By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Based on an incredible true story, this heartfelt drama manages the tricky feat of largely avoiding push-button melodrama, and is anchored by some excellent, genuinely affecting performances. After a brief prologue which immediately informs the audience of where the story will be later on, we are introduced to Hisashi (Takeru Satoh, of Rurouni Kenshin fame) and Mai (Tao Tsuchiya), who form a connection after meeting at a group dinner. Hisashi is somewhat introverted, concentrating on his love of cars by working as a mechanic, while Mai is a cook, and much more socially buoyant and upbeat. The relationship leads to a marriage proposal, and a date is set, but Mai suddenly has a frightening seizure, causing her to fall into a coma.
Shocked by what has happened, Hisashi stays by Mai’s side, waiting and hoping that she will soon awaken. Also by Mai’s side are her parents, Hatsumi (Hiroko Yakushimaru) and Koji (Tetta Sugimoto), who appreciate Hisashi’s commitment to see this harrowing predicament through. But Mai remains in a coma for years, and as time passes, her parents start to worry about Hisashi, who has basically placed his life on hold to be with their daughter, who may not recover from the rare illness that has put her in this precarious situation. A series of events will further test Hisashi’s love for Mai, whose condition changes in a very unexpected way.
Takahisa Zeze, who got his start in the 1990’s doing soft-core or ‘pink’ movies, has subsequently built up quite a respectable career, directing films such as Pandemic (2009), Life Back Then (2011), and 64 Parts 1 and 2 (2016), and has been prolific over the past twelve months, helming the features The Lowlife, My Friend A, The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, and this. He and screenwriter Yoshikazu Okada (Space Travelers, Be With You, If Cats Disappeared from the World) show obvious respect and care for the true-life subject matter, and keep melodrama to a minimum, focusing instead on the changing interactions between its main characters.
What also transcends the film above its disease-of-the-week TV movie status are the performances, which are uniformly terrific. Satoh cements his place as a talented young actor, masterfully controlling Hisashi’s emotional rollercoaster ride, allowing the audience to become involved in his plight. Sugimoto is fine as Koji, and it’s nice to see Kitamura (Like a Dragon, Killers, The Raid 2, the Parasyte films, Blade of the Immortal) playing a more sympathetic role as Hisashi’s understanding work colleague. The two stand-outs however are Tsuchiya and Yakushimaru, who deliver some of their best work here as Mai and Hatsumi respectively.
Tsuchiya, who has quickly become a much in-demand actor after impressive turns in films such as the Rurouni Kenshin sequels, Orange, Policeman and Me, and Tori Girl, is totally convincing, and many scenes where she is in various stages of physical distress or recovery are absolutely extraordinary. Equally splendid is Yakushimaru (the Always: Sunset On Third Street trilogy, Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust, Glasses, Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura), who wonderfully underplays throughout, and her scenes with Satoh and Tsuchiya are genuinely moving.
Though its destination is a foregone conclusion, the journey there is a compelling one, a story which earns our affections, made by a cast and crew who not only believe in the material, but respect the real-life people that inspired it. Obvious comparisons will be made to the Oscar nominated The Big Sick, but this is the superior film, overcoming the U.S. film’s penchant for sitcom-style comedy and uneven lead performance.