Deliberately paced but effective, “Haru’s Journey” is a Japanese road movie driven by family dynamics. Vet helmer Masahiro Kobayashi takes his time, but never loses focus in this account of a teenage girl who accompanies her grandfather on a nationwide search for his scattered siblings. Robust perfs and Kobayashi’s firm hand on his material prevent the pic from hitting dead ends during its extended running time. Domestic release last May garnered modest interest; international prospects will be confined to fests favoring Asian fare.
In a remote fishing village in Hokkaido, frantic 19-year-old Haru (Eri Tokunaga) has had her fill of her partially crippled grandfather, Tadao (Kurosawa alum Tatsuya Nakadai), whom she’s looked after since her mother’s suicide five years earlier. Indignant and selfish, but quietly aware his granddaughter deserves a break, the old man sets off with Haru in tow for Japan’s main island, Honshu, to see if one of his siblings will look after him.
First stop is Tadao’s even more cantankerous older brother, Shiego (octogenarian Hideji Otaki in a strong turn), and their testy exchange reveals there’s more to Tadao’s selfishness than just old age. By contrast, selfless Haru takes on responsibility for the pair’s dwindling finances so the pilgrimage can continue.
The structure of Kobayashi’s script is plainly laid out, but a couple of clever surprises are thrown in. An early, dialogue-free sequence masterfully sets up the combative relationship between the two protags as they silently try to maneuver around each other’s emotional states. At first it seems that the film is mistitled, as Tadao’s needs serve as the narrative’s driving force. But while Tadao is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease during their travels through the blue-gray blandness of small-town Japan, it’s red-coated Haru who stands out like an angry beacon.
Script’s willful avoidance of a happy ending may leave some auds dissatisfied, but the finale is consistent with Nipponese themes of acceptance, endurance and familial commitment.
Central perfs are vivid and believable. Exuding fierce intelligence, 22-year-old Tokunaga holds her own alongside seasoned co-star Nakadai. Supporting perfs are strong, with Akira Emoto offering yet another effective turn as a nastier-than-usual character (Tadao’s younger brother). Another standout is Chikage Awashima (a veteran of Ozu’s “Early Summer” and “Early Spring”) as Tadao’s sensible, older sister.
Helming appears deceptively matter-of-fact but is controlled; in some conversational scenes, Kobayashi unsettlingly breaks the 180-degree rule of classical cinematography to emphasize Tadao’s inability to connect with the people around him.
Junpei Sakuma’s score varies from haunting choral performances to simple, infectious piano music that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the proceedings.