A high school drama teacher fights his attraction to a student before they finally give in to their raging passion — and before he goes back to his mentally ill wife — in what passes for timeless, swoon-worthy romance in Narratage, the latest by soft-focus king Isao Yukisada. Mawkish, inappropriate and entirely misguided on practically every level, Narratage is the kind of handsome, slickly produced romantic trifle that’s supposed to inspire sweet, forbidden love fantasies in its predominantly female viewership. In reality it’s simply retrograde, fan-fiction level hokum that allows some icky messaging to slip past the radar. There’s no denying Yukisada has talent; his contribution to Nikkatsu’s 2016 commemorative roman porno series, Aroused by Gymnopedies, was among the best, and nearly two decades on, Go holds up as one of the strongest teen dramas to emerge from Japan in that period. But the massive success of Crying Out Love in the Center of the World seems to have bolstered Yukisada’s taste for schmaltzy romances; Narratage is the pinnacle of schmaltzy romance.
Lush, delicate photography by Yukisada’s regular shooter Jun Fukumoto and nearly flawless production specs will give the film a good shot at respectable box office in Asia, where this brand of romance is a cinema staple and Crying Out Love is a classic. Overseas distributors who struck gold with that, or Love Letter, Heaven’s Bookstore and Unforgettable may find something of interest in Narratage. A smattering of festivals may come calling.
A wistful romance that leaves a bitter taste.
Working late one evening despite barely looking old enough to legally work at all, Izumi Kudo (Arimura Kasumi, I Am A Hero) is inspired to recall her life’s one true love (seriously, she’s 23 at a push) when a co-worker admires her pocket watch. Back in high school, Izumi and her drama teacher Takashi Hayama (Jun Matsumoto of boy band Arashi, utterly devoid of charisma here) developed a mutual attraction and revisited their simmering romance a year after Izumi graduated (good of you to wait, there, mate) and returned to the school to help Takashi with a new class. Why she does this is unclear. Turns out, one of the obstacles in their way the first time around was Takashi’s mentally unstable wife, who was off in Tokyo with her parents. The wife’s the problem — not the imbalance of power between teacher and student or the potential for stat rape charges. Nope. That’s fine.
In trying to get over Takashi, Izumi begins dating another drama club member, shoe designer and manipulative psychopath Reiji Ono (Sakaguchi Kentaro). Despite being tall, dark and handsome, Reiji can’t fight the specter of Takashi, that sexy beast in oversized chinos, and we know before Izumi does that she’s going to give in and go back to him. It’s a bittersweet reunion, though (somewhere along they way they’ve broken up), as he decides he’s going back to his wife to try and start again. Cue the tissues, I guess.
It’s difficult to know where to begin in detailing what is so wrong, and so tone deaf, on so many levels in Narratage. The 2005 Rio Shimamoto novel the film is based on was a best-seller, and in fairness there’s a chance the prose simply don’t translate to the screen. It’s also fair to say that the (then) 20-year-old author might not indulge such juvenile dynamics as a mature woman. When Reiji finally realizes it’s over for him and Izumi, he demands she give him back the shoes he made, which she wearing, then changes his mind. This after weeks (months?) of demanding to know who she talks to on the phone, how often she sees Takashi and blowing her off when she calls late, afraid she’s being followed. Yet we’re supposed to think he’s “the one that got away” when she dumps him for the drippy Takashi. Want more? When Takashi tells Izumi he’s going back to his wife, she decides it’s seduction time, as if reasoning this is her last chance for some Takashi action. This is all presented with dead seriousness, like it’s rational, adult behavior.
Aside from all that, Narratage is a mess on the storytelling front. The flashback within a flashback within a flashback construction does its share to muddy the narrative waters, and it revels in some of the most on-the-nose imagery to come down the pipe in a while — like the (no word of a lie) heart-shaped flower petal, pink of course, that lands at Izumi and Takashi’s feet during a stroll. The film would easily lose 25 ponderous minutes if anyone did anything at normal speed — things like answering the phone, answering a question, eating cereal or walking down a hallway. Still, this is polished product, and there’s an audience out there for hazy close-ups and poetical voiceover, or narratage, that basks in shameless sentimentality, no matter how inane. Or felonious.
Production company: Asmik Ace
Cast: Matsumoto Jun, Arimura Kasumi, Sakaguchi Kentaro, Ayaka Onishi, Yutaro Furutachi, Miki Kamioka, Koji Seto, Ryusuke Komakine, Daichi Kaneko, Mikako Ichikawa
Director: Isao Yukisada
Screenwriter: An Horiizumi, based on the book by Rio Shimamoto
Producer: Shinji Ogawa
Executive producer: Masao Teshima, Taichi Ueda, Shunsuke Koga
Director of photography: Jun Fukumoto
Music: Meyna Co.
World sales: Toho
No rating, 140 minutes