The bumpkin who tries to make it in Tokyo but ends up back in the countryside is one of those dramatic arcs that never loses its appeal in Japan, one reason being that it reflects reality for many dreamers here. Not to say that the multitudes of Tokyoites who came from somewhere else are destined — or doomed — to return to their provincial roots, but more than a few can relate to those who do.

Hiroshi Shinagawa’s “Restart” formulaically follows that arc in its story about a would-be singer-songwriter from Hokkaido who finds herself, after 10 years in Tokyo, singing her heart out for strange and lonely guys as a member of an underground idol group.

Shinagawa, who also wrote the script and endured his own struggles as a young comic in the 1980s, has an implicit understanding of his protagonist and her milieu, including its darker, more dangerous side.

Restart (Risutato)
Run Time 100 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens July 16

After a decade in showbiz, Mio (Emily Yoshizawa, who goes by her first name as vocalist for folk duo Honebone) is no longer the fresh-faced teen that burns with ambition in the film’s opening scenes. But she has her devoted fans, as well as a famous pop star lover. Then, one snap by a paparazzo (Makoto Shinada) of Mio leaving a love hotel with her boyfriend causes a scandal. Bullies on social media shame her, the idol group fires her and a creepy fan attacks her. Meanwhile, the pop star marries another woman. Mio returns home to Hokkaido wanting to die.

From this point, Mio has nowhere to go but up, but as the cynical photographer says to his jester-like assistant (Kanta Nonaka), “People can’t easily restart their lives.” Everyone around Mio, from her supportive former classmates to her kind-hearted stepfather (Hideo Nakano) and her sweet younger sister (Yuri Asakura), promptly unite to prove him wrong.

Her true catalyst for change, however, is Daiki (Shuhei Nogae, better known as rapper Sway), a nice-guy nature photographer who knew her as a kid. He still teases her as if she were 10, but guides her out of her depression, starting with a hike to a burbling stream in the woods. When he jokingly pushes her into the water, she comes up laughing.

All this is almost too good to be true, given that the heroes in this sort of film typically encounter scorn or worse from the close-minded locals. But “Restart” is backed by the small Hokkaido town of Shimokawa (with a population of 2,300), which serves as the main setting and is framed as a verdant, welcoming paradise.

These good vibrations threaten to turn the film into a tourist promotion video, until the snake-like paparazzo returns, showing up in Shimokawa incognito to do a follow-up story and wreak more havoc.

The film is heavily populated by comics from Yoshimoto Kogyo, a major talent agency that is another backer, and their performances are mostly TV-drama broad, if not all bad. But Sway is a rock-solid presence as Daiki, and Emily, making her first screen appearance, is essentially playing a version of herself as Mio, with commitment, conviction and only a few shaky moments.

When Mio finally takes to the stage to sing her own songs, her voice soars with a lustrous beauty, edged with righteous anger, reminiscent of Joan Baez at her “Queen of Folk Music” peak. A restart indeed.

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