A group of middle-aged, middle-class professionals are once again the focus of a sensitive examination of contemporary Japanese life by Tadashi Nohara, this time with the writer on board as director of his theatrical feature debut, Third Time Lucky. Set in Nohara’s beloved Kobe, the film tracks a group of interconnected friends and family as they fall in and out of love, straddle the lines between being friends and being partners and interrogate their own feelings and desires in the hope of finding some degree of elusive happiness, or at the very least contentment.
Nohara is perhaps best known for his work as co-writer on Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy and, more significantly, co-writer and producer on Happy Hour, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s five-hour survey of four Kobe women’s lives from 2015. Despite the accolades for Wife, that film lacks the astute observations of Happy Hour, which are abundant again here. Falling somewhere between the two in terms of pacing, narrative momentum and accessibility, Third Time Lucky will generate plenty of festival attention, based on Nohara’s name above the title, after its bow at Tokyo. Films charting Japanese romantic tribulations have fared well around Asia-Pacific in recent years, making this feature art house-bound in the region. It won’t hurt that it clocks in at less than two hours.
Third Time Lucky
An unapologetically adult examination of emotional restlessness.
Third Time Lucky embarks on its tale of discontent and middle-aged ennui as an ensemble but slowly reveals itself to be largely about Haru (Rira Kawamura), a divorced geriatric nurse. She’s in an obviously stale relationship with a psychiatrist, Soichiro (Yasunobu Tanabe), staying mostly because of her maternal attachment to his daughter Ran, who’s headed to school in Canada and has one foot out the door. Soichiro is treating Mikako (Hiromi Demura) for some vague, undiagnosed malaise, which probably stems from the stress she puts on herself in her role as her family’s primary breadwinner. She’s married to Haru’s brother Takashi (musician Katsuyuki Kobayashi in his acting debut), a meat-packer by day and experimental rapper by night.
Soichiro develops (highly inappropriate and professionally verboten) romantic feelings for Mikako, leading to the dissolution of his relationship with Haru. She promptly takes up with her ex-husband, Kenji (Yoshitaka Zahana), despite the fact that he’s on the verge of remarrying. In the midst of all this domestic upheaval comes Naruto (Tomo Kawamura), an amnesiac young man Haru finds on the beach and takes under her wing as a surrogate son, at least until his actual father comes calling. It doesn’t take long to realize that Haru is plugging an emotional hole she feels from a miscarriage years before — first by bonding with Ran and then with Naruto.
Those plot machinations make Third Time Lucky sound like an overwrought cast-off episode from Thirtysomething, but Nohara and co-writer/star Rira Kawamura have a more nuanced touch than would have been wielded on that navel-gazing series. The influence of Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour looms large over Lucky, with its similar interwoven construction and its tone of reflection, inspired by a single event whose impact trickles down to leave a mark on all the characters. Before Naruto shows up, they flail around in their lack of direction and general unease and disappointments, laying waste to relationships with little thought to consequences. He gives everyone something to focus on besides themselves — for a while, at least. Eventually the way Naruto shakes up Haru’s life bleeds out to everyone else, and they spark to action.
The cast is uniformly adept at making their characters recognizable, if not necessarily likable, and we understand their decisions, wise or not. Rira Kawamura is, unsurprisingly, the most comfortable with Nohara’s cadences, having co-starred in Happy Hour, and Haru also has the most to reconcile within herself. The stealth star, however, is Demura, delivering a spot-on portrayal of a woman consumed by unfocused frustrations that sap her ability to communicate what she wants or needs.
Yoshio Kitagawa and Yukiko Iioka’s quiet, intimate cinematography keeps the images still long enough for the little moments and subtle details to emerge on their own, like the low-key body language of Haru and Takashi’s mother that signals her discomfort with Notaru’s presence, or Soichiro’s dinner-table rigidity ahead of ending his relationship with Haru. Nohara’s quasi-documentary style gives Third Time Lucky room to resonate that much more, and his uncanny ability to capture the feminine point of view is rapidly turning him into Japan’s own Pedro Almodóvar.