Sensitive, funny, warm and beautifully composed, “Strawberry Shortcakes” is a terrific femme-centric drama signaling a return to form by unprolific helmer Hitoshi Yazaki. Based on the eponymous manga by Kiriko Nananan, pic follows the ups and downs of four contempo women in Tokyo looking for love and trying to cope with single life. Unlike overly ambitious directors who struggle to tell even one story, Yazaki skillfully weaves his strands into a flawless whole. Despite a disappointing showing at home, offshore arthouses should grab this tempting treat.
Four stories are told in two pairings, with only a chance link-up of the entire quartet in the closing moments. Satoko (Chizuru Ikewaki) starts things rolling with an intro narration: She’s the receptionist at a brothel, upbeat and resilient but searching for real love.
Akiyo (Yuko Nakamura) is a call girl at the brothel, slightly older than the rest and willing to do things for extra money the other women won’t. Keeping her professional and private lives separate, Akiyo changes into T-shirts and sweats as soon as she gets home, searching for any excuse to get together with Kikuchi (Masanobu Ando), an old college pal for whom she harbors more than platonic feelings.
Toko (Toko Iwase, the stage name for manga creator Kiriko Nananan) and Chihiro (Noriko Nakagoshi) share an apartment, though the two might as well live in different worlds. The bulimic Toko is an artist wedded to her career — her latest assignment is to draw God — and rarely glimpsed outside her home studio. Chihiro, by contrast, wants solely to be a perfect wife, though b.f. Nagai (Ryo Kase) isn’t looking for that sort of relationship.
None of these themes are remotely new, but Yazaki makes them all seem fresh thanks not only to inventive lensing and subtle connecting devices but an obvious sensitivity to the yearnings of these disparate young women. Full of humor and timed to perfection, the pic doesn’t shy away from the disturbing, such as when Akiyo has extra money tossed on her bound body by a john who half-heartedly apologizes for ejaculating inside her.
Caught in a Tokyo where anonymity hamstrings serious relationships, the four women can’t even cry out to each other, let alone to the opposite sex. Though it doesn’t demonize men, Kyoko Inukai’s perceptive script (and presumably Nananan’s manga) makes it clear they’re either unconcerned or completely clueless when it comes to recognizing even the most obvious distaff distress signals.
Perfs are uniformly excellent, representing some of the best and the brightest of new Japanese cinema. Yazaki (“March Comes in Like a Lion”) has an experienced master’s ease with a variety of set-ups and angles, shifting from expressive overheads to p.o.v. shots without making any of it seem gratuitous. D.p. Isao Ishii (“Tokarev”) gets the most out of every frame, and Western-inflected Japanese pop music is used to maximum emotional effect.