"Dog in a Sidecar," Kichitaro Negishi's subtly nuanced, strikingly thesped summer's tale about a little girl whose horizons are expanded by her encounter with a free-spirited young woman, unfolds in sharply-etched detail from a child's-eye view.

“Dog in a Sidecar,” Kichitaro Negishi’s subtly nuanced, strikingly thesped summer’s tale about a little girl whose horizons are expanded by her encounter with a free-spirited young woman, unfolds in sharply-etched detail from a child’s-eye view. Based on Yu Nagashima’s novel, unpretentious coming-of-ager basks in the kind of phenomenological observation and understated epiphanies most literary adaptations leave on the page, helped greatly by Yuko Takeuchi’s award-showered perf as the girl’s guide. Within its nostalgia-tinged reverie, pic packs a quietly subversive punch. More accessible to non-Nipponese auds than much of Negishi’s output, “Sidecar” could score on the fest circuit.

Pic transpires mainly in flashback, its 30-year-old narrator/heroine (Mimura) harkening back to the fateful summer of her 10th year, the year her family fell apart when her uptight mother, fed up with the laid-back irresponsibility of her feckless hubby (a one-of-a-kind Arata Furuta), simply walked out.

But for young Kaoru (Kana Matsumoto), her mother’s desertion proves less memorable than the unexpected arrival of her father’s mistress Yoko (Takeuchi) in the guise of a cook/nanny to Kaoru and her kid brother.

An iconoclastic role-model, the irrepressible Yoko comes as a shock to the quiet, self-possessed Kaoru, accustomed to her mother’s bourgeois, set-in-stone ways. Kaoru is gently prodded out of her safely circumscribed existence into night and day excursions testing newly-discovered childhood daring: woofing at a watchdog in front of a light-studded house, running like hell when it barks back, or belatedly learning to ride a bike, gaining independence and mobility as the duo pedal wildly through the countryside.

But among the expected, upbeat images of halcyon summer days, helmer Negishi weaves darker, odder, vaguely disconcerting strands.

On one seaside junket, Yoko gathers some edible barnacles. But when Yoko recounts having bloodied her mouth by gobbling up huge unshucked handfuls, this little bombshell reminiscence, tossed off as an unimportant afterthought, suddenly opens up the yawning chasm of Yoko’s untold story.

What makes this, and many other offhand, unheralded jolts so effective is their presence side by side with more traditional, well-executed special moments, as if pic suddenly accessed a parallel universe. The film’s unspoken undercurrents play out most subtly in the wraparound present-day framework of the grown-up Kaoru’s remembrances.

Normally one would expect the positive transformative experiences of the past to be reflected in the present, the raised consciousness translating into social success. Yet the 30-year-old Kaoru is stuck with a lousy real estate job and pointedly lacks any romantic attachment. When Negishi shows her skipping work, the bottom drops out of the gentle narrative to reveal the potentially frightening depth of the character’s alienation.

On another level, however, the lyrical foray into childhood memories deepens viewers’ appreciation of Kaoru’s calm, fearless integrity. Lenser Masami Inomoto and scorer Wataru Okuma help pull off pic’s uniquely ambiguous tone.

Dog in a Sidecar

japan

Production

A Stylejam production. Produced by Masako Tanabe. Directed by Kichitaro Negishi. Screenplay, Akiko Tanaka, Katsuhiko Manabe, from a novel by Yu Nagashima.

Crew

Camera (color), Masami Inomoto; editor, Koshihiko Kojima; music, Wataru Okuma; production designer, Shinichi Miura; sound (Dolby Digital), Masatoshi Yokomizo. Reviewed at New York Asian Film Festival, June 26, 2008. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Yuko Takeuchi, Kana Matsumoto, Arata Furuta, Mimura, Sawa Suzuki, Takeru Tanayama.
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