Weaving an engaging bittersweet comedy-drama around the efforts of three losers to pull their lives out of a prolonged rut, “Chicken Heart” represents a modest but assured second feature from Hiroshi Shimuzu, a longtime assistant director to Takeshi Kitano. While Japanese comedy rarely travels well, this one is less heavy-handed and goofy than most, quietly coaxing more sober themes about conformity, failure and longing out of a context of deadpan humor. Further festival dates and multicultural TV slots should follow.
Youngest of the ill-assorted trio is twentysomething Iwano (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a once-promising boxer who now makes a living scrubbing graffiti-covered walls. He doubles by night as a human punching bag, offering release to stressed-out businessmen tired of cowering before their bosses.
His friend Maru (Suzuki Matsuo) is approaching 40 but still helping out in his uncle’s hat store despite being a qualified history teacher. More jaded and complacent than either of them is Sada (Kiyoshiro Imawano), in his 50s, who distributes promotional handouts on the street.
All three nurture the desire for a more fulfilling life but are unable to focus that desire. They hang out at an unlicensed kiosk — scene of an amusing running joke involving cops trying to shut down the operation — and attempt to score girlfriends but with little success.
Pushed by his uncle, Maru gets work hawking hairpieces by approaching balding men on the street and repeatedly getting beaten up for the affront. Iwano resists the efforts of his businessman brother to place him in an Internet company and struggles to summon the nerve to resume training as a boxer.
Unable to reveal his identity to the son that doesn’t know him, Sada channels his energy into fixing up an old boat he plans to take out to sea. As the friends finally appear to turn a corner in life, they learn that real change can be elusive but that the human spirit endures.
The likeable leading trio displays contrasting comic styles that play well off each other: Imawano makes Sada cheeky and bullish, Matsuo’s character alternates between awkward timidity and sorry attempts to be cool, and Ikeuchi is the sensitive straight man of the group, his placement at the center of things providing balance and poignancy. Writer-director Shimizu (“Ikinai”) displays skill with maintaining a measured tone, a sure hand with the actors and a tidy visual economy. Sole weak point is the slight overuse of a jaunty but melancholy minor-key accordion score.