Kaho and Shim Eun-kyung star as two friends visiting a provincial city in Japanese filmmaker Yuko Hakota’s first full-length feature.
“Being tacky means being alive!” exclaim the two lead characters in Blue Hour. The reverse, however, isn’t necessarily true: a lively and empathetic family drama, Yuko Hakota’s first full-length feature is refreshingly devoid of tackiness. Tracking a professionally and romantically frustrated urbanite’s return to her provincial hometown with her best friend, Blue Hour veers nearly clear of all the clichés of the city-slicker-in-the-boonies subgenre: devoid of cheesy cultural shocks and cheap laughs, the film is a slow-burning piece in which the awkward prodigal-daughter protagonist’s anguish is alluded to rather than wrought large through contrived exchanges.
Boasting a masterfully measured performance from Kaho (Our Little Sister) and a delightful supporting turn from Korean actor Shim Eun-kyung (Miss Granny), Blue Hour is a precious indie gem destined to pass through the festival circuit in flying colors after its bow as a nominee for the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Firebird Awards. Backed by a supporting program initiated by leading Japanese video and music rental store Tsubaya, the film should generate healthy returns on its domestic release and maybe even a few nods at the country’s year-end awards.
Blue Hour begins in Tokyo, where TV commercials director Sunada (Kaho) is shown shuffling along in life. She’s competent in her work, but is tiring of a job which is becoming less about creating art and more about negotiating peace with her actors and collaborators. Meanwhile, she is locked in a cordial but frisson-free marriage — her starry-eyed husband (Daichi Watanabe) behaves more like a housemate of hers, and still sleeps with a stuffed toy — and has fared no better in an on-off affair with a considerably older and seemingly happily married colleague (Yusuke Santamaria).
Having just hit 30, Sunada is trapped between conflicting emotions in the way she’s split between her manchild husband and patronizing lover. She refuses to look back on her childhood with fondness for fear of becoming soft, a sentiment vividly shown in the way she butchers a children’s ditty with punk histrionics at karaoke. She also tries to distance herself from the demands of adulthood, as she goes around peddling world-weary critique about conventional family values (creating baby is a “masochistic” act, she says).
Offering Sunada a way out from this lethargic haze is her zany friend Kiyoura (Shim). After overhearing Sunada’s reluctance in visiting her parents, Kiyoura simply starts the car and drives her friend to her childhood home. What follows is an awkward homecoming: having left home for years, Sunada finds herself ill at ease with her uncouth mother (Kaho Minami) and her TV viewing habits, her father (Denden) and his roomful of scary swords and shogun’s armor, and her schoolteacher brother (Daisuke Kuroda) and his off-color jokes. She’s equally uncomfortable with the other aspects of provincial life, such as the sex-addled banter between the middle-aged customers and the proprietors of the local bar.
To her merit, Hakota never goes the easy way in illustrating Sunada’s discomfort with what’s around her. In the place of barbed punchlines or hackneyed confrontations, the director ensures her protagonist move through all the embarrassing situations with minimal melodrama.
Delivering possibly the most layered performance in her career, Kaho matches her director’s motivations blow by blow, as she instills her confused and emotionally suppressed character with nuances aplenty. Sunada’s meeting with her ailing grandmother, for example, is heartbreaking but hardly maudlin, their bond reflected powerfully through the simple and silent act of the young woman clipping her elder’s fingernails. And the grandmother’s best line hardly offers closure too: “I try to make the best of every day — but what does that even mean anyway?”
But Kaho has Shim to thank for her feat. At once a source of humor and nuggets of sagely wisdom, Shim’s Kiyoura serves as the comical part of a double act, leaving Kaho’s Sunada free to focus on the more melancholic side of things. But Blue Hour‘s subdued sentiments is also down to DP Ryuto Kondo’s warm palette and Nao Matsuzaki’s subtle score, all of which help propel Hakota’s film to impressive artistic heights.
Production company: Culture Entertainment Company
Cast: Kaho, Shim Eun-kyung, Denden, Kaho Minami
Director-screenwriter: Yuko Hakota
Producer: Hideki Hoshino
Director of photography: Ryuto Kondo
Production designers: Shinpei Inorue
Music: Nao Matsuzaki
Editing: Daisuke Imai
Sales: Bitters End