On a drab island with few discernible attractions, visitors from the mainland are greeted by a man with a furrowed brow and bleached hair, who reels off his sales patter in impenetrable dialect: “Eighteen thousand for a 50-minute quickie. Forty thousand for all night, a better deal. All Japanese girls.”

That would be Tokuta (Takayuki Yamada), the scout, handyman and resident punching bag for a brothel run by his brutish older brother, Tetsuo (Jiro Sato). The women whose services he advertises so ineffectually treat him with disdain, while Tetsuo generally doesn’t stop at that; even the local kids pick on him.

Tokuta’s only source of comfort comes from his younger sister, Ibuki (Riisa Naka), who’s too physically and emotionally frail to enter into the family trade, but attractive enough to earn the jealousy of the prostitutes.

Brothers in Brothel (Haru o Uru Hito)
Run Time 113 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens June 4

Such is the sordid locale for Sato’s “Brothers in Brothel,” which the actor and director adapted from his own 2009 stage play. With his deft comic timing, hulking physique and face like an Easter Island statue, Sato has never lacked for screen work, though this is only his second time behind the camera, and the first in over a decade.

Yet this sharp, vividly realized drama puts the work of many more established filmmakers to shame. Although it doesn’t always transcend its stage origins, “Brothers in Brothel” delivers a resounding jolt, and suggests that Sato ought to try this kind of thing more often.

It’s hard to tell when or where the story is supposed to be taking place. While the tawdry settings recall the 1970s zenith of Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno genre — an obvious touchstone — it may just be that time has stopped altogether on the island.

The denizens of the brothel treat their lot with the weary resignation of exiles, seldom daring to imagine anything better. There’s plenty of humor to be found in their snide exchanges, but the film’s comedy is buoyed by a current of existential despair. As Ibuki declares, “being numb is a luxury,” which may be why she spends so much time hitting the bottle.

Many of the cast are reprising roles they played in the original stage production, and their characters feel as lived-in as the film’s interiors, crammed with a few generations’ worth of clutter.

Maki Sakai and Yoko Kondo are particularly good as the brothel’s most seasoned pros, drawing pathos from every line. Yoshinari Ota is another standout as a foreign-born customer, whose halting speech conceals the fact that he’s the first genuinely decent guy to walk through their doors in years.

It’s the kind of deadpan comic role that Sato would usually play himself, but the director is in his element as the quietly monstrous Tetsuo. Naka’s Ibuki is also very fine, though I was less sold on Yamada: While convincingly anguished, he gets a little carried away with Tokuta’s emotional outbursts, in a performance that might have worked better on stage.

That’s also true of the film’s climax, a rather stiff affair where everyone stands around watching while a couple of characters do all the shouting. Yet this is followed by a series of short scenes of such formal perfection, “Brothers in Brothel” manages to finish on a convincing high. No 50-minute quickie, it’s a film to savor.

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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