Last year, a Japanese daytime TV show went viral when it released a survey asking marriage-minded women what they considered to be a “normal” man. According to the results, the prototypical bachelor should have an elite university education, a generously paid job, impeccable grooming and look like fresh-faced pop star Gen Hoshino.

Add a pair of glasses and it could have been a description of Norio (Kou Maehara), the protagonist of Tatsuya Yamanishi’s “Mari and Mari.” The 30-year-old seems to have it all: a successful job at a casting agency, a suitably bohemian apartment and a lovey-dovey relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Mari (the single-named Nao).

“You’ve been together for ages, but you act like it’s a first date,” comments an envious co-worker, and it’s true. In a nauseating touch, the couple even have their own song about how much better their lives are together.

Mari and Mari (Kanojo Rairai)
Run Time 91 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens June 18

So Norio is understandably flummoxed when he returns home one evening to discover that his sweetheart has disappeared. In her place is a sleepy-voiced waif (Hana Amano), who claims to have no memory of how she got there but insists she’s going to stay. And guess what? She’s called Mari, too.

The premise is like something out of an early Haruki Murakami story, but Yamanishi treats it with an aloof touch that suggests a fondness for the films of South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo. The director’s debut feature — which he also wrote — is an intriguing, if not entirely satisfying, film that’s perhaps more enjoyable to dissect than it is to watch.

On one level, it’s a very mild mystery, centering on Norio’s increasingly desperate efforts to find out what happened to his girlfriend, and to convince her namesake to leave him alone. But there are hints that his relationship with the original Mari wasn’t all that it seemed. When his parents pay him an unexpected visit, it turns out they’d never even met his live-in partner.

Yamanishi seems to be making a more cynical comment about relationships, though he leaves viewers to piece things together themselves. There’s a suggestion that Norio is treating his romantic life in the same way as his casting sessions, only seeing people in terms of their ability to fit a predetermined role. It’s the idea of a relationship that counts, and maybe any Mari is better than none.

It’s too bad that the film mostly shares Norio’s perspective, treating its female characters as enigmas without inner lives of their own. A subplot involving a co-worker with eyes for Norio doesn’t help matters, and only Asuka Hamura, playing the original Mari’s sister, comes across as fully formed.

For most of its running time, the film seems to be stuck in the same bleary daze as Amano’s Mari, whose answer to every pertinent question is a flat “I don’t know.” The striking soundtrack by violinist Rei Miyamoto tends to overshadow the visuals, though there are a few images that linger.

A closing shot of one of the two Maris — it would be spoiling things to reveal which one — says more about the character than anything that has come before. The scene feels like it could have been the starting point for a more emotionally involving film, but this is still a decent first effort.

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