‘Breaking up is hard to do,” goes the old song, and for some, it’s so hard that they never quite manage it. A typical example is the partner (or, worst-case scenario, the spouse) who one day tells you they’re back with an ex.
An atypical example is the couple in Shingo Matsumura’s offbeat romantic drama “Love and Goodbye and Hawaii,” winner of the Japan Cuts Awards at this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.
Office worker Rinko (Aya Ayano) and grad student Isamu (Kentaro Tamura) are living together but are no longer lovers, having broken up several months prior. They’re still friends, though, going out speed walking together and, at Rinko’s insistence, racing each other to a riverside fence that acts as their own personal “finish line.”
Needless to say, Rinko’s friends find this arrangement strange.
“We get along better now than we did when we were together,” Rinko explains to one pal. She also says she will leave as soon as she can scrape up the money, but is it that simple? Of course not, since it becomes blazingly obvious (if barely articulated) that Rinko still has feelings for her roommate. Matsumura, who also wrote the script, tries to show us this less with passionate words and more with meaningful glances and gestures (such as a scrumptious meal Rinko whips up). And when Isamu enthuses about his research — he’s studying ancient Japanese literature — his boyish warmth still melts Rinko’s wounded heart.
She’s not the only one, however: A pretty underclassman at Isamu’s university, Kasumi (Aoi Kato), insinuates herself into his life — and affections. When Rinko finds out that Isamu is thinking of dating her, a planned trip to Hawaii to attend a friend’s wedding suddenly seems a lot less important.
As stories go, the film’s love triangle is the most generic imaginable. But Matsumura does it not only differently (platonic roomies not being a usual formula element), but also distinctively, with scenes that seem to be ripped from actual lived experiences and imaginatively authentic dialogue.
One example of the latter: A heart-stricken Rinko tells a drunken buddy who has her own boyfriend problems that she feels like a CD without a CD player. But people change — they replace their CDs with iPods. “I’m still a CD,” she observes plaintively. “Where do I go?”
The obvious rom-com answer is “Back to Isamu,” but the cold truth of relationships, which the film illustrates in every underplayed frame, is that romance, once extinguished, is hard to rekindle. How can Rinko light a blaze under the self-friend-zoned Isamu?
As Rinko and Isamu, Ayano and Tamura are at first so low-key that the impatient may fidget — or dread the prospect of endless indie shoegazing. But as the story complicates, the two leads start to show colors to their characters beyond the pastel. Ayano, a prize-winning stage actor, brings out Rinko’s raw pain to startling effect. And Tamura, who seems to be coasting on an amiable personality and rumpled good looks, reveals sides to Isamu beyond the socially oblivious academic, repressed anger included.
How does Hawaii fit in? More as a metaphor for paradise than as an actual place. And Rinko has her ticket, whether she knows it or not.