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Friday, June 16, 2006

Desperately seeking solace

Yawarakai Seikatsu

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Ryuichi Hiroki
Running time: 126 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

In 2003 Shinobu Terajima made a career breakthrough in Ryuichi Hiroki's "Vibrator," playing Rei, an emotionally fragile writer who finds sexual and spiritual release on a road trip with Nao Omori's loquacious, mendacious, but ultimately understanding truck driver.

News photo
Etsushi Toyokawa and Shinobu Terajima in "Yawarakai Seikatsu" (c) "YAWARAKAI SEIKATSU" SEISAKU IINKAI

The daughter of 1960s' yakuza film star Junko Fuji and a veteran stage actress, Terajima was more than ready for this demanding role. Instead of indulging in the histrionics that often pass for screen acting here, she revealed Rei's every emotional tremor with a luminous delicacy and conviction. Playing a character who was a walking psychological disaster area -- alcoholic, bulimic, neurotic -- Terajima made her not only human, but sympathetic and attractive. Rei's triumph over her fears came not from a cliched story arc, but the depths of her being -- and lifted the audience up with her.

In her new film, "Yawarakai Seikatsu (It's Only Talk)," Terajima reunites with Hiroki and, briefly, with Omori.

Based on a novel by Akiko Itoyama, the film centers on Yuko, another single woman in her mid-30s with an unbalanced psyche and a life on hold. In other words, it seems at the beginning to be "Vibrator Part 2."

But instead of falling back on familiar attitudes and gestures -- and then complaining about typecasting -- Terajima creates a character who is subtly, but clearly, different from Rei. She is supported by some of the best male actors currently working, including Omori, E-tsushi Toyokawa, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Shunsuke Matsuoka and Tomorowo Taguchi, but "Yawarakai Seikatsu" is her vehicle.

It rambles in a way the tightly constructed "Vibrator" did not. It also lacks "Vibrator" 's feeling of urgency -- of swimming through a choppy sea of lies and fears to something like truth, and a temporary peace. It opts instead for a more languid pace, including long minutes watching a depressed Yuko hibernating in her futon, but brings us finally to a bittersweet resolution.

Unlike Rei, Yuko has no career, no job -- not even the standard-issue movie mother worrying back home. She lives alone, off the insurance she received after her parents' death. Her residence of choice is Kamata, a town that was once home to the Shochiku studio, but has since subsided to an out-at-the-elbows tackiness that Yuko finds comfortable and endearing.

As the film begins she is engaged in unorthodox sex with a self-confessed pervert (Taguchi) she met on the Internet. The pervert, a ratty-bearded, shifty-eyed middle-aged man, doesn't know quite what to make of his new playmate, who acts as though they have been sorting laundry together.

Then a handsome, if cowardly, gangster (Tsumabuki) finds her blog about her life in Kamata and contacts her. They meet and compare medications -- both are manic depressives -- but romance is not in the cards.

She also hooks up with two college pals, both of whom still have crushes on her, after more than a decade. Homma (Matsuoka), a struggling politician, is the more persistent, though when he and Yuko find themselves alone he tries to beat a quick escape, claiming impotence. She chides him, saying that sex shouldn't come between friends -- and persuades him to spend the night cuddling with her in her futon.

Before she can cure him and start a proper affair, her ne'er-do-well cousin Shoichi (Toyokawa) shows up, saying that he has left his mistress, after his wife in Kyushu kicked him out. His karaoke business a failure, his personal life a bust, he has nowhere to go but to Yuko -- his childhood friend, his confidant and something more.

She is wary of him at first -- this 40-year-old guy tooling around in an ancient Thunderbird he bought when he was flush (or pretending to be so). But he is all she has left of family and, unlike nearly everyone else in her life, he knows her secrets and lies.

When the depressive side of her personality takes hold after an upsetting encounter, he is also the only one there to cook for her, medicate her and otherwise watch over her. Shoichi is no saint -- he hits up Yuko for money when she is least able to resist him -- but his natural buoyancy slowly, surely lifts her up, beyond the reach of her demons. But he has yet to get the better of his own.

Toyokawa, a versatile actor who has played everything from the mad serial killer in "Hasami Otoko (Scissors Man)" to the valiant Ainu brave in "Kita no Zero-nen (Year Zero in the North)," supplies all the requisites for the rascal Shoichi -- including a credible combination of good-heartedness and unreliability.

Shoichi's duality is more than matched by that of Yuko, who is free-spiritedly clomping around Kamata in her brightly colored skirts and clunky boots one moment, the next collapsing into a lifeless heap, as though she were an inflatable toy whose plug had been popped.

She requires something more than Shoichi or the other broken men in her life can supply. By the end of her long journey, she knows what it is, just as she's probably known all along. We all need a soft life -- the literal meaning of "Yawarakai Seikatsu" -- once in a while, but as Yuko discovers, there's also something to be said for this hard thing called reality. What else is there, really?

Read the interview
Having a laugh with Ryuichi Hiroki

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