Japanese star Koji Yakusho (“Shall We Dance?” and “Babel”) plays the titular lumberjack whose life is interrupted by a visiting movie crew in “The Woodsman and the Rain,” a film-within-a-film comedy-drama whose sustained charm will amuse film buffs everywhere. After competing in the Tokyo fest, Shuichi Okita’s pic looks to garner respectable B.O. on its domestic bow in February; more fest slots are assured, but savvy distribs could help “The Woodsman” branch into arthouse niches offshore.
Recently widowed Katsu (Yakusho) is peacefully chainsawing a tree in the middle of the deserted Nakatsugawa forest where he makes his living. A nervous, middle-aged film production assistant (Kanji Furutachi) emerges from the wilderness just as the tree is falling and, after narrowly avoiding getting crushed (spectacularly captured in an impressive wide shot), asks the woodsman to be quiet because a film crew is shooting a zombie movie nearby.
In short order, the crew enlists Katsu to help scout for locations. The production assistant shows up laden with notebooks, spreadsheets and maps, accompanied by a shy young man, Koichi (Shun Oguri), who mostly talks and stares into space. Reminded of his slackerish, unemployed son (Kengo Kora), Katsu harasses Koichi and demands he help, not realizing he is in fact the film’s director.
Katsu’s involvement with the production deepens when he is cast as a zombie, and the film bug bites him hard when he sees his performance in dailies. Looking at the same footage, however, novice director Koichi becomes miserable and considers abandoning the shoot.
The premise sets up the opportunity for the two men to learn from each other, but while the script by Fumio Moriya (“Underwater Love”) and Okita has a strong thematic undercurrent of father-and-son reconciliation, it lacks the gravitas needed to explore the idea in depth. The township, which also becomes involved in and intoxicated by the filmmaking process, comes in for some gentle mockery, but the pic isn’t especially moralistic; Okita ultimately favors having lighthearted fun with the film-within-a-film sequences and Katsu’s intuition about the weather. On the upside, the comic sequences that divert from the darker father-and-son territory — concerning crusty old thespians and self-obsessed young actresses — are pleasurable, even if they rely on well-worn stereotypes.
The ever-reliable Yakusho brings the requisite conviction to his rustic woodsman role, and he nails a long take in which Katsu responds to the sight of his first performance with embarrassment, self-deprecation and undeniable enjoyment. Oguri is less convincing as the self-doubting first-time helmer but likewise sells his pivotal scene. The rest of the cast creates solid characters with broad strokes, the best of which is the crew’s cinematographer (Kyusaku Shimada), whose vocabulary is limited almost entirely to one sentence: “Are we going to do this or not?”
Okita’s smooth helming lets the story flow, and displays impressive moves without drawing attention to itself. Lensing by Yuta Tsukinaga is crisp and clear, capturing the beauty of the Nakatsugawa forest, while fuzzy camerawork on the zombie-movie dailies mimics the right tone for Japanese low-budgeters. All other tech credits are pro.