While adopting a slightly less glacial pace than stylistic mentor Hou Hsiao-hsien, helmer Hiroshi Okuhara struggles with similar issues of isolation and deep-seated ennui among the hip Tokyo crowd. His third feature, “A Blue Automobile,” is based on Yoshitomo Yoshimoto’s manga about a love triangle’s tragic end, but Okuhara expands the comic book’s limited time span and infuses an existential sadness that suggests pain is necessary to jolt people out of their dangerously solipsistic lives. Performers are sufficiently likeable, but bleak outlook will hamper road trips outside the fest circuit.
A ubiquitous pair of sunglasses helps d.j. Richio (Arata) hide behind a super-cool facade while also concealing a disfiguring facial scar. He’s haunted by nightmares of a childhood accident whose physical remnant is nothing compared with the psychological wounds he silently stores up, despite an apparently healthy rapport with vibrant g.f. Akemi (Kumiko Aso) and decent employment at a record shop.
Akemi’s schoolgirl sister Konomi (Aoi Miyazaki), attracted to the punkish Richio, shows signs of interest, which he picks up on. Notwithstanding the sisters’ tight relationship, Konomi and Richio have sex, deeply wounding Akemi when a remorseful Richio confesses to the liaison.
Happiness isn’t something that comes easily to Okuhara’s characters, most of whom are plagued by an inability to emotionally connect with the people around them. Even those not haunted by their past are still struggling to find something to grasp hold of, resorting to pain as the sole means of awakening themselves out of the torpor of loneliness. Not without a sense of humor, Okuhara occasionally seems unsure what to do with it: in a brief scene seemingly played for laughs, Richio’s boss (Tomorowo Taguchi) chases after a transsexual who’s walking off with his little boy, yet there’s nothing funny about the attempted abduction, which further emphasizes the quiet desperation and fear of loss lurking everywhere.
With little dramatic action, interest lies in the fortunate choice of young actors. Arata, best known for his work with Hirokazu Kore-eda, maintains the mod hipster’s sangfroid defensiveness, but when the sunglasses come off, he’s startlingly vulnerable. As the sisters, Kumiko Aso and Aoi Miyazaki deliver unaffected and nuanced performances; Miyazaki (“Eureka”) in particular beautifully captures teenage hesitancy and desire, along with the sudden sorrow attached to a loss of innocence.
Okuhura’s compositional eye, while not as rigorously evocative as Hou’s, quietly emphasizes the solitude that seems to accompany each of his characters. Tech aspects, including Keiichi Sokabe’s often melancholic score, are problem-free.