Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Japan Cuts ’15: Round Trip Heart

The Odakyu Electric Railway’s “Romancecar” is not exactly a Love Boat on rails, but it is known for its attentive service. Nobody upholds its standards better than Hachiko Hojo. After her chaotic childhood, she appreciates its rigid schedules and routines. As a result, she is more surprised than anyone when a flaky older passenger convinces her to take a sudden day trip in director-screenwriter Yuki Tanada’s Round Trip Heart (trailer here), which screens during Japan Cuts 2015, the Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Hojo is a paragon of customer service, whereas Michiyo Kubo frequently crushes bento boxes with her cart. Unfortunately, Kubo will have to take one run solo thanks to Yoichi Sakuraba. Hojo caught the producer of knock-off b-movies shoplifting snacks, but when she chased him through the Hakone station, the Romancecar pulled out without her. It is an inauspicious start to a relationship, but he makes it worse when he reads the private letter Hojo tried to discard.

Despite her anger, the fast-talking Sakuraba half-convinces Hojo the note from her long-estranged mother just might be a veiled suicide threat. It seems she too has traveled to Hakone, the scene of their one happy family vacation, with the intention of ending it all—or so Sakuraba argues. So maybe he quarter-convinces Hojo her mother has sent her a cry for help. Although she remains skeptical, she sets out with the middle-aged under-achiever, to revisit the sites of the fondly remembered family vacation, in hopes of preventing her mother from doing anything drastic.

Through flashbacks, we see how episodes from Hojo’s childhood trip to Hakone echo in the present day. Shrewdly though, Tanada does not force them into rigid parallels. She slowly opens up Hojo’s psyche, letting us discover over time just why she is so emotionally repressed. It is a simple story of ships passing, but the execution is remarkably sensitive and assured.

Lead actress Yuko Oshima was formerly a member of the teen idol pop group AKB48 before aging out, a la Menudo, which is not exactly a confidence-inspiring resume, but she is shockingly good as Hojo, giving the film its heart and soul. It is a quiet performance, but she expresses volumes with a look or a sigh.

Heart also represents a breakout for rubber-faced supporting player Koji Ookura, tapped as her co-lead. At first, he looks like he just bring more shtick, but he conveys all the insecurity and angst beneath Sakuraba’s bluster.

There is just an awful lot of emotional honesty to Oshima and Ookura’s work. Tanada almost takes things too far in the third act, but manages to pull the plane out of its tailspin at the last minute. Overall, the film has a vibe of peaceful sadness that is rather exquisite. You might think you have seen many films like it before—and probably have—yet, it lowers the boom on viewers just the same. Highly recommended for Oshima’ star-making turn, Round Trip Heart screens this Friday (7/10) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.