By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Entering a relationship never seems easy, especially when we are rebounding from one that’s failed, and all facets of this process are on display in Over the Fence, a deftly handled drama that surprisingly doesn’t shy away from the darker and more difficult sides of its characters.
The story centres on Yoshio Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri), who has recently moved from Tokyo back to his hometown of Hakodate, after his wife Yuka (Yoko Ogata) unceremoniously leaves him, taking their young child with her. Unable to fathom why Yuka left him, as he worked long hours to provide a stable environment for both, Shiraiwa never actually realised that he offered little emotional support to his increasingly suffocated family.
Now on unemployment benefits, Shiraiwa has enrolled at a vocational school, where he is taking a course in carpentry, and here he meets a varied group of people, including Kazuhisa Daishima (Shota Matsuda), former yakuza member Koichiro Hara (Yukiya Kitamura), ageing Kenichi Katsumada (Tsunekichi Suzuki), a practical old soul who has seen it all, intense and determined Akira Shimada (Takumi Matsuzawa), and Yoshito Mori (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a recluse who dropped out of university, and who is finding it very hard to fit in with his surroundings. Everyone is at particular junctures in their lives, each with viewpoints on what life should offer.
The laid back Shiraiwa makes do, routinely eating takeaway and drinking beer each night in his small unit, while trying to avoid meaningful social contact. He is regularly visited by his brother, who is always trying to get Shiraiwa to visit the family home, which he refuses to do, as he despises his father’s pressures in accepting a job in the forestry sector.
One day, while cycling home from school, Shiraiwa notices a lively young woman critiquing her male partner about love and companionship, and her unique demeanour catches his eye. When he is invited to a cabaret club by fellow student Daishima, Shiraiwa comes across this woman, Satoshi Tamura (Yu Aoi), again, and discovers that she is employed as a hostess. Tamura (who also works part-time at an amusement park) takes a shine to the quiet patron, and it’s obvious that a connection occurs between the two.
While attracted to Tamura, Shiraiwa is noticeably hesitant in starting a relationship, even though the former is open to the possibilities. His glib, dismissive nature quickly rubs Tamura the wrong way, who doesn’t want this potential romantic bond to be trivialised, and her strong reaction raises the possible issue of neglect or abuse at the hands of her own family, who have placed her in a tiny bedsitter room located next to where they live. Shiraiwa will need to focus on what he wants in life, and examine how genuine his feelings are for Tamura.
All this plays out while course leaders at the school are organising a baseball game between classes, and as the participants are put through their paces, we see how this represents their attitudes in tackling various problems around them.
Over the Fence initially appears as if it will be a relatively light-hearted romantic drama, where two outsiders end up finding each other. But as the story unfolds, grittier, darker elements begin to appear, where personality flaws and emotional scars on both sides are explored, making this a sometimes uncomfortable viewing experience.
The screenplay by Ryo Takada (based on the short story by late author Yasushi Sato) doesn’t gloss over the fears facing its characters, whether it be letting down one’s guard to the kind of responsibility and commitment needed to establish a true, intimate relationship, or horrified of rejection after opening one’s heart unreservedly. Tamura in particular seems to have suffered some kind of mental trauma (it’s never specifically stated, but is certainly alluded to during some exchanges), and the thought of not being able to connect with someone leads to some unsettling behaviour and outbursts. Takada appears to be drawn to mournful subject matter, having penned The Ravine of Goodbye (2013), The Light Shines Only There (2014) (also based on a Sato novel), Being Good (2015), and Mukoku (2017).
Director Nobuhiro Yamashita, who has made a name for himself dealing with young protagonists either coming of age, or finding their personal or moral direction, in films such as Ramblers (2003), Linda Linda Linda (2005), A Gentle Breeze in the Village (2007), and Tamako In Moratorium (2013), keeps the source material honest and involving. While some may be turned off by the actions of certain characters, Yamashita invests all these people who are lonely and damaged in some way, with a genuine humanity that makes it easy to relate to their insecurities.
The cast couldn’t be better. Odagiri (Her Love Boils Bathwater, Adrift in Tokyo, Sway) again excels in his usual low-key manner, making the aloof Shiraiwa accessible and likeable. He is backed up by a strong supporting cast, including Matsuda (Hard Romanticker, Ikigami, and is the brother of Ryuhei), Suzuki, and Mitsushima (Mumon: The Land of Stealth, Blade of the Immortal). The film is stolen however by Aoi (Hana and Alice, Hula Girls, Welcome to the Quiet Room, About Her Brother), who is extraordinary as Tamura. Along with her turn in the current Birds Without Names, this is a totally committed performance, vividly realising all the pain, cruelty, and child-like optimism that fills Tamura, and sees this talented actress in top form.
Over the Fence may prove a little too melancholy for some movie-goers (although there are nicely timed moments of humour), but its sincere approach enriches what is a truthful, touching journey, leading to an ending that is absolutely perfect.