[Our thanks to Chris Bourne for this review.]
"Whether you're together or alone, it's lonely." This line delivered by an elderly woman (Akiko Kazami) could also have been spoken by any of the other characters of Hitoshi Yazaki's Sweet Little Lies, as ruthless a dissection of marriage as Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. The film's title expresses the deceptions necessary to keep up appearances for the outside world, especially when it comes to intimate relationships. The title also refers to the deceptions within these relationships, avoiding the painful truths that, if spoken aloud, can destroy cherished illusions.
To all outside observers, Ruriko (Miki Nakatani), a teddy bear designer/gallery artist, and Satoshi (Nao Omori), an IT professional, is a happy, serenely blissful couple. But peer a little closer, and that illusion quickly shatters. They live basically separate lives, only meeting for breakfast in the morning and dinner in the evening. When they are home, Satoshi locks himself in his room to play video games. Their emotional distance is such that they communicate by cell phone inside their own home, and for the last two of their three-year marriage, they have not even had sex. So while outwardly they smile and are courteous to each other, their marriage is a mere façade, like the large windows that illuminate their apartment. So it is all but inevitable that they each begin pursuing outside relationships, Ruriko with Haruo (Juichi Kobayashi), an admirer of her creations, and Satoshi with Shio (Chizuru Ikewaki), an old college friend. Much of the film follows the couple's parallel affairs, and the psychological games necessary to maintain their marriage. The couple finds it very easy, disturbingly so, to deceive each other, and their broken marriage wreaks collateral damage among the outsiders pulled into the orbit of this dying star.
Sweet Little Lies, based on a 2004 novel by Kaori Ekuni, is assiduously anti-melodramatic, its eerily sterile compositions examining this married couple's mutual adultery with a clinical eye. The effects of the adultery are not what one would expect; there are no screaming matches, no violent displays of torrential emotion. This paradoxically makes the sadness of what has happened to this marriage even more acute than it would be otherwise. But even though the surface visuals are precise and rigidly geometric, the actors are far from automatons, and give beautifully expressive performances. Miki Nakatani delivers one of her greatest performances as the wife who awakens to her own capacity for passion. Nao Omori matches her note for note, eliciting great sympathy for his seemingly remote, emotionally distant character. The rest of the cast is great as well, including Kobayashi as Ruriko's lover, and Sakura Ando, who makes a great impression in the very few scenes she has as Haruo's betrayed girlfriend.
Sweet Little Lies, the closing night film of Japan Cuts, screens at Japan Society on July 16 at 8:30pm. Director Hitoshi Yazaki will introduce the film and participate in a Q&A following the screening.