Sunday, July 17, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: Three Stories of Love

These distantly inter-related characters are all in various states of love. Therefore, they are all also profoundly miserable. Of course, their cold modern urban environment has no time for their feelings, so they will have to hold onto whatever consolation they can find in Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s Three Stories of Love (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Nobody understands how cruel love can be better than Atsushi Shinozuka. The schlubby bridge inspector never thought he would get married, until his wife came along. Yet, she was cruelly taken from him by a knife-wielding maniac in a random incident of street violence. When the killer was sentenced to three years in a mental hospital by the liberal courts, Shinozuka’s grief, guilt, and anger became cancerous. He has struggled to find a lawyer willing to press his lawsuit, while his emotional and physical health have deteriorated.

The latest lawyer to give him the runaround is Shinomiya, a young hotshot so detested by his colleagues, one of them actually pushes him down a long flight of stairs. Unfortunately, that precipitates an incident with the young son of Satoshi, his old college friend and secret crush that will be willfully misinterpreted by the boy’s mother. Meanwhile, neglected housewife Toko Takahashi begins an ill-advised affair with Fujita, the grifter-poultry deliveryman she met through her part-time job making bento boxes. (Shinozuka’s understanding boss Daisuke Kuroda happens to be a customer.)

It is hard to believe it has been six years since Hashiguchi’s last film All Around Us played at NYAFF. That was the first film to really feature artist and memoirist Lily Franky in a lead role, but he has since gone on to be a fixture in Japanese cinema. Bringing it full circle, he has a cameo appearance in Three Stories as a dubious fiend trying to encourage Shinozuka.

Three Stories will likely act as a similar launching pad for Atsushi Shinohara, who has already won awards for his devastating work as Shinzuka. You are not likely to see a better performance all year. It might just be the definitive portrayal of grief on-screen. In fact, he might be too good and too real, because the other Short Cuts-ish narrative strands suffer in comparison.

Frankly, most viewers will never much care for Ryo Ikeda’s Shinomiya and they will start to actively dislike him after he blows off Shinozuka. Whenever he re-enters the film, the audience will start looking for more staircases. To her credit, Toko Narushima gives a boldly honest performance as Takahashi, but her relationship with Fujita and his former beauty pageant winner accomplice never rings true.

However, Shinozuka’s story will continue to reverberate for viewers. It is by far the most deeply felt and features several exquisitely sensitive turns, including Daisuke Kuroda, who is a real standout as his humane namesake. This is a case where less would have been more, but it is still worth sticking with Hashiguchi’s film, for Shinozuka’s sake. Recommended on balance, Three Stories of Love screens tomorrow (7/18) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts 2016.