Yuki Tanada’s eighth feature is a quaint unassuming road trip picture that has all the hallmarks of the “Tradition of Quality”: fine acting, beautiful cinematography, and an inoffensive story with a satisfying conclusion. Yet like most “quality cinema” it is a forgettable picture that barely makes an impression on the viewer after the end credits begin to roll.
“Round Trip Heart” (ロマンス, 2015) follows one day in the life of 26-year-old Hachiko Hojo (Yuko Oshima). After a meet-cute with a bumbling passenger, Yoichi (Koji Ookura), who tries to steal a box of cookies from her cart, the two become inextricably linked as they end up touring the Hakone region together. Although the film sounds like a mere a rom-com travelogue – with a Japanese title that literally translates to romance – Tanada veers a hard left into more “serious” dramatic territory. The purpose of Hachiko’s journey is not to find love or to get away from some terrible person or situation in her life, but instead to confront her past. That past, revealed to us in snippets through flashback, revolves around a broken home and a lackadaisical mother who was more concerned about finding love rather than showing her daughter any kind of maternal affection.
What rescues the film from oblivion are Oshima and Ookura’s performances. Having first seen Ookura in Keralino Sandrovich’s “Crime or Punishment?!?” (2009) several years ago I was already well-aware of his comedic talents, but in this film he often manages to vacillate from caricature to dirty old man, caring friend and sad sack loser. It can be jarring to watch an actor transition from one mask to another, but Ookura does so seamlessly and with as little mugging as possible. As for former AKB48 member Oshima, she can sometimes seem more like a cipher than a character since she just reacts and makes no actual choices in the film except to go on the trip with Yoichi, but when placed next to Ookura’s expressive acting style the contrast between the two gives a lot of the long dialogue-ridden scenes much needed levity.
For those looking to pass the time with something akin to a competently made drama, “Round Trip Heart” is a safe bet: it doesn’t stand out from the large crowd of average character dramas being made all over the world and screened in festivals from all four corners. But why do so when there is an unimaginable number of cinematic treasures out there yet to be discovered?
“Round Trip Heart” screens at the Japan Society in New York on Fri., July 10 at 6:30 p.m. as part of Japan Cuts 2015. Director Yuki Tanada will appear at the screening. For ticket information, go to japansociety.org.