Breaking up is hard to do, and the heroine of the delightfully wry romantic comedy “Love and Goodbye and Hawaii” sure makes a song and (hula) dance about it. As light as a wafer but also as sweet and crisp, the sophomore feature by Japanese writer-director Shingo Matsumura takes the timeworn premise “Can ex-lovers still be friends?” and fills it up with a delectable sundae of character quirks, deadpan dialogue and gently heart-tugging wistfulness. This modest independent effort is gradually making its mark at fests — winning the Japan Cuts award at the Osaka Asian Film Festival and earning a competition slot in Shanghai, as well as making a U.S. bow.
Like so many Japanese films, the theme concerns overcoming communication barriers, but rather than focusing on how to express oneself, the lesson for the self-absorbed protagonists is how to listen to others even if they don’t like what they hear. Matsumura claimed the idea is based on his own experience, but he keeps an amicable distance, which is why the film is free of the navel-gazing that plagues many indies. This is a director who could make an easy leap to more commercial fare.
From the first look at protagonists Rinko (Aya Ayano) and Isamu (Kentaro Tamura) slouching out of bed to do their slow regular morning jog, something is not right: the couple sleep on single futons at opposite sides of their shoebox studio. However, it takes a while before the movie lets on that they’ve ended their three-year relationship. Six months on, Rinko is still in no hurry to move out.
Rinko seems sanguine about the breakup, throwing herself into a hula dance rehearsal with besties Tomomi (Risa Kameda) and Maki (Aya Shinohara), as one of the bridesmaid duties at their friend’s wedding in Hawaii. Yet, her uncertainty is neatly summed up by a driving metaphor she uses to justify her indecision: “If you stomp on the brakes it might lock the tires, so step on it a few times first.”
Judging from the way she turns down her friends’ invitation to go on a group date in favor of going home to cook birthday dinner for Isamu, she’s practically slipping the clutch. Their nostalgic conversation evokes that tantalizing space of being more than friends and less than lovers. However their cozy equilibrium is disrupted when Rinko discovers that Kasumi (Aoi Kato), Isamu’s classmate at graduate school, is making advances on him, and he’s ready to give her a test drive.
Despite the characters’ indecisiveness and penchant for spur-of-the-moment behavior, nothing is random in Matsumura’s tight screenplay, which sets up big moments with seemingly minor early scenes. For example, the couple’s morning jog later turns into a race that’s touch-and-go for their relationship, as well as being in character for the introverted Isamu to state his intentions without explaining them in words. Similarly, a brush with Tomomi’s sister Asuka and her b.f. yields some painfully funny situation comedy, while providing a parallel love-triangle that Rinko could learn from.
The film remains tonally consistent even as it slides into a more rueful spirit, partly because scenes in which characters get into a pickle (which happens often) aren’t just played for laughs, but are infused with the director’s deep empathy for human weaknesses. Likewise, the dialogue, sprinkled as it is with witty wordplay and eccentric metaphors, also contains genuine wisdom.
Given the drab, nondescript ambience of the Japanese suburbs captured onscreen, the titular Hawaii serves as a holy grail of romantic fulfillment that cements the bond between the three single women. When Rinko finally performs the hula dance, it’s in the most unlikely venue and circumstance — a bittersweet moment that reminds us of life’s disappointments while at the same time signaling her newfound ability to accept such realities.
Ayano is disarming as the blunt and bossy heroine who exudes the stubborn will of a child refusing to share or put away her toys. Tamura, handsome under nerdy glasses, appears wishy-washy at first but eventually makes one realize he’s too sensitive to hurt others’ feelings. Supporting roles are spirited, such as Kameda’s Tomomi, who upbraids Rinko but stands by her when she most needs it; and the pretty Kato, who makes Kasumi’s high EQ shine in a scene where she perfectly feigns innocence.
The modest budget doesn’t present an obstacle to the production, which is competently shot without the hackneyed film vocabulary of long takes and meaningless silences. Smoothly edited by Matsumura himself, the movie wraps perfectly at 94 minutes.