“Call Me Chihiro” is a soapy, static Japanese melodrama that drifts through the months after a sex worker has given up “the life.” It’s true to its source material as it captures the brooding, interior world quality of some of the more subtle manga, the Japanese comic books for adults. But as cinema, it plays as dull, seemingly random sketches that add up to a motion picture that’s more of a still life portrait.
Our title character (Kasumi Arimura) is a beaming bento shop clerk whom we quickly notice is popular with her customers. Very popular. They’re all male, local factory workers who flirt and make crude come-ons, and she smiles and gives as good as she gets.
They knew her in her previous profession, as a “massage parlor” sex worker.
Near as we can tell, this other profession didn’t scar her. As we never get an idea of what exactly drove her into that work via the film’s flashbacks, we accept her as she presents herself — solitary, friendly and kind. A teenage schoolgirl (Hana Toyoshima) takes secret snaps of her cuddling a feral cat, chatting up a bratty little boy (Tetta Shimada), sticking up for, feeding and all but taking in an old homeless man (composer turned actor (Keiichi Suzuki) she sees bullied on the docks of Hiroshima.
Eating with him, we see her fondness for the food of the cranky cook, Nagai (Toshie Negishi) at the bento shop and her taste for the extremely tart pickled plums that are Nagai’s specialty. Chihiro grimaces, and then smiles every time she takes a bite.
And there’s our big fat manga metaphor, film fans. Chihiro has a taste for the bitter, even as she maintains that sweet face.
She allows herself to bond with the teen Suniko and sassy little boy, Makoto, even as figures from her old life — from customers to her transgender sex-worker friend Basil (Van) and her ex-boss, the tropical fish dealer/pimp, played by Lily Franky — wander back into her current one.
She visits the now-blind owner of the bento shop (Jun Fubuki) who hired her in the hospital, chatting her up under another name, hiding their previous connection.
Through it all, we sense a damaged young woman making an effort to connect with people, but lonely and uncertain of her place or anyone’s ability to connect thanks to the scars of her life, most of them left unexplained.
Co-writer/director Rikiya Imaizumi’s (“Sad Tea,” “What is Love?”) adaptation might have had a dreamy quality as he leads us through this woman’s drfting life and implied struggle for happiness and connection. But the blocking and acting is laughably stiff. There’s almost no such thing as a walking and talking shot here, with virtually every encounter a series of stock-still one-shots — Chiriro arguing with Basil, Suniko lashing out at her chilly, remote “certified cook” mother, Matako’s single mom chewing out Chihiro for befriending him.
A movie this long and this still practically begs to be taken more seriously than what transpires on the screen actually merits. What I took from it was a renewed appreciation for Japanese cooking, that “Iron Chef” obsession with food as mere subtext, and a sense that I’d just seen the most PG (It’s rated TV-14, due to a single sex scene) rated film about a sex worker in the history of cinema.
Fans of the manga may get more out of it than the casual viewer just dipping her or his toes in this “Around the World with Netflix” entry. The rest of us are left to scroll through bento online menus to see how much of what we’ve sampled on the screen we can order as take out.
Rating: TV-14, sex, adult subject matter
Cast: Kasumi Arimura, Hana Toyoshima, Tetta Shimada, Van, Ryûya Wakaba. Jun Fubuki and Keiichi Suzuki
Credits: Directed by Rikiya Imaizumi, scripted by Kaori Sawai and Rikiya Imaizumi, based on the manga by Hiroyuki Yasuda. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:12