Strong, seamless perfs from Masaki Okada and Nana Eikura bring a rich emotional intensity to Takahisa Zeze’s potent meller “Life Back Then.” Following his near five-hour opus, “Heaven’s Story,” which attracted attention at Berlin, Zeze opts for a shorter running time here but packs in enough concentrated passion to leave auds breathless. Pic won the Montreal fest’s Innovation award and looks likely to live on at future fests, particularly those with an Asian bent. B.O. should be strong when the film bows Nov. 19 in Japan, where local smashes such as “The Lightning Tree” and “Confessions” have given Okada a high profile.
Pic opens with the startling image of sharp scissors plunging into the uniform of a schoolboy, nailing it to the floor; this is followed by a shot of the owner of the slashed uniform, teen Kyohei Nagashima (Masaki Okada), sitting nude on the family rooftop and looking out over Tokyo’s suburbs.
Action then jumps ahead three years, as a tentative, stuttering Kyohei arrives for his first day at work. Working alongside cheerful boss Saso (Taizo Harada) and subdued co-worker Yuki (Nana Eikura), Kyohei visits homes where corpses have been discovered in order to decontaminate the premises and divide the deceased’s belongings into trash and articles “to be consecrated.” Kyohei is unsure of himself or his duties, but Saso is just grateful the newcomer doesn’t flee at the first sight of maggots. On the job, Kyohei notices slash scars on Yuki’s wrists; this marks the beginning of a nervous romance.
Details of Yuki’s troubled past are kept under wraps until the third act, but until then the narrative cycles between the present and earlier events leading up to Kyohei’s high-school trauma, hinted at in the opening images. As with many teen-focused Nipponese films, bullying is at the center of the drama, and Kyohei’s experience proves more disturbing than most.
Pacing is deliberate but steady, building to a dramatic apex with an electrifying mountaintop confrontation between Kyohei and his chief tormentor from high school, Matsui (Tori Matsuzaka). It’s a literal cliffhanger that demonstrates Zeze’s interest in offering the viewer more than just arty internal brooding, as well as his flair for creating spectacle despite financial constraints. Pic arguably peaks too soon at this point, leaving the impression that the final reels, while not superfluous, could have been more tightly edited.
Eikura (“April Bride,” “Tokyo Koen”) is beautifully understated in the role of Yuki, brittle but also possessed of strong emotions she’s too insecure to express. Though gangly Okada (“Departures,” “Confessions”) seems a bit too old in the schoolboy flashbacks, he matches Eikura’s onscreen fragility, and the initial discrepancy seems less noticeable as the drama becomes more absorbing.
Stylistically, Zeze alternates between twitchy wobblecam and traditional tripod setups, but the camera moves are always thoughtful, clearly intended to increase either knowledge or tension; still, as with so much Japanese fare, the film is overlit. Takatsugu Muramatsu’s treacly score feels out of sync with the intensity of the proceedings; the pic’s finest moments transpire when the thesps have no musical support.