A tale of boy-meets-girl, girl-wrecks-boys-life told with sublime melancholy by Japanese auteur Kôji Fukada, “The Real Thing” plays like the darkest “romantic comedy” you ever saw.
A “love story” with melodramatic complications and coincidences, and confrontations that border on bizarre, it makes for a fascinating dive into dysfunction, co-dependency and the credo that “some women are just no damned good for a man, and vice versa.”
“The Real Thing” began life as a manga, a Japanese graphic novel, which was then adapted into a ten part series for Japanese TV by Fukada, director of “Harmonium” and “A Girl Missing.” It was edited into an epic-length film of nearly four hours running time for Cannes. It’s not that important, in the age of bingewatching, that it’s been returned to its ten episode format for this Film Movement release, but I’ll still call it a “movie” for reviewing purposes — a movie in ten bite-sized installments.
Tsuji (Win Morisaki of “Ready Player One”) is a handsome, 30ish “salaryman” for a Ondo Toy & Fireworks in Tokyo. A mid-level manager, he likes to keep his life compartmentalized. Clients who want to “have a drink” merit a muttered “pain in the ass.” And women at the office who throw themselves at him may get some of what they want, but not “love.”
One night, like the loyal salaryman he is, he insists a convenience store customer (Kaho Tsuchimura of “Mother”) have a plastic soap bubble pistol that isn’t in torn packaging. She accepts, fumbles with a map and asks directions, seeming confused or at least distracted.
Little does he know he’s just sealed his fate. That chance encounter leads to one we can’t put down to chance. He walks home, she drives past him and stops on the railroad tracks. Erratic and panicked, she needs saving and so he does.
But when the police show up, she lies. “He” was driving. She doesn’t even know his name, and the lie comes unraveled. Rather than flee this trainwreck-in-progress, Tsuji gives her cab fare home. He gives her a business card so she can pay him back.
Tsuji’s every early encounter with Ukiyo costs him money. He makes her write out IOUs, but discovers she’s given him the wrong address. He’s got the rental car company she used hassling him for fees and damages.
And that instantly messes up his compartmentalized life. The lovesick colleague, Hosokawa (Kei Ishibashi), whom he lives with, is put out. The 24 year-old pixie, Minako (Kei Ishibashi) who is all over him, gets rebuffed and never realizes it.
Tsuji finds himself emptying his bank account to deal with a manipulative yakuza (Yukiya Kitamura) who threatens to turn Ukiyo into a club “hostess” or worse. She lies, obfuscates, whimpers and bows and apologizes.
You could make a drinking game out of the number of times Ukiyo says, “I have something to tell you.” Every new “secret” reveals a further complication and another wad of cash.
Like the yazuka (gangster, loan-shark) Wakita, our curiosity is piqued. “You have an ulterior motive with her?” Is the sex that good? Yes, she’s that good, Ukiyo insists. “No, we’ve never DONE it,” Tsuji corrects.
“No one is better than her at mesmerizing a man,” Wakita sighs (in Japanese with English subtitles). And so it would seem.
“The Real Thing” piles on the personal complications and the details in a story that ebbs and flows, with him looking for her and then her seeking him, over a period of years.
Clues dribble out about his sense of “order” and not leaving a “mess” and her seemingly bottomless background of debt, bad relationships, alcohol abuse and apologies.
Each is, in his or her own way, a boy or girl who “just can’t say no.” There’s a satiric thread here, about Japanese culture and “responsibility” and “loyalty” and “order” and good manners. The endless apologizing and appeals for cash can make you shout at the screen, or come up with your own drinking games.
The running time is daunting, and truthfully, not wholly justified (limited series “drip drip drip” storytelling). But if you’re intrigued by this most ambitious venture by one of Japan’s most challenging filmmakers, track “The Real Thing” down and consume it, preferable in bite-sized portions.
Cast: Win Morisaki, Kaho Tsuchimura, Kei Ishibashi, Shôhei Uno, Akari Fukunaga and Yukiya Kitamura
Credits: Directed by Kôji Fukada, script by Shintaro Mitani, based on the manga by Mochiru Hoshisato. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 3:52, in ten episodes