Offering a well-meaning, downbeat take on domestic entrapment, teenage angst and suburban ennui, "The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky" plays like a pink film for social workers.

Offering a well-meaning, downbeat take on domestic entrapment, teenage angst and suburban ennui, “The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky” plays like a pink film for social workers. Helmer Yuki Tanada examines hot-button topics like transgressive sex and cyber-age voyeurism without belittling her protags — a cheating housewife and a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. However, there’s a joyless earnestness and narrative heaviness here, in contrast with the light, candid expression of youthful sensibilities in Tanada’s “Ain’t No Tomorrows” and “One Million Yen Girl.” Pic’s controversial nature will whet festival and ancillary appetites, though a significant trim is in order.

Married to Keiichi (Takashi Yamanaka) and pressured by her draconian mother-in-law (Guin-Poon-Chaw) to bear her a grandson, Satomi (Tomoko Tabata) seeks escape through comic/anime romances. At a costume-play convention, where she dresses up as her favorite character, Anzu, Satomi spots high-school student Takumi (Kento Nagayama) and decides he’s the spitting image of Muramasa, Anzu’s knight in shining armor. Soon costume play becomes foreplay, but their affair is a mere transaction for Takumi, who accepts money from Satomi in exchange for sex. Braving Satomi’s unhinged reaction, he decides to cut ties when a classmate (Ena Koshino) confesses her crush on him.

The film’s second half is devoted to the struggles of Takumi’s best friend, Ryota (Masataka Kubota), whose fugitive mother left him to languish in abject poverty with his senile grandmother. His friendship with Taoka (Takahiro Miura, son of thesp Tomokazu and retired idol Momoe Yamaguchi), a fellow part-timer at the local convenience store, stirs hope of breaking out of the slums, but life and people are never that simple.

Ryota’s sufferings, which include scavenging for food and experiencing blatant class discrimination, have their natural shock value, and his relationship with Taoka is thoughtfully developed to highlight the gray areas of human nature. However, this phenomenon has already been exposed by Nipponese directors such as Hirokazu Kore-eda, Masahiro Kobayashi and Tomoyuki Furumaya, to name a few, and Tanada’s portrayal is neither novel nor as bracing as those of her predecessors.

Adapted from Misumi Kubo’s lauded novel by scribe Kosuke Mukai, the two main stories do not unfold parallel to each other, but rather one after another. Like ships passing in the night, they connect only tenuously when it transpires that Ryota and two other classmates had a hand in letting Takumi’s affair with Satomi go viral. Both threads sound the slightly didactic message that adults are so self-centered and morally adrift that they’re unfit to judge or guide adolescents. But it’s not enough to make the 142-minute narrative, with its peripheral characters and subplots touching on social issues such as school bullying and child abuse, cohere as an engaging dramatic whole.

What Tanada does best is mine her protags’ troubled psyches with deep empathy, especially in the love scenes, which express eroticism from a female perspective, poignantly revealing Satomi’s desire for pleasure as rooted in repression and low self-esteem. These scenes also encapsulate the sexual confusion of adolescence, especially for Takumi, who’s been raised by his single mother (Mieko Harada).

Tabata, who made her debut as a child actor in Somai Shinji’s “Moving” (1992), credibly and touchingly limns the contradictions of Satomi’s childlike innocence and selfishness. Nagayama also shows promise charting Takumi’s painful growth as he’s forced to cope with experiences and trials too harsh for his age.

Tech credits are polished, and discreetly complement the character-driven approach.

The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky

Japan

Production

A Toei Co. release of a Cowards Film Partners (Toei Video, Toei Channel, Stairway) presentation of a Stairway production. (International sales: Toei Co., Tokyo.) Produced by Gen Sato, Toshiki Kimura. Executive producer, Kazuo Kato. Directed by Yuki Tanada. Screenplay, Kosuke Mukai, based on the novel by Misumi Kubo.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Ryo Otsuka; editor, Ryuji Miyajima; music, Shuhei Kamimura; music supervisor, Gen Tsushima; art director, Takashi Matsuzuka; costume designer, Rie Araki; sound (Dolby Digital), Kazuyuki Tsuchiya; line producer, Masanori Sakai. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 10, 2012. Running time: 142 MIN.

With

Kento Nagayama, Tomoko Tabata, Masataka Kubota, Mieko Harada, Ena Koshino, Takashi Yamanaka, Guin-Poon-Chaw, Takahiro Miura. (Japanese dialogue)

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