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Working at the other extreme from shocking, thrilling and spectacular Asian cinema, Japanese director Nobuhiro Yamashita has carved out his own niche with gentle teenage dramedies that capture the lethargic and slacker lifestyle down to an embarrassing T. You may resist them at first as pointless and obvious after the first five minutes, but hey, there’s something real in his portraits of an under-employed boy in Osaka (Hazy Life) or a high school girl band (Linda Linda Linda) that makes it hard to walk away. Poignant would be too strong a word to apply to the laid-back domestic drama Tamako in Moratorium, about a girl who spends her first year after college vegetating at home. But as in all of Yamashita’s work, its realism gives viewers a strong feeling for contemporary Japanese life. Another reason to watch is former pop singer Atsuko Maeda (The Drudgery Train, Seventh Code), who guilelessly projects a charming-irritating non-personality in the title role that makes this her best film to date. It has been making the fest rounds and will hit San Francisco at the end of the month.
Following on the heels of the edgy (for Nobuhiro) The Drudgery Train, Tamako is a less demanding watch, in fact, something of a yawn until its lightness and delicacy begin to work their magic. You can see the director making a low bow to Ozu in the chapters named after the seasons, and in the delicate agitation of the divorced middle-aged father (Suon Kan) who is at a loss about how to motivate his couch-potato daughter to get out of the house and look for a job. Tamako eats, sleeps and reads comic books while he cooks, cleans, does the laundry and runs his sports equipment store, which is just downstairs from their apartment. Over his carefully prepared meals, which she completely takes for granted, she barely has the energy to reply in monosyllables to his questions, much less make conversation; one of her deepest thoughts is “Japan is hopeless.” Did she actually major in something?
In autumn, she and Dad have a fight. In winter, we learn her mother has left them and is working for a company with international horizons. But Tamako isn’t interested in accompanying her to Bali. A friendless loner, she talks to a bright young boy who comes into the store to buy running shoes. Impish Hitoshi (Kiyoya Ito) is amusingly mature compared to the heroine and far more sociable. Pretty as she is, it’s a wonder Tamako has no suitors – but love interests and hormones are out of the picture here. Instead, she is surprised and defensive to learn her father has gone out on a date, and sends Hitoshi to spy on the perfectly nice crafts teacher (Yasuko Tomita) he’s courting. In spring, Dad makes a decision that opens up her future at last.
This very quiet film is marked by simple camerawork and lighting by Akiko Ashizawa and Yoshihiro Ikeuchi that underline the claustrophobic lack of space in the cluttered interior shots, and the pervasive tranquility of the street and canal in the tiny town outside.
Venue: Hong Kong Film Festival (I See It My Way), March 24, 2014
Production companies: M-ON Entertainment, King Records
Cast: Atsuko Maeda,Suon Kan, Kiyoya Ito, Yasuko Tomito, Kumi Nakamura, Keiichi Suzuki
Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita
Screenwriter: Kosuke Mukai
Producers: Yasumasa Saimi, Hiroyuki Neghishi
Directors of photography: Akiko Ashizawa, Yoshihiro Ikeuchi
Costume designers: Nami Shinozuka, Kyoko Baba
Editor: Takashi Sato
Music: Gen Hoshino
Sales Agent: Bitters End
No rating, 78 minutes
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