Reflecting the desultory vibes of a college graduate as she rots at home for a year, to the increasing chagrin of her dad, “Tamako in Moratorium” is a bittersweet family dramedy that could be a contempo variant on Ozu’s “Late Spring,” only instead of trying to marry off his daughter, this doting widower only prays the lazy bum would get a job. Independent helmer Nobuhiro Yamashita, once hailed as the Nipponese king of slacker films, perfectly captures the burden of idleness and the drowsy rhythms of small-town life. Popular fest play and overseas ancillary may be boosted by the J-pop fanbase of AKB48 idol Atsuko Maeda, who’s charmingly dopey in the title role.
Divided into four seasons, each evoking Tamako’s state of mind, the story starts in autumn, when she returns to her hometown of Kofu (in Yamanashi prefecture) after finishing her college education in Tokyo. Though her father, Zenji Sakai (Suan Kan), who runs a sports equipment store, adores her, he expects her to land a job back in the metropolis soon. Tamako wants nothing of the sort, preferring to devour manga on the toilet, or nap on the tatami while Dad dutifully takes care of all household chores. As the TV drones on about the country’s current social-political-economical debacles, Tamako remarks, “Japan’s hopeless.” Sakai retorts, “Japan’s not hopeless. You are,” in the first of many wry exchanges that pepper the pic.
Tamako befriends junior-high schooler Hitoshi (Kiyoya Ito, amusingly po-faced), who becomes her only companion in the self-contained community. Come winter, he’s started to date a girl, and his precocious philosophical nuggets on love and life further show up Tamako’s arrested development. Although it’s awful how much the girl takes her dad for granted, Yamashita also offers a sympathetic angle; Tamako’s pent-up frustration and self-loathing finally burst forth when she blows up at her dad for wishfully interpreting her slightest stirring as initiative to get a job.
The turning point comes, in classic Ozu fashion, when Sakai’s sister-in-law Yoshiko offers to set him up with an attractive divorcee, Yuko (Yasuko Tomita). Instinctively going into possessive mode, Tamako involves the stoically obliging Hitoshi in a scheme to end the match before it starts; her meeting with the elegant, astute Yuko sparkles with nuanced dialogue worthy of Ozu’s gentlest comedies. As the summer edges toward spring, the film comes to a conclusion both poignant and liberating thanks to an unexpected decision of Sakai’s, which ushers in Tamako’s inevitable coming-of-age.
Maeda, who previously collaborated with Yamashita on “The Drudgery Train,” conveys her role’s listlessness without acting like a freak or clown; slouching around with a laid-back air, she embodies that mental void one sometimes needs before taking on the world. Offering strong support is Kan, who, in the undemonstrative way typical of many Japanese middle-aged men, expresses unconditional love for and acceptance of his daughter.
Although the film consists of uneventful moments, its rhythm is far from downbeat or sedate. Maintaining a minimalist touch without any contrived melodrama, the narrative nonetheless encompasses the characters’ psychological ups and downs, enhanced by witty dialogue with an earthy Japanese ring. The result feels like a step toward greater naturalism and wider audience appeal for Yamashita, as he quietly sheds the offbeat mannerisms in his early, similar-themed comedies such as “Hazy Life” (2007), “No One’s Ark” (2003) and “Ramblers” (2003). He also captures the zeitgeist of contempo Japan, where getting a job or a date is no longer a given; while the protags in those early films chose to be dropouts, Tamako might not get anywhere even if she tried.
Craft contributions yield a genuine small-town ambience, especially the unostentatious lensing by Akiko Ashizawa and Yoshihiro Ikeda, framing characters in tight spaces that don’t suggest confinement so much as snug intimacy.