Movie trailers that give away key plot points are frequent targets of audience ire. But a poster that telegraphs what may well be the film’s ending is rare.

However, I don’t think that “Ito,” Satoko Yokohama’s heartwarming drama set in her native Aomori Prefecture, is much harmed by the poster of its title protagonist: Playing a shamisen in a maid’s costume as she jumps for joy, she seems to be signaling a peppy musical.

Which “Ito” is not. Based on “Itomichi,” a 2011 novel by Osamu Koshigaya, the film instead tells an often-told story in the seishun eiga (youth film) genre: A socially awkward teenage girl rebels against her family and what might be called her destiny.

Ito (Itomichi)
Run Time 116 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens June 25

Ito (Ren Komai) — who hates her old-fashioned moniker — lives with her professor father (Etsushi Toyokawa) and shamisen-playing grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa) in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture. Her mother, who died when Ito was 5 years old, was also a talented player of the Tsugaru shamisen — a vigorous, dramatic style with roots in the prefecture’s Tsugaru Peninsula.

Ito learned the shamisen by imitating her grandmother, but has stopped playing. She also takes zero interest in her father’s folklore studies. In other words, she comes across as yet another persnickety teen in yet another drama about a troubled family.

But Yokohama, who also wrote the script, soon shows us another, unconventional side of her protagonist. Journeying to the city of Aomori, Ito lands a job at a maid cafe in a dim corner of a rundown building.

Though some mistake the cafe as a coffee-serving hostess club, it’s purely about the kawaii, not the eroi (erotic). Ito and the other maids dress in frilly, modest uniforms and engage in sweet, ritualized banter with their “masters” (i.e., customers), most of whom are harmless, oddball men. Also, the nice-guy barista (Ayumu Nakajima) strictly enforces the cafe’s one rule: No touching the maids.

Why does Ito work there? As she tells her sympathetic, straight-talking co-worker Sachiko (Mei Kurokawa), she hopes the job will make her more self-confident and social. “I want to get better at talking,” she says. She also wants to get away from home, with its subtle pressures to follow in the footsteps of a mother she misses, but hardly remembers.

From this point on, it’s obvious that Ito will become that shamisen-strumming girl in the poster somewhere along the line, or else the audience, expecting musical entertainment of the uplifting sort, will feel cheated. And the film eventually obliges, though its focus stays on Ito’s struggles to emerge from her shell while dealing with her personal loss and musical destiny.

As Ito, Komai is again playing an insecure teen, as she did in her 2018 breakout, “The Name.” In this rendition, however, her character is shy almost to the point of muteness. At times, I wondered if Komai might be taking it too far, slipping from charming gawkiness to tedious blankness. But she never loses sight of Ito’s inner life, from her deep love for her family to her determined struggle to escape her shell.

So when Ito finally picks up the shamisen and plays with a fire true to the Tsugaru style, it feels natural and real, since we’ve sensed it smoldering all along. More so than the grinning girl in the poster, Ito burns up the screen.

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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