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Comic books at the commercial end of the scale are mostly the stuff of fantasy. Marvel didn’t build its universe and Osamu Tezuka didn’t become the “god of manga” with tales of the everyday and familiar. However, some comic creators — Harvey Pekar in the United States, Yoshiharu Tsuge in Japan — developed more personal, realistic approaches that won critical kudos, if not big checks for movie rights.

In Takahiro Horie’s “Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me?” Sawako Hayakawa (Haru Kuroki) is a successful and in-demand artist who thrills her perky, all-business editor, Chika (the single-named Nao), with an idea for a series based on her own life, her troubled marriage included. To her husband’s dismay, her new manga seems drawn directly from her daily existence, almost word for word and revelation by disturbing revelation.

But how often does such an autobiographical story get greenlighted in the real world of big-time manga publishing? Almost never, and yet the film, which Horie scripted from his own award-winning treatment, smooths over its improbabilities with clever plotting, crisp relationship comedy and a fresh take on an age-old theme: adultery. It’s almost too slickly well-made for its own good, but as the story becomes more complex, Sawako’s pain deepens and her anger intensifies. Instead of light entertainment of the smarter sort, the film becomes a piercing look at what makes a marriage survive — or not.

Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me? (Sensei, Watashi no Tonari ni Suwatte Itadakemasen Ka?)
Rating
Run Time 119 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Sept. 10

As the film begins, Sawako and her shaggy-haired, hangdog husband Toshio (Tasuku Emoto) are working as a tight professional team, with the former taking the creative lead and the latter playing a supporting role. Meanwhile, Chika is gently but firmly prodding Sawako for a new series. Just as she is pondering what its subject should be, Sawako gets a phone call: Her mother (Jun Fubuki) has had an accident and is in the hospital.

When she and Toshio rush to her rural hometown, however, they find Mom in good spirits and recovering. Nonetheless, Sawako decides to settle in for a long stay and take lessons at a nearby driving school. Living in the countryside, a driver’s license comes in handy, but there is another reason: “If you left me,” she tells Toshio enigmatically, “I’d need to drive.” As we soon learn, she suspects he is cheating on her with Chika.

At first frozen behind the wheel — she has what Toshio describes as a stress-induced “driving phobia” — Sawako starts to relax and enjoy the lessons when a new teacher, the handsome and patient Ayumu Shintani (Daichi Kaneko), takes charge. Their interactions inspire her and she soon starts churning out drawings for her series. While she is at her lessons, Toshio sneaks a peek at her new manga and sees that she is writing about her teacher — and their blossoming romance. He is suddenly bathed in a cold sweat, fearing that her story is the truth — and her revenge.

As played by Emoto, a master of sketchy-guy roles, Toshio is comically contemptible, if plausibly hurting in his own way. At one time Sawako’s manga mentor, he hit a creative roadblock as her career took off, and cheating is his low-down way of getting back at her. But in Kuroki’s brilliantly understated performance, the dreamy, unworldly Sawako has her steely side, too. Watching her unsheathe it is one of this charming and devastating film’s many pleasures.

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