Memory has a way of distorting time, stretching it or compressing it according to our emotional response to the events at hand. That subjective temporal elasticity is captured in “Narratage,” a trembling, intricately structured first-love story from well-regarded Japanese helmer Isao Yukisada — though at 140 minutes, this delicate tale risks letting the viewer’s own mind wander off at its own pace. When it does hold our attention, that’s largely thanks to its young star Kasumi Arimura, sweetly affecting as a sensitive teen held in limbo by an enduring love for her kindly high school teacher. Gliding past the less palatable aspects of the student-master relationship at its core, Yukisada’s film instead places both lovers on an equal plane of heartsore vulnerability, with alternately tender and maudlin results. Adapted from a Japanese bestseller, “Narratage” should perform well at home, but its softness makes for a harder sell internationally.
“I guess you’ve matured,” says youngish drama teacher Takashi (Jun Matsumoto) upon reuniting with winsome college sophomore Izumi (Arimura) a year after their last encounter at her high school graduation. “You’re still the same,” comes her reply. It’s a line that could sound like a caustic burn coming from many an actress’s lips, though Arimura delivers it wistfully, with earnest melancholy — as if disappointed that a full year of official adulthood hasn’t flipped her perspective more radically. It’s an exchange that encapsulates the trickiest thematic ground that Yukisada and screenwriter Anne Horiizumi (working from Rio Shimamoto’s 2005 novel of the same name) attempt to cover in “Narratage”: how the coming-of-age process is felt at different speeds from within and without, how love can either hasten or stay the passage of time, and how a year can make all the difference, or none at all, at certain stages of life.
Bookended by present-day scenes in which Izumi, now an office worker, reflects on her life thus far while poring over an antique pocket watch — symbolic subtlety is not on Yukisada’s agenda — the film embraces a slip-sliding narrative structure, frequently doubling back on itself as it returns to key incidents with added flickers of subtext. As such, there are few significant or salacious revelations in its account of the blossoming extra-friendship between Takashi and Izumi, a shy classroom misfit whom the teacher correctly suspects will find confidence and camaraderie in his drama club; rather, as we comb and recomb the arc of their stifled romance, we perceive more of their shared human frailties, and the dynamic between them consequently shifts and levels.
Developed in parallel — or perhaps concentrically, given the film’s shape — to Izumi and Takashi’s relationship is her college dalliance with fellow student Ono (Kentaro Sakaguchi), whose affections, she gradually and reluctantly realizes, she can’t fully return. With Takashi reentering her life after an absence, these formative romances turn concurrent, blurring and smearing the film’s timeline like the autumnal rain that accompanies much of the action: It alternates with screen-bleaching floods of afternoon light, though cinematographer Jun Fukumoto accords all weather its own luminescence. Even when “Narratage” tilts into unabashed melodrama — as Ono slips into the agony of unrequited adoration, while Takashi negotiates his estrangement from his criminally deranged wife — it remains a primarily interior, mood-fixated piece, taking its own precious time to track incremental psychological developments.
Such sincere patience might wind up testing that of some in the audience. Izumi’s troubles are credible and moving, and Arimura plays them with winning, guileless grace, but she’s not the most inherently fascinating of protagonists to subject to such lengthy scrutiny. Weepily scored with a heavy hand on the strings by Yôko Kumagai and Hidehiko Urayama, the film doesn’t hold back from heartbreak; as if in sympathy with his stymied characters, Yukisada dwells on it to an evocative fault. “Narratage” is fully in touch with its very real emotions — perhaps, at certain disarming points, it’s even overwhelmed by them — but it’s finally a film that feels just a little more than it says.