Japanese helmer Sabu masterfully pulls a rabbit out of a cliched hat with "Bunny Drop," a joyful variation on the normally cloying adult-saddled-with-a-kid genre.

Japanese helmer Sabu masterfully pulls a rabbit out of a cliched hat with “Bunny Drop,” a joyful variation on the normally cloying adult-saddled-with-a-kid genre. Devoid of pretension and perfectly cast, pic has a gentle simplicity and takes a direct approach to parenthood’s emotional riches. Given that Sabu is already a festival fave, this heartwarming confection will have no trouble hopping around the circuit. The source manga’s huge following alone will help the film leap high at the Nipponese B.O. when it’s released in August; beyond Asia, it will be a tougher sell.

Ever since “Little Miss Marker” in 1934, films have enjoyed forcing unlikely single men to look out for abandoned tots. Japanese films visit this setup repeatedly — the original manga of “Bunny Drop” has already twice been made into an anime since it started in 2005 — and the culture’s sometimes queasy-making preoccupation with ingenues can make such films look morally suspect. Sabu circumvents all such obstacles here to deliver a film that is remarkable, despite its mostly unremarkable content.

Twenty-seven-year-old salaryman Daikichi (Kenichi Matsuyama, “Gantz,” “Death Note”) returns to his family home after a long, unexplained absence to attend his grandfather’s funeral. Six-year-old Rin (Mana Ashida), the grandfather’s deplored love child, is also there, although her mother is nowhere to be seen, and the rest of the family ignores her. Though it takes a while for Daikichi to adjust to the idea that this doe-eyed tyke is his aunt, he is appalled that his relatives want to dump her in an orphanage; in a flash of nobility, he offers to take care of Rin himself.

Back in Tokyo, Daikichi puts Rin in day-care but, like any single parent, still has to juggle his extensive work commitments, a grueling Tokyo train commute and increased home duties. Rin complicates matters further with the usual childhood problems: wetting the bed, not making friends, then making friends, becoming sick, experiencing feelings of abandonment and posing tricky questions about death. Still, all in all, cynics may decry Daikichi’s relatively easy run as a single male parent in rigid, conservative Japan.

Sabu’s pics (“Monday,” “Hard Luck Hero”) often generate comedy by upping the what-else-could-possibly-go-wrong ante, but here he plays against fans’ expectations by keeping the wackiness to a minimum. Early on, a couple of hilarious, fashion magazine-inspired romantic fantasy sequences soften auds in preparation for the more mundane drama ahead, but the pic’s familiarity and adherence to everyday trials and tribulations turn out to be its true strength. A dramatic climax that might have provoked shrugs of indifference is instead delivered with sweet perfection, though Sabu never administers too much sugar at once.

Matsuyama is sublimely deadpan as the loving single dad, and distaff thesp Karina does a lot with a little as the single mom who gives Daikichi parenting tips and provides a possible love interest. But the pic’s main motor is the cuteness of tyke Ashida, who was only 6 when “Bunny Drop” was filmed but already had nine feature films on her resume. Clearly she’s no amateur, and her high-quality perf is well supported by her co-stars and Sabu’s judicious direction.

Lensing by Hiroo Yanagida has the soft-focus look favored by Japanese independent cinema. Like the script, Masayuki Iwakura’s upbeat score flirts with treacle, but brings a great sense of fun to the film when it underlines the romantic fantasies of its male protag. Other tech credits are solid.

Bunny Drop

Japan

Production

A Smoke production in association with Dub Corp. (International sales: Showgate, Tokyo.) Produced by Sei Matsumoto, Yasushi Utagawa. Executive producer, Kei Haruna. Directed by Sabu. Screenplay, Tamio Hayashi, Sabu, based on the manga by Yumi Unita.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Hiroo Yanagida; editor, Naoya Bando; music, Masayuki Iwakura; art director, Etsuko Akiba. Reviewed at Shanghai Film Festival (competing), June 15, 2011. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Kenichi Matsuyama, Karina, Mana Ashida, Chizuru Ikewaki, Ryo Kimura, Mayu Kitaki, Jun Fubaki, Baijaku Nakamura, Daishi Shikanai.

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