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Lovers lie, don’t they? When they say “I love you,” they may be really thinking, “You’ll do for the moment, but I still have feelings for someone else,” typically an ex who still holds a place in their hearts or remains a dark obsession. This situation — common enough in real life — doesn’t drive many Japanese romantic dramas, which have a default “pure love” setting.

But it is central to “Colorless,” a sure-footed first feature by Takashi Koyama based on a prize-winning submission to a contest for trailers of yet-to-be-made films. Despite its theme of duplicity in love, the film is not an exercise in black-comic cynicism.

The two protagonists — a struggling photographer (Daichi Kaneko) and an aspiring model/actress (Ruka Ishikawa) — begin as types seen in Japan or anywhere: Both have vague aspirations but little in the way of purpose. They go with the flow and take on whatever protective coloration they need to survive. They are chameleons on the make — and are made for each other.

Colorless (Sarugakucho de Aimasho)
Rating
Run Time 122 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens June 4

When the cameraman, Shuji, shows his grab bag of a portfolio to a jaded editor (Kenta Maeno), he gets a quick, brutal rejection. “What do you want to shoot?” the editor asks, accusingly. Shuji can only answer with a shrug.

Soon after, he lands a gig taking portraits for Yuka (Ishikawa), a fledgling model who exudes an elusive eroticism and allure. For Shuji, something clicks both artistically and personally. A photo of Yuka gazing enigmatically at the camera wins praise and then a contest. Meanwhile, Yuka wins his heart. But when Shuji proclaims his love, she tells him that since that sort of emotion doesn’t last, there’s no point to it. “You forget all that stuff,” she says, blandly.

Nonetheless, Shuji perseveres and they become lovers. But when he visits Yuka’s building, he sees another man going into her apartment and a stranger’s name on her door. Yuka tells Shuji that the guy is a platonic roommate, but feeling betrayed, Shuji orders her to move out immediately and she complies. But who is this woman, so eager to please and so hard to figure out? Shuji can’t help wanting to know.

Fast forward a few years and Shuji is an in-demand fashion photographer, while Yuka’s one-time friend and fellow model Hisako (Konishi Sakurako) reappears in her life as a popular actress, now named Ai Yoshioka. But the talent, drive and luck that are the keys to her success elude Yuka — and her story serves as an unintended object lesson about the dangers of the big city to dreamers from the countryside.

Koyama, who co-wrote the script, tells this story out of chronological order, showing Yuka and Shuji at various stages in their vexed relationship, as well as revealing Yuka’s many jobs and identities, friends and lovers. This structure succeeds in peeling away her mysteries with maximum impact, but the film takes a distanced, nonjudgmental stance toward its revelations that is more cooly elucidating than unfeelingly cold.

Playing Yuka, Ishikawa embodies her character’s enigmas as naturally as breathing — which may be craft, but in any case is perfect casting.

With her as its ever-shifting center, the film delivers an unsparing, multi-faceted character study of a woman with little in the way of a definable character. Colorless, indeed.

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