Rainbow Song (Niji no megami)

Japan (2006) Dir. Naoto Kumazawa

Being autistic means I don’t understand this thing called “Love”. I genuinely don’t know if it actually exists but others do, especially in the arts. Many romantic dramas chart the ups and downs of being in love and Rainbow Song is no different, but it approaches the topic in a typically esoteric Japanese way.

Tomoya Kishida (Hayato Ichihara) is a lowly assistant for a TV production company who is hit hard when the news arrives that a former colleague was killed in a plane crash in the US. Attending the funeral, Tomoya begins to reminisce about the late Aoi Sato (Juri Ueno) and the unusual relationship they had which took an unusual trajectory for both of them.    

Rainbow Song is a tale of unrequited love but not in the truest sense, rather through two people being oblivious to the other’s feelings for them. Written by Ami Sakurai, it could serve as a gentle comedy of manners given the legendary politeness of the Japanese with neither wishing to infringe on the friendship they’ve built when it could have made all the difference.

Split into seven chapters, the narrative jumps from the past to the present but remains linear enough to follow everything without confusion, yet even with the fulcrum of Aoi’s death being a huge spoiler as to how it all turns out, the story still evolves in a number of unexpected ways. It unashamedly wears its weepy credentials on its sleeve but saves most of this until the end to allow for a pleasant if awkward journey getting there.

Our first encounter with Aoi is her meeting Tomoya in the record store where she works. He follows her home that night like he is stalking her, but in fact, it is Aoi’s colleague he wants to date and asks Aoi to be the go-between. This somehow leads to Aoi inviting him to star in a short film she is making – a rather interesting role reversal of a female filmmaker scouting a male talent.

Had it been the other way round, it assuredly would be seen as lurid and driven by the ulterior, libidinous motive of instigating the proverbial casting couch. At the moment all intentions are innocent, the first spark between them coming unintentionally when lead actress Kyoko (Wakana Sakai) can’t kiss Tomoya so Aoi replaces her.

Fully realised romantic designs are still way off yet though. To test the waters, Aoi invites Tomoya to a festival along with Aoi’s blind sister Kana (Yu Aoi), who may not be able to see but can sense everything – including Aoi’s crush on Tomoya. Yet Tomoya doesn’t see Aoi in this way, or if he does, he is exceptionally good at hiding it, just as Aoi is. A speed dating evening ends in disaster for both of them but this stokes flickers of mutual relief, quickly extinguished by Tomoya’s inadvertent lack of tact.

Even at this point, the script isn’t explicit in how these two feel, relying on subtle hints to set the scene and tease the audience that it is only a matter of time before they realise the folly of their ways and end up in a torrid, passionate embrace. In a Hollywood or European film that is exactly what would happen; instead here it continues the near-miss motif – admittedly another staple of the romance drama – again with a twist.

With Aoi now trying her luck in the US, Tomoya is left to take her job at the TV company and move on with his life, finding an unexpected girlfriend in Chizuru (Shoko Aida), a girl from the speed dating night. The developments that follow could only happen in a Japanese film and seem plausible because of the renowned quirks of the Japanese people, yet it serves as sad indictment of the attitude towards age and marital status of women in Japan.

Thus we find this film to be an incisive character study of what it is like to be a singleton in modern (ish) Japan, suggesting perhaps not all of its traditions, for better or worse, have been confined to the storage box of history. It is more likely however that for most viewers it is simply a sweet and heartbreaking tale of when the “what ifs” in life are not acted upon, playing it as straight as possible for that realistic touch.

Running close to two hours, Naoto Kumazawa uses the time quite efficiently in building and developing his main characters and letting the supporting cast reveal their true colours and feel impactful on the story. It could be argued that showing Aoi’s short film in full was a bit of a stretch but it also conveyed many of the film’s themes so it will no doubt get a pass.

Kumazawa has assembled a solid cast from top to bottom, but as ever, everything really hinges on the principal players. Hayato Ichihara takes a while to get used to as Tomoya, since he is an unlikely leading man but that is exactly why he is perfect for the role, His scruffy appearance and gauche manner is atypical for a love interest but he evolves into a noble and likeable chap.

Juri Ueno is similar, slightly androgynous in her attire and attitude, deceptively attractive whilst looking plain, and clearly the more emotional of the two, notably during her pseudo “confession” scene. A usually upbeat girl, it is Aoi’s hiding her heartbreak that makes Ueno’s performance so riveting. Yu Aoi has a small role as Kana but being her usual delicate self makes her a convincing blind person, stealing every scene she is in.

It is no surprise there is a tear jerking denouement to Rainbow Song since the story itself doesn’t break any real new ground, but like many genre films, it is what it does, and doesn’t do, with the formula and constituent elements that means even an loveless Aspie like me can be touched by it.