) abruptly dumps him, saying she has found another guy. Then a no-nonsense student director (Minori Hagiwara) casts him in her graduation film, but he blows his one scene — which requires him to sit and read a book — and ends up on the cutting room floor.

Meanwhile, Aoi keeps putting his foot in it with one woman after another, including a bookstore clerk (Kotone Furukawa) he fancies and a crew member (Seina Nakata) working on the director’s film who fancies him. He isn’t a jerk, but he has an unconquerable habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time — and coming to regret it.

Playing Aoi, Wakaba, exudes a scruffy charm but lacks the kind of energy that lights up a screen. The contrast with Ryo Narita, who charges up the film with a cameo as a big-name TV actor who is briefly Aoi’s romantic rival, is immediate and obvious.

But Imaizumi has plentifully seeded his story with droll comic bits, as well as with characters who are just offbeat and individual enough to be interesting without turning into caricatures. Among them are a novelist-turned-actor who has been stuffing himself for a role as a sumo wrestler, and a restaurant owner (Tateto Serizawa) who engages Aoi in a deep conversation about culture. They may not be central to the plot, but they add welcome color to the film’s group portrait of Shimokitazawa locals.

The true standouts, though, are the four women (Hoshi, Furukawa, Nakata and Hagiwara) who become involved with the protagonist. All are strong personalities with sharp minds, as well as a vitality that can smolder or burn. In other words, they are the opposite of Aoi, a man-child who loves to read — he spends most of his time in the store with his nose buried in a book — but as others observe more than once, is a doofus with no discernable goals or ambitions.

So the film’s central mystery is what, if anything, they see in this guy. We get answers that are not completely satisfactory, but for at least one of these women, seem to work. We should all be so lucky as Aoi.

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