Film production has continued in Japan throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but the movies themselves have tended to act like nothing has changed.

That’s not a complaint you could hurl at Yuya Ishii’s “A Madder Red.” The prolific director’s latest drama, which he also wrote and edited, takes place in an all-too-familiar world of face masks, plastic shields and sanitizer.

Designed to keep people apart — and, ostensibly, safe — they provide a fitting backdrop for Ishii’s depiction of a society in which rules abound, but empathy is in short supply.

A Madder Red (Akaneiro ni Yakareru)
Run Time 144 min.
Language Japanese
Opens May 21

Machiko Ono gives a go-for-broke performance as Ryoko Tanaka, a widowed mother and former actress who seems prepared to bear all the world’s troubles on her shoulders. She lost her musician husband in a traffic accident seven years earlier, when he was hit by an elderly motorist who mistook his accelerator for the brake.

Ryoko refused to accept compensation money, yet shows up for the old man’s funeral — not out of vengeance, but just to see his face one last time. That’s the kind of woman she is, and it inspires bemusement in the people around her, not least her bookish, painfully sincere teenage son, Junpei (Iori Wada).

After the pandemic forced her to close her cafe, Ryoko has taken a poorly paid job at a home-improvement center, which she supplements by moonlighting at a sex club. Yet rather than rage against life’s injustices, her well-practiced response is to smile and repeat the most exhausted rallying cry in the Japanese language: “ganbarimashō” (“let’s do our best”).

Ryoko’s income and expenses are periodically displayed onscreen, and it’s hard to ignore the disparity between the cost of her public-housing apartment and the retirement home where her father-in-law now lives, or how meager the compensation is for performing fellatio on a paying customer.

Ishii’s observations about the strictures and cruelties of Japanese society are on point, if not exactly subtle. When one of Ryoko’s coworkers from the sex club is forced to get an abortion, we’re shown a close-up of the fetus. Yet, even as it labors its points and misses some of its targets, this wild and careening film is never less than engrossing to watch.

What makes Ishii one of the most interesting directors currently working in Japan is that he actually takes risks. After reaching a peak of respectability with the handsomely crafted dramas “The Great Passage” (2013) and “Our Family” (2014), his movies have become bolder and more experimental.

“A Madder Red” will certainly test some viewers’ patience and, without Ono, I’m not sure it would hang together. The actress has seldom been better, and she manages to turn her character’s abundant flaws and contradictions into a convincing whole.

The film is as scattershot as its heroine: social realism rubs up against melodrama, with some scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a coming-of-age comedy, and others with the formalism of a stage play. The saccharine soundtrack seems to have been plucked from a Yoji Yamada movie, and at one point we see Ryoko and Junpei riding into a sunset so obviously fake, it harks back to the early days of Technicolor.

Yet the ultimate effect is weirdly cathartic. Messy and slightly mad, it feels like just the film this year needed.

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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