A young journalist’s naive enthusiasm for Japan’s radical student movement in the late 1960s and early ’70s drives Nobuhiro Yamashita’s engaging if overlong “My Back Page.” An ambitious work with a detailed overview of the turbulent period, this is a strikingly different film from the energetic helmer of such wonderful whimsy as “The Matsugane Potshot Affair,” though it suggests Yamashita is more inspired by absurdist comedy than by period drama. Following a good fall fest run, the pic opens locally Nov. 26, with mild returns likely.
Fresh out of Tokyo U., where he witnessed dramatic student protests in 1968, eager Sawada (Satoshi Tsumabuki) gets his foot in the door at a left-leaning daily paper. He’s torn between merely observing and actively participating in events, but can’t seem to land any meaningful assignments until vet reporter-editor Nakahira (Shihori Katsuna) takes him under his wing.
Thanks to Nakahira, Sawada becomes acquainted with legendary radical Umeyama (an unpredictable Kenichi Matsuyama), who may talk a bigger game than he can deliver. Yamashita and screenwriter Kosuke Mukai (adapting Saburo Kawamoto’s reputedly autobiographical novel) take pains to portray Umeyama not as some imposing revolutionary with his hair on fire, but as a sometimes shy loner who likes to retreat by listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The film is ultimately about a guy’s upended expectations about the excitement of social change and reportage, learning — perhaps predictably — that they aren’t what he imagined them to be. Umeyama’s ultimate actions may be more daring than most similar plots devised by American radicals during the same period, but Yamashita’s rich instincts for comedy shade them as slightly ridiculous all the same.
The cast strikes a pleasing balance between underplaying and energetic thesping, helpful given the film’s somewhat excessive 141-minute running time. Production details are superb, particularly production designer Norifumi Ataka’s creation of smoke-filled newsrooms and shadowy safe houses.