“It’s hard to see weakness, especially your own” the oblivious hero of Koji Fukada’s perhaps uncharacteristically optimistic romantic melodrama The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Honki no Shirushi) is told, though it’ll be a while before he realises how annoyingly right his rival has read him. Adapted from the manga by Mochiru Hoshisato and first aired as a 10-part TV drama, Fukada’s tale of mutual salvations finds its dissatisfied heroes struggling to define themselves in a conformist culture but finding perhaps the “signpost” towards the real through a process of romantic misadventure in realising that the emotional crash of a failed connection can perhaps bounce you into a moment of self-realisation and the courage to carry it through.
Last to experience such a moment, the hero 30-year old Tsuji (Win Morisaki) is a thoroughly bored salaryman working at a company which sells fireworks along with cheap plastic toys for children. Entirely passive, he is in two contradictory romances with a pair of diametrically opposed office ladies at his company (which has a strict rule against inter-office dating) but is emotionally invested in neither of them. His life changes one day while he’s idly buying a bottle of water at a convenience store and notices a confused woman has picked up a damaged children’s toy he was trying to get taken off the shelf by the disinterested cashier but she hardly pays attention to him changing it over for her because she’s intensely confused by a map of the local area. After his attempt to help her fails, Tsuji leaves the store but later comes across the woman again when she somehow stalls in the middle of a level crossing and is about to be hit by a train, heroically leaning through an open window to put the car in neutral and push it out of the way with mere seconds to spare. He stays with the woman, Ukiyo (Kaho Tsuchimura), until the police arrive but she panics and tries to make out he was driving before thinking better of it and coming clean.
It’s a pattern than will often be repeated in the earlier parts of their relationship. Having tried to do something good, he finds himself incurring only infinite trouble. Bugged by the rental company who find his business card in the abandoned car, Tsuji is bamboozled into Ukiyo’s very complicated world of lies and broken promises but nevertheless feels oddly compelled to help her. “You’re too kind to everyone”, the first of his office romances Ms. Hosokawa (Kei Ishibashi) tells him with mild contempt, though he offers her a wry smile that suggests he doesn’t quite think of it as kindness implying his capacity for altruism may be masking a deep-seated sense of emptiness and inadequacy. When his affair with Hosokawa is exposed, he expresses consternation that she shouldn’t have to be the one to transfer simply because she’s a woman, describing himself as an average employee going through the motions while she is clearly keeping the place together, though she again accuses him of selling himself short unable to see how many people in the office look up to and depend on him precisely because of his rather dull efficiency and air of confident reliability born of having no real personality.
In fact he seems to be in flight from the “real”, consciously or otherwise afraid of facing his authentic self and wilfully masking it by putting on the suit of the conventional salaryman. Ms. Hosokawa is much the same, having initiated the relationship on a no strings basis but secretly wanting more. Approaching middle age she finds herself suffocating under her various demands, playing the part of the dependable senior office lady but dreaming of escape through romantic salvation. Only once her relationship with Tsuji begins to implode does she rediscover a new sense of self. The other girlfriend, meanwhile, Minako (Akari Fukunaga) plays the contrasting role of the office cutie irritatingly sweet and simpleminded but after being cruelly dumped suddenly dyes her hair pink and becomes feisty and uncompromising no longer unable to stand up for herself while refusing to conform to idealised visions of youthful femininity.
Tsuji meanwhile fixates on the idea of “saving” Ukiyo while she battles an internalised victim complex which encourages her to think that all the bad things happening to her are entirely her own fault because she is a bad person, constantly apologising for her own existence. Yet the situation is later reversed, Ukiyo repeating word for word the speech Tsuji had given to Hosokawa as she explains there’s another man she must save because he is incapable of saving himself. Investing their entire worth in the act of saving someone else, the pair attempt to paper over their lack of selfhood, but in essence find their positions reversing in pattern which seems to suggest you have to save yourself before you can find the path towards your romantic destiny. As Tsuji turns fugitive, imploding in a perceived defeat in having failed to take control over the forces of change in his life, Ukiyo finally develops the strength to take care of herself bolstered by the certainty of her love for him.
Painted alternately as a damsel in distress and a femme fatale who ruins men and drags them to hell, Ukiyo is of course neither just, as an old friend explains, an unlucky woman subject to a series of societal prejudices. There is however something in the pair’s mutual claims that there was someone trapped who couldn’t climb out without their help even if that help is slightly less literal than they’d assumed. Even when relationships fail, or crash and burn as another puts it, they invite the possibility for growth and become perhaps signposts on the way to the “real thing”. Shot with a whimsical realism and filled with a series of twists and reversals, Fukada’s elliptical tale is less one of romantic fulfilment than a search for the true self but finally allows its heroes to find mutual salvation in staking all on love.
The 10-episode TV drama edit of The Real Thing streams in the US until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.
Feature edit trailer (no subtitles)