Marriage scammers in the movies may be masters of deception, but their motives are usually clear enough. In Charlie Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947) the title character weds and murders widows to support his family. In Miwa Nishikawa’s “Dreams for Sale” (2012), a husband and wife resort to serial marriage scams to replace their fire-ravaged restaurant.
The con man played by Dean Fujioka in Shinichi Nishitani’s “Marriage” is harder to read. With his slick hair, pale complexion, chiseled features and sensitive air, Kenji Urumi looks like a cross between a host from a Shinjuku club and a tuberculosis-stricken poet from the Taisho Era (1912-26). His occupation is leading eligible women down the garden path to the altar and extracting money from them before the (permanently postponed) wedding.
The risks are big and the need is … not clear. He lives in modest comfort with his oblivious wife Hatsune (Shihori Kanjiya), who never makes financial demands. What’s his story?
Based on a novel by Areno Inoue, the film reveals the answers in flashbacks to Kenji’s past, outlining one traumatic incident in his childhood that made him distrust women. That is, it wants us to sympathize with this handsome devil.
Nishitani, a director of NHK dramas who makes the occasional foray into films, does a workman-like job of balancing his story’s high romanticism with its black comedy of slick deception. But I couldn’t buy its shōjo manga (girls’ comics) view of its hero as a tragic figure who inspires both swoons and tears from his victims. I wanted the skunk to sweat more.
In contrast to real-life con artists who target women based solely on their assets, Kenji (who hides behind an alias) favors the young, attractive and naive, deftly changing his approach depending on the mark. In the background is Ruriko (the single-named Shuko), a former victim and self-appointed assistant, loudly egging him on and hoping against hope to win his heart.
First in the film to fall is the unworldly Asami (Eriko Nakamura), for whom Kenji poses as a successful web novelist. Next up is prideful magazine editor Mana (Wakana Matsumoto), who is entranced by his arty patter as an “interior designer” and his jazzy tinkling on the piano (which is not faked). Finally he cons Hatoko (Tamae Ando), a clerk who registers weddings by day and plays the wine connoisseur at night.
As the women wake up to Kenji’s true intentions and a canny private detective (Kanji Furutachi) enters the picture, the film takes a comic turn, with Ando’s angry clerk serving as the film’s funniest reality principle. But when the wealthy, sharp-eyed Yasue (Hisako Manda) sees through Kenji’s scam, his mask falls and the mood darkens again.
An actor and musician, Fujioka is appropriately smooth and opaque as the roguish hero, but also makes his inner pain visible and real, without indulging in the grandstanding the role invites.
For all its object lessons on the pitfalls of matrimony, “Marriage” is ultimately less cynical than elegiac, with its lush score recalling Douglas Sirk’s postwar melodramas about doomed romance.
But after the credits roll, one question nags: What do you really know about your true love? As the film’s wised-up women might say: trust, but verify.