The literal translation of HAPPILY EVER AFTER's Japanese title, Jigyaku no uta 自虐の詩, is 'the poem of self-torture/ self-inflicted pain'. I watched it last night not knowing what to expect. I was initially interested in it solely because of the two leads, Hiroshi Abe and Miki Nakatani.
When Kaiji Shakedown covered the film last August, it was almost dismissive of the film's visuals, pointing out its flat television look that makes it look like TV movie of the week compared to the eye candy that was Memories of Matsuko'.
Trailer of Jigyaku no Uta
Which isn't really fair, since the latter is aided by insane production values and CG effects while the former is more on shot compositions and camera angles. Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, famed for his TRICK films, 2LDK and MEMORIES OF TOMORROW (that's the Ken Watanabe Alzheimer film), is no hack when it comes to the visuals of a film. I didn't watch the MEMORIES OF TOMORROW, but TRICK and 2LDK are deceptively cheap-looking films that are elevated because of their style and direction, their visual humour and the like.
I'm saying this because I watched this a day after the live-action film adaptation of SAIKANO (SHE, THE ULTIMATE WEAPON), and I can see how an initially simplistic film that could've really been something I see on J-dorama, ended up becoming so surprisingly and quietly stunning in its visuals without screaming at audiences to look at it. Because it's done by a director with a good sense of mise en scene, style and visual flair, a stark contrast to SAIKANO, which, despite its numerous CG effects and battle scenes, felt smaller and underwhelming, possibly due to having a less experienced director, Taikan Suga.
(Jigyaku no Uta is also a manga adaptation, original manga was written by Gouda Yoshie)
Miki Nakatani's role as Sachie is similar to her role in her breakthrough MEMORIES OF MATSUKO (yes, I call it breakthrough because despite being the lead in major financial hits like RING 2 and TRAIN MAN, the numerous acting awards she won from MEMORIES OF MATSUKO was the one that immediately established her as a serious actress). She's a devoted and loving housewife who has a ne'er-do-well ex-Yakuza husband Isao (Hiroshi Abe) who is jobless, spends most of the day playing Pachinko, gets drunk, gets into fight, and takes his wife's money, and has a hot temper by always flipping the table in rage.
Initially one would've thought that Sachie's in an abusive relationship (most characters in the film assumed the same), but the strange thing is, Isao never really lays a hand on his wife. And despite his flaws and hardened exterior, throughout the film, he shows glimpses of a person who is possibly just as loving and faithful to his wife. So ultimately, the 'self-torture/ self-inflicted pain' in the title isn't really about the physical abuses they give themselves, but more like how both are just incapable of expressing their love properly. Past experiences (again, just like Matsuko) made Sachie insanely supportive of her husband, there's a conversation between them that's like this (I paraphrase):
Her: What did you do the whole day?
Him: Playing Pachinko?
Her: (cheerful) Did you win?
Structurally, the film is pretty unique. Beginning with a prologue of Sachie as a teenager, then after a life-altering incident, the film fastforwards to her already married to Isao, where their past is only hinted throughout, until the last thirty minutes of the film, which fills in the blanks between her teenage years and her married life, a dear friend from her childhood, the bizarre courtship between Sachie and Isao. Which really came out of nowhere (purists of conventional filmmaking or screenwriting rules would complain about providing all these back stories during the last act of the film), but are surprisingly moving, and adds a lot to the characters.
So while the template of the character is a little similar to Matsuko, ultimately, this film is really more an unconventional love story that shows the growth of both protagonists. Unsurprisingly, the film is aided by the great performances from the leads, and also their chemistry. There's also great supporting performances from Kenichi Endo as Sachie's comical boss who has the hots for her and veteran actor Toshiyuki Nishida (I seem to see him in everything these days, he was also great in MAGIC HOUR, which I saw at the cinemas yesterday and will review later). You won't believe this, but it's really a feel-good film.