Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of little films that seem quiet on the surface but deep down have jarring tremors of emotions, then this 3 hour art-house gem from Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi is a must-see. The director, along with co-writer Takamasa Oe, adapted the script from the short story by Haruki Murakami, part of his “Men Without Women” collection. The story revolves around Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”.
In what may be the longest prologue in cinematic history, the opening credits finally roll about 35-40 minutes in. But that first segment is absolutely terrific. Yusuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a stage actor and director married to playwright and TV series writer Oto (Reika Kirishima). Their long relationship is bound by their love for each other despite the loss of a child many years earlier. Oh yes, there is one thing. Oto’s creative juices flow best during and after sex. The intimate moments are filled with story ideas that she bounces off her partner. These conversations may continue over meals or during a car ride, but they always begin during the throes of passion.
Husband Kafuku has come to accept these terms, and beyond that, he’s learned that Oto’s infidelities are a continuing of her creative process. Because of this, he says nothing when walking in at a most inopportune time – Oto is ‘creating’ while in the arms of rising star Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Kafuku elects to remain silent on the issue and allow Oto to have her way. Just when it seems the married couple might address the unspoken, an unexpected tragedy strikes. Each scene to this point has been meticulously crafted and acted. We know these people and feel the connections.
Flash forward two years, and Kafuku has been contracted by a Hiroshima theater group to direct a production of the ‘Vanya’ play for which he’s well known for his acting. He chooses not to cast himself due to the stress the role puts on him … one that forces the actor to face ‘the real you’ and the missed opportunities in life. Instead he puts together a multi-cultural, multi-language cast, including one actor who speaks only Korean sign language. And yes, the actor he chooses to play his Vanya role is Koji, the same actor he previously witnessed with his wife.
Koji has been a lost soul the past couple of years, and he claims it’s Oto who brought him and Kafuku together. A key element here is that Kafuku’s contract with the theater group requires him to accept Misaki (Toko Miura) as the chauffeur of his beloved, always spotless red Saab. During the hour long drives, Kafuku recites his familiar lines of dialogue in conjunction with a recorded tape of Oto reading opposite. It’s his way of keeping her close, yet this also assists with the warming of the relationship between him and his driver Misaki. Both are stoic individuals who keep their emotions hidden under a mask of self-control. It’s fascinating to see the bond slowly develop.
It’s actually Misaki’s backstory that means the most here. It’s a reminder to Kafuku (and us) that every person’s life has a certain complexity that we likely have no window into. The building of this bond actually begins a mutual healing of personal pain previously held inside. It’s also a stark reminder of the difference between these characters and many Americans who barely delay in laying bare their soul on social media. The play’s cast varies in age and background and language, but their collaboration, as well as the connectivity between Kafuku and Misaki are the central theme here. This may be best exemplified by the large video screen above the stage presentation, where the subtitles are displayed in multiple languages. A brilliant touch to an excellent film.
Currently playing in a limited theatrical release.