Napoleon And Me (Napoleon to Watashi)

Japan (2021) Dir. Yusuke Koroyasu

Many people think happiness is only achievable if that special someone is in your life. As a perpetual loner, I will never know if this true or what happiness is, but I do know that being single does not mean my life is over. If only others felt the same…

Haruko Oohara (Rina Takeda) is a 28-year old hopeless romantic with an ideal of what love is dictated by her obsession with romantic cinema – expecting to bump into some handsome hunk in the street and be swept off her feet. In reality, she is a shy wallflower with little confidence, nursing a crush on male work colleague Shingo Iwata (Toshiyuki Someya), who naturally doesn’t see her as anything but another face in the office.

Female colleague, Yuka (Aya Ayano), is also single but doesn’t give a damn; she has a phone app which gives her the romantic experience with a 2D dreamboat, and suggests Haruko gives it a try. Reluctantly, Haruko does, picking the dashing Napoleon but soon feels silly. She wonders out loud why she can’t find happiness when a relief power glitch causes Napoleon (Shogo Hama) to appear before Haruko in person, vowing to help her find what she desires.

I’m surprised with amount of fantasy romance concepts revolving around mobile phones and such that Napoleon And Me isn’t an anime or manga from a girl’s comic. It has all the plot beats and rhythms you’d expect from the genre, with characterisations more commonly found in animated form, yet here we are. Written by Norio Suzuki, the light novel vibes are quite palpable, with the film running for a neatly packed 82 minutes.

Thinking about it, I’m sure a 12-episode anime could be eked out from this premise and have some fun with it too, something director Yusuke Koroyasu only faintly toys with before succumbing to the slushy conventions of the target female audience. I accept that I may be generalising there and not all women are so easily satiated by fluffy cinema like this but hopefully you get my drift.

Perhaps Suzuki was influenced by the numerous anime shows based around phone apps that transport people to different worlds or bring dastardly monsters to ours and wanted to conflate this idea with a reassuring ego boost for the modern single woman in Japan. As you may be aware, Asia has this baffling mindset that a single woman over 25 has no value in society, their single status bringing shame to their families or some such drivel, which loosely supplies this tale with its foundation.

She may not be 30 yet, but Haruko is feeling the old maid blues from not having a man in her life, therefore she has no concept of happiness. She gets a kick from watching romantic movies which is a kind of happiness, but I guess that isn’t considered tangible if the source isn’t at least sentient in form. It is not that Haruko is a pariah either – in the opening scenes she is invited to a wedding reception and housewarming party and she has Yuka to chew the fat with, it’s just romance she is missing.

Before you start thinking “is that all she is missing?”, let me point out this is as chaste and asexual a film you can get without needing to make the cat five year-olds so get your mind out of the gutter. That said the idea of a phone app to provide gratification for the lonely is as disconcerting as it is characteristically Japanese – the male avatars are all rendered in a manga style appearance, placing the app as one step away from a visual novel.

No explanation is offered as to how or why Napoleon came to life, other than it coincided with Haruko’s verbalised lament for her loneliness to end, but this is a fantasy so we run with it. Tall, classically dressed, and formal in his speech, this Napoleon does not directly resemble the legendary French leader despite sharing his name. he is confused about this transportation but assumes it means he has to fulfil his duty in person rather than as a pre-programmed computerised avatar.

Unfortunately, the mileage that could have been mined from this, let alone the attendant comic mishaps from napoleon only being visible to Haruko are sacrificed to focus instead on the plight of Haruko getting Shingo to notice her. With competition from the younger, more confident Riho (Yuka Okabayashi) one can see where the story would normally go but Suzuki decides this well-trodden path is being closed off in this instance, and a safer alternate route should be taken.

82-minutes is therefore insufficient to really get to grips with the various levels of fun and drama that could have been addressed, putting a few easily surmountable hurdles in Haruko’s way in her journey to true love and happiness. Coupled with Haruko falling for Napoleon – as you knew she would – even the most hackneyed of clichés would have created a meatier crisis point than the anodyne but earnest challenges presented here. That it doesn’t dim the overall message of loving yourself to find love and screw social pressures is a miracle, with succour from a late scene spelling it out for us.

Rena Takeda for me is an interesting choice of lead as she is black belt karate champion and her early films specifically exploited this. However, she proved in The Tale Of Iya she can handle heavy drama, and Haruko is Takeda expanding her repertoire to rom-com heroine. Her default forlorn facial expression is suitable for garnering sympathy for a girl unlucky in love, which she backs up with a personable and measured performance.

Contrary to the impression I may have given, I didn’t hate Napoleon And Me, regardless of the cavils discussed above. As a brisk piece of undemanding lightweight confection with a well intended message, its sits on the right side of jejune to escape without serious complaint.

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