Photo/IllutrationYu Aoi and Joe Odagiri in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “Over the Fence” (C) 2016 “Over the Fence” Production Committee

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

School-set tales are a dime a dozen in Japanese cinema, and yet local audiences never tire of them.

Makoto Shinkai’s latest unabashedly emotional animated feature, the teenage body-swap romance “Your Name,” opened atop the box office, while youth manga adaptation specialist Takahiro Miki’s “Yell For the Blue Sky” (another Toho release) is vigilantly guarding fifth place after three weeks in theaters.

Prosaic live action love stories like the latter movie are churned out with the unrelenting predictability of chicken nuggets. Not so common are those films that show other components of Japan’s education system that lie beyond the mainstream.

Yoji Yamada’s thoughtful and underrated 1990s “Gakko” (school) series spanned four films, three of which were set in places of learning that are usually given short shrift on the big screen, such as a night school for students of various backgrounds and ethnicities, a school for handicapped children, and a vocational training school for adults feeling the brunt of the post-bubble economic shrinkage.

In 2015, Nobuhiro Doi’s “Flying Colors,” the first Japanese live-action film to receive a theatrical release in China in five years, spent much of its running time in a cram school. Considering that a great many students attend these exam-focused private institutions, it might seem odd that more movies don’t take place within them. Then again, their whole purpose is to provide more concentrated study time than is acquirable in easily disrupted high school classes, which makes them less than perfect environments for idealized depictions of adolescents chasing their dreams.

Over the Fence,” the latest from Nobuhiro Yamashita, is also set in a vocational training facility, where men from different but equally lowly walks of life learn carpentry. Like an ordinary school romance, it revolves around the relationship between male and female leads played by attractive actors, but that’s as close to beautification you get with this indie-style piece that frequently underlines the ugly side of humanity.

It’s precisely that grim and grisly element that identifies “Over the Fence” as part of a loose trilogy of films based on the written works of the late Yasushi Sato, namely Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s punishingly bleak “Sketches of Kaitan City” (2010) and Mipo Oh’s harrowing but hopeful “The Light Shines Only There” (2014). On the other hand, it is probably the least miserable of the three, at least relatively speaking.

Although each has a different director, some of the crew members, including producer Hideki Hoshino and cinematographer Ryuto Kondo, remained constant throughout all three films.

Their setting and main shooting location is Hakodate, the port city in Hokkaido where author Sato was born and raised. Unusually for productions based on literature, they originated not from a corporate boardroom, but the local community. The central figure was Kazuhiro Sugawara, the founder of a community cinema in Hakodate called Cinema Iris. He formed a production committee with other citizens to bring their local hero’s works to the screen, beginning with “Sketches of Kaitan City,” and to bolster production crews with numerous volunteers.

In that sense, these movies represent the genuinely artistic portion of the growing catalog of projects co-funded and co-produced by eager regional bodies. That being said, although Kondo’s characteristically muted cinematography is occasionally interspersed with gorgeous vistas of the city, you could never mistake these world-weary films for tourist promotions.

Joe Odagiri plays Shiraiwa, a typically laid-back and laconic Odagiri character who has left his job, wife, and child to enter an exile of sorts in Hakodate. Left with too much time to contemplate his mistakes, he studies carpentry half-heartedly with a group of other reluctant male trainees, including family man Hara (Yukiya Kitamura), a ticking time bomb of resentment named Mori (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), and a friendly salesman called Daishima (Shota Matsuda).

A visit to a bar with Daishima reunites Shiraiwa with Satoshi (Yu Aoi), a bird-loving hostess who he previously encountered on the street when she was unashamedly imitating a swan’s mating dance. Although initiatively apprehensive, he is eventually won over by her persistence and free spirit. As their relationship grows more intimate, Satoshi’s impulsive spontaneity proves to be the benign side of her explosive emotional volatility, which forces Shiraiwa to risk opening up old wounds so he can make peace with his past.

Aoi totally owns her difficult role, which at times hews very close to manic pixie dream girl and hysterical bipolar stereotypes. The actress excels at making Satoshi believable and sympathetic through the sheer force of her commitment and charisma. Less detail is offered regarding her traumatic background than Shiraiwa’s, but Odagiri is just as comfortable in his character’s skin, puncturing his smirking inscrutability with sudden flashes of jaded and wounded intensity.

The casting is spot-on across the board, with particularly effective supporting turns from Kitamura and Mitsushima. Even Yuka is an inspired selection as Shiraiwa’s estranged wife, with her extensive background in television and mainstream films adding to her aura of existing in a different world. Brilliant character actress Tamae Ando appears all too briefly as Hara’s wife, but as with many gifted female performers, she deserves much more than basic spouse and mother roles.

It’s nice to see workmanlike director Yamashita dealing with two seasoned leads and getting stuck into more substantial material than his last three films, which were primarily vehicles for pop idols dabbling in acting.

He’s a good choice to interpret the subject matter, having shown an aptitude for evoking low-income squalor in “Ramblers” (2003) and “The Drudgery Train” (2012). Virtually everyone smokes, so much so at times that you might wonder if Japan Tobacco has paid for product placement, but it’s all part of creating a realistic working class milieu.

This extends to the reformative rigidity of the vocational school, where the teachers treat adult students like children, berating and talking down to them. The exclusively male trainees are themselves adherent to an automatic pecking order, with bruised egos breeding animosity.

However, unlike the other two films, the soul-crushing oppressiveness is tempered by the director’s whimsical touch, which surfaces when Shiraiwa and Satoshi’s growing connection lifts their lives briefly out of the mundane, and the ethereal score by “The Light Shines Only There” soundtrack composer Takuto Tanaka, featuring a theremin-like wail more suited to a B-movie from the 1960s.

There’s also Yamashita’s droll comedic sensibility that rears its head at unexpected moments, such as a scene in which a child gets trapped on an amusement park ride in the middle of one of Satoshi’s eruptions. This helps the film to end the series on a comparatively upbeat note.

Yamashita’s next project is “My Uncle,” which comes soon after “Over the Fence” in November. It also sees him return to familiar territory, directing the other Matsuda brother Ryuhei as he plays a slacker for the umpteenth time. Just like high school romance movies, if it ain’t broke ....

* * *

Editor’s note: New Zealander Don Brown is a longtime resident of Japan who specializes in creating English subtitles for Japanese films, as well as other cinema-related translation. His column runs on the second and fourth Friday of the month in AJW.