Akako Akai is nothing like the shape-shifters you will find in most paperback paranormal romances. She is young and saucy and ever so fascinated with seventy-something novelist Ojisama. In their world, she is his creation, but she has a mind of her own. Not surprisingly, they both sprung from the mind and pen of Saisei Muro, another novelist in his seventh decade. Their age difference might look problematic, but the whole human-goldfish thing really makes their relationship complicated in Gakuryû Ishii’s Bitter Honey (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film inNew York.
Apparently, Ojisama has a bed-ridden wife, but he rarely sees her and we never do. Instead, he prefers to ambiguously flirt and play with Akai, a goldfish he bought for three hundred Yen, who can take human form for prolonged periods of time. He is content keeping things slightly naughty but ultimately chaste. However, Akai decides she wants to take matters to the next level when she meets Yuriko, the ghost of Ojisama’s spurned lover. Even though she and Yuriko’s spirit, a classic Japanese specter in the Kwaidan tradition become fast friends, the dead woman’s history stimulates feelings of jealousy. Those feelings increase exponentially when she discovers Ojisama is also seeing a pretty school teacher on the side.
Arguably, Bitter Honey heralds a mini-boomlet of darkly obsessive shape-shiftery romances, together with Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s The Lure and Károly Ujj Mészáros’s Liza, the Foxy Fair. Glad we are to have them all. Ishii is known for wilder fare, but he and screenwriter Takehito Minato adapt Muro’s novel with lyrical sensitivity. There are echoes of the oldster obsessions of Stealing Beauty and Venus, but Ishii takes those themes deeper, while evoking the look and vibe of post-war Japan with fatalistic nostalgia.
On paper, Ojisama probably sounds as creepy as Humbert Humbert, but Ren Osugi keenly humanizes all his insecurities and regrets. Fumi Nikaido performance as Akai is charming and energetic, but also deeply sad in a way that is quite wonderful. Yoko Maki is also literally and figuratively haunting as Yuriko, while Masatoshi Nagase adds an intriguing dash of mystery as Tatsuo, the fish-monger.