Co-dependence has causes, and even virtues, in “Happily Ever After,” a Japanese laff-flecked drama centered on domestic violence. After his powerful Alzheimer’s meller, “Memories of Tomorrow,” featuring Ken Watanabe, director Yukihiko Tsutsumi this time rather awkwardly seeks to keep tongue in cheek as he explores another sensitive subject. Based on a popular manga, “Happily” has enjoyed solid biz since local release in October. Abroad, the film may intrigue fests enamored by the similarly themed, but much glitzier, “Memories of Matsuko,” which also featured actress Miki Nakatani.
Put-upon, thirtysomething waitress, Yukie Morita (Nakatani) does her best to see the bright side of life while living with her adored lover, Isao Hayama (Hiroshi Abe), a drunken, gambling layabout. After establishing the pic’s humorous tone and the relationship’s volatility — neatly encapsulated by a recurring gag of Isao overturning the couple’s dinner table at the slightest provocation — the yarn flashes back to Yukie’s high-school years to limn how she came to her current circumstances.
Already shunned at school, plain-Jane Yukie was overwhelmed with shame when her father, Ieyasu (tubby vet Toshiyuki Nishida), failed spectacularly as a bank robber. Seeing no end to her demoralization, Yukie decided to quit her provincial port town for big-city Osaka.
Back in the present, the film tries to extract laffs from the thuggish Isao’s attempts to fit into mainstream Japanese life. Script holds back till much later details of Yukie and Isao’s early romance.
Protag’s Pollyanna-ish acceptance of her dire circumstances may grate with some Western auds, more accustomed to seeing similar characters succumb to misery. “Happily” aims for an “Amelie”-like magic, though the gags are more likely to elicit smiles than belly laughs from non-Japanese viewers.
Subplot of Yukie’s ex-con father taking a job in the same noodle shop at which she works, while providing a fine comic idea, strains in the execution.
Nakatani creates a warm portrait of the abused Yukie, but is confined by a script that stays within traditional Nipponese mores. A stony-faced Abe makes the loathsome Isao entertaining, but can’t make him a meaningful character.
Direction and lensing deliberately differ from sequence to sequence: Scenes inside Yukie’s home have a stylized feel recalling Kaori Momoi’s “Faces of a Fig Tree,” while the noodle-bar scenes resemble a stagey TV sitcom. Jaunty music by Hiroyuki Sawano helps maintain a lighthearted atmosphere.