We’ve all seen couples like Gota and Chika Yanagida — some of us may even be trapped in one. In writer-director Shin Adachi’s “A Beloved Wife,” the Yanagidas bicker constantly, turning their near-constant state of marital conflict into a kind of public performance, sucking friends and strangers alike into the typhoon of their discomfort. Are they really so unhappy, or is this all some sort of routine, combative foreplay before a marathon bout of makeup sex?
Only Gota and Chika can be sure, although one thing is certain: It can be exhausting to witness such a dynamic in real life, whereas Adachi’s autobiographical satire never wears out its welcome, counting on the likability of its cast to overcome behavior most of us couldn’t otherwise stand. As the semi-ironic title suggests, “A Beloved Wife” is simultaneously tough and affectionate with both parties, amounting to the Japanese equivalent of the ground-level, deeply human comedies we associate with filmmakers like Alexander Payne and Noah Baumbach — and even more so with Woody Allen, who was daring enough to put his shortcomings under the microscope.
Like those writers, Adachi has a gift for gentle caricature, drawing details from his own experience and exaggerating them for comic effect, such that we find ourselves wincing with recognition — when not laughing outright, that is. In interviews with the Japanese press, Adachi has been cagey about just how closely he based this hapless character on himself (“He’s very close to the real me, but the film makes it all look better,” he told The Japan Times). In any case, as played by hamster-like Gaku Hamada, Gota can’t be too far from the source: He’s an immature screenwriter, 10 years into a marriage where the bed has grown cold, but everyday interactions are nearly always heated.
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“I never knew how hard it would become to have sex,” Gota grumbles over the opening scene, in which his wife, Chika (Asami Mizukawa), swats away his sad-sack advances. Her complete ambivalence toward him as a sexual partner becomes a kind of running joke in the film, as nearly everything Gota does — each flattering word or empty act of kindness — can be interpreted as another pathetic attempt to seduce her. But 10 years is long enough to learn every one of your partner’s tricks, and Chika sees right through his shtick.
“You always let me down,” she carps, clearly tired of being the responsible one while her lazy husband indulges his fruitless fantasies. She must have believed in him at some point, but now that they have a daughter, Aki (Chise Niitsu), Gota still refuses to grow up, leaving Chika to make a living, cook and do most of the chores. She shoulders the burden but makes her displeasure known, bad-mouthing him to anyone who will listen in language that would be impolite in any culture, but which seems especially off-color in Japanese society (no doubt, some of her attitude is lost in translation, though it’s hard to under-praise Mizukawa’s performance).
Gota doesn’t dare argue back for fear of losing what little leverage he has in convincing her to make love, although Chika is far from perfect and probably deserves to be put in her place: She drinks to excess, dresses like a slob and displays all sorts of obnoxious little habits, like sniffing her socks before tossing them in the laundry. To the easily irritable (say, the cast of “Seinfeld,” who can’t abide anything less than perfection in a romantic partner), such offenses might qualify as reasons to break up, but Adachi observes them with such warmth, they can only be signs of love.
Today, Adachi is recognized as the talented writer behind 2014’s indie hit “100 Yen Love,” but like his insecure protagonist, he suffered through a long period when no one seemed interested in producing any of his scripts. Years later, he channeled the frustration of those days into a comedic novel, which serves as the basis of this movie (his second as director), a tongue-in-cheek homage to his biggest champion, who also happened to be his toughest critic: his wife.
The film takes place at a moment when Gota is waiting to hear whether an adaptation he has written will get the greenlight. Both he and Chika have waited so long for the moment, neither wants to jump the gun. Instead, Gota convinces her to join him for a trip to Shikoku island, where he’s researching another project, a film about a high school girl who makes udon. The change of scenery should do them good, he hopes — and he just might get lucky and convince Chika to sleep with him.
Instead, the road trip brings out the worst in both of them, the absurdity underscored by bombastic samurai-movie music. “We are a poor family,” Chika insists. To economize, she instructs Gota to check into the hotel alone, attempting to save a few yen by sneaking in the back door, and later, they try to steal booze from a winery’s sample jar. Among her other flaws, Chika confesses to a mutual friend that she has fantasies about other men — although that’s nothing compared with Gota’s attempts to satisfy his cravings without her, whether getting caught with his pants down during a VR porn session or being hauled in by the police after trying to sneak a peek up a drunken stranger’s skirt.
“A Beloved Wife” puts everything in the open, regularly taking such jokes farther than audiences might expect. And yet, Adachi keeps us from turning on its characters. That’s partly a reflection of his self-effacing script and expertly calibrated tone, but also owes to the presence of adorable child actor Niitsu: If not for Aki, the obvious solution might be for the couple to split up. Both parents use their daughter to say things they wouldn’t dare to themselves, but she’s also the glue that holds their relationship together. After all this, one can only imagine the therapy poor Aki will need as an adult!