Seesaw -- Film Review

Rough-edged tale of love and loss among Japanese twentysomethings is elevated by a heartbreaking lead performance.

VIENNA — Forty years after Arthur Hiller's "Love Story" broke box-office records, Seesaw offers a lo-fi, mumblecore-flavored, Tokyo-set variation on similar themes: a delicate romance between a pair of beautiful young people, cruelly interrupted by tragedy. A world away from Hiller's slick Hollywood production-values, this is a small-scale, claustrophobically intimate affair shot on hand-held video, an uneven but cautiously promising feature debut for writer/director/actor Keihiro Kanyama.

It functions best as a showcase for the considerable talents of leading lady Maki Murakami who, in her first starring role, delivers a knockout turn that deserves to pick up awards around the festival circuit. The film as a whole falls between stools — it's essentially a sentimental tearjerker, dressed up with a handful of art-movie affectations — but will appeal to festivals receptive to fresh talent from Asia.

Developed by Kanyama with input from his own Kai-kankyaku screenwriting workshop, Seesaw examines the relationship between Makoto (Murakami) and Shinji (Kanyama), a couple living in a compact city-center flat.They start to notice that most of their friends are getting married and/or having children. Shinji fancies the idea of a wedding; Makoto's satisfied with the status quo. This becomes a cause of minor friction in what's generally a harmonious relationship. Another is a cute, abandoned dog, which the soft-hearted Shinji brings home to Makoto's dismay. She insists that he take the pooch to the authorities. While complying, Shinji is killed in an accident (one which isn't shown or even mentioned, but which we can deduce from what follows.)

Having previously been a flighty, ditzy, rather immature girl, Makoto now is engulfed by regret and grief, putting the character, actress and, ultimately, audience through a tough emotional ringer. Indeed, in one or two of the latter sequences, Kanyama and editors Mizudi Nishida (who also serves as cinematographer) and Yasuhiro Mutsuura are guilty of letting scenes run on far too long. There's a particularly over-protracted bit in a bathroom which will test audience patience.

Then again, this emphasis indicates Kanyama and company realize what a trump-card they have in Murakami, who's touching and lively as the ever-demonstrative Makoto especially in the early stretches when her cute daffiness is in full flow. Taken in toto, this is a truly affecting and memorable characterization, and will, one hopes, be the harbinger of bigger and maybe even better things to come from a photogenic, highly engaging newcomer.
Production companies: Cinepazoo; Helpless Lunch
Cast: Maki Murakami, Keihiro Kanyama, Keigo Oka, SoRa
Director: Keihiro Kanyama
Screenwriters: Keihiro Kanyama, the Kankyaku-Kai workshop
Producers: Mizuki Nishida and Keihiro Kanyama
Director of photography: Mizuki Nishida
Production designer: Ayumi Suzuki
Editors: Mizuki Nishida, Yasuhiro Mutsuura
Sales: Keihiro Kanyama, Tokyo
No rating, 70 minutes