As in his memorable 1996 tale of adolescent longing, “Like Grains of Sand,” Japanese director Ryosuke Hashiguchi again focuses on a triangle of characters, this time ruled by different desires and conflicts in his warmly observed third feature, “Hush!” Trading the earlier film’s lyrical mood for an engaging lighter touch laced with sly humor, this meandering melodrama about gay relationships, friendship, loneliness and the elastic notion of family is considerably overlong and hampered by too many superfluous scenes. While it ultimately works despite this, re-acquaintance with the editing shears could significantly heat up its arthouse welcome, particularly with distribs specializing in gay product.
Refreshingly frank for a Japanese film in depicting gay themes, “Hush!” represents a natural continuation of Hashiguchi’s previous work. His 1992 debut, “The Slight Fever of a 20-Year-Old,” explored sexuality on the threshold of adulthood, while “Sand” centered on a late-adolescent boy’s sexual emergence and acknowledgement of his love for a straight school chum. The new entry shifts its attention to gay characters in their early 30s, one of them out and well-adjusted and another with one foot lingering in the closet.
The three principal figures are tracked separately before their lives intersect. Easygoing Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi) works in a pet store, socializes on the gay circuit and gets his share of sex without ties, but remains unfulfilled. His dissatisfaction is eased by the prospect of a relationship when he meets sweet-natured research engineer Katsuhiro (Seiichi Tanabe), who keeps his sexuality hidden from family and colleagues, including a female co-worker with transparent romantic designs on him. Third key element is Asako (Reiko Kataoka), a troubled young woman with a past history of psychiatric problems, abortions and casual sex.
Deciding she wants a baby in her life, Asako identifies Katsuhiro as the ideal donor, basing her choice solely on the fatherly look in his eyes during a brief encounter at a restaurant. Katsuhiro discusses the parenthood option with Naoya, who dismisses the idea. When he learns that Katsuhiro and Asako have continued meeting, and that his lover is still reflecting on the woman’s proposition, Naoya is threatened by the intrusion into their relationship, adding to his frustration over Katsuhiro’s self-acceptance issues.
As Naoya also slowly and begrudgingly befriends Asako and the two male lovers agonize over the decision, the film becomes rambling and longwinded. The subplot involving Katsuhiro’s lovestruck colleague could have been dispensed with much more economically at no loss to the central drama, as could a protracted visit from Katsuhiro to his brother’s family.
But that family is central to a strong confrontation scene that gets the action moving again when they unexpectedly descend on Katsuhiro in Tokyo. In a tense situation made worse by the presence of Naoya’s interfering mother, they acknowledge Katsuhiro’s homosexuality for the first time and try to break up the unorthodox menage a trois, viewing Asako as an especially undesirable connection. But in her own defense, Asako articulates the right to choose one’s own family in the same way lovers and friends are chosen.
The characters and their relationships take shape in interesting ways and despite it spending an inordinate time to get where it’s going, the story’s themes come together satisfyingly in the end. Standout of the appealing cast is Kataoka, who gradually softens her thorny exterior and obsessive determination to reveal warmth, vulnerability and sorrow over the direction her life has taken up to that point.
Lenser Shogo Ueno’s work here fails to match the formal beauty of his earlier collaboration with the director on “Like Grains of Sand,” but “Hush!” has a crisp contemporary look that poses no distractions to the human drama.