Dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita. Japan 2003. 83mins.

Looking like a manga version of Waiting For Godot, this deadpan adaptation of a Yoshiharu Tsuge comic strip about two forlorn characters stranded in the frozen Japanese countryside offers the kind of minimalist, understated satire normally expected from Jim Jarmusch. A series of successive live portraits, which put together do not add to a real plot but rather brief separate observations, this low key comedy of manners will be appreciated by specialists of the genre. However, its esoteric nature means it only has a limited chance to cross over into general distribution beyond Japan.

An occasional film director Kinoshita (Hiroshi Yamamoto) and a sometimes scriptwriter, Tsuboi (Keishi Nagatsuka), both in their twenties, find themselves stranded in a desolate seashore village. There, a movie actor who had invited them to work on a new project, fails to arrive on time. Waiting for their host, who unlike Becket's Godot does finally materialise but only in the last reel, they bide their time, reluctantly getting to know each other, meandering through the cold, inhospitable landscape, looking in vain for something to occupy their minds and spending the little money they have on them.

They rent rooms in a boarding house, take long walks on the deserted beach, go fishing and discuss their tentative artistic careers and life in general. Then they meet a young woman (Machiko Ono) running half-naked on the beach. She agrees to join them, share their lodgings, their meals and their aimless ramblings, but refuses to reveal anything about herself or her past, beyond her name. Then, one day she simply leaves in the same abrupt fashion that she entered the picture.

As long as she is with them, there is a hint of sexual competition between the two men, though it never amounts to anything beyond exchanging repartees, taking her out to a karaoke club or plying her with food. No wonder, since one of them states in the very early stages and in the most straightforward manner that he is a complete sexual innocent while the other one isn't very enterprising either. Once she leaves they soon reach the end of their money and have to move into a cheaper place, the epitome of squalor and poverty in Japanese terms, before they decide there is nothing else for them to do but go home.

Seeing the world through jaundiced, disenchanted eyes, Yamashita's direction preserves the almost frozen frames, the immobility and wry tone of a comic strip. The carefully framed composition of each image becomes a statement in its own right and, taken as a whole, delivers a Harvey Pekar-style of caustic irony that was recently brought to attention by the international success of American Splendor. The actors are constantly underplaying their roles for better effect, keeping straight Buster Keaton-style faces throughout, while the camera observes everything unobtrusively, without supplying any additional comment whatsoever. The audience should be engaged enough to do this on its own.

Prod co and itn'l sales: Bitters End
Yuji Sadai
Kosuke Mukai, Kunihiko Tomioka, based on the work of Yoshiharu Tsuge
Ryuto Kondo
Nobuhiro Yamashita, Yukibumi Josha
Prod des:
Takashi Uyama
Masashi Furuya
Main cast:
Keishi Nagatsuka, Hiroshi Yamamoto, Machiko Ono