Ryoko (Makiko Watanabe) is depressed and bulimic, spending her days sitting on the floor of her walk-in closeting gorging herself with junk food and vomiting it into a plastic bucket. Her husband Daichi (Hiroshi Yamamoto) wants nothing but to see his wife pull herself out of her downward spiral, but the problem is that food is the key to her recovery. You see, Ryoko was a celebrity chef, one of the many who people Japan's airwaves witrh cooking shows, and was a part owner of a French bistro-style restaurant with Daichi and their friend Sakai (Ken Ishikawa). Was is the operative word here, as one afternoon a woman, an eccentric manga artist named Yuka (Manami Tanabe) contracts food poisoning after eating a dish of mussels prepared by Ryoko. While it seems that this single event shakes Ryoko's faith in herself and her talents to their very core Daisuke Yamaoka's film "Lost Girl" quickly shows us that this incident is just the tip of the problems in Ryoko's life and marriage.
Yamaoka, a Kanagawa University graduate and self-professed cinematic disciple of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Yasuzo Masumura, has had great success with his particular brand of down-beat social realism. His 2004 lesbian-themed short "Mika And Seijun" toured a number of Gay and Lesbian film festivals worldwide, while his 2009 short film "Wonderful Lives At Asahigaoka” won the 2010 Sundance Film Festival NHK Award. He has even had such high profile admirers as filmmaker Naomi Kawase whio has said of "Lost Girl" that it, "will make viewers reaffirm their idea of 'Love'." This isn't a heart-throbbing and lusty love though. While Ryoko has herself set on self-destruct her husband is cooking her gourmet meals with the dual purpose of getting her to eat something (anything) nutritious, and also to somehow reignite Ryoko's passion for cooking. He also uses a gentle and absurd sense of humour to try and return a smile to Ryoko's face. This is love as self-sacrifice, beautiful when it can succeed, and horrible when the one doing the saving gets pulled under by the person who refuses to be saved. Yes, Ryoko does constantly say she wants to go to work at the restaurant again, but it seems like a return to work is more of a self-expectation that an real drive to get back in the kitchen. Besides, Sakai wants nothing to do with Ryoko as long as she is such a physical and emotional mess. Ryoko even has Yuka, whom she has formed an odd friendship, tie her up to prevent her from binging and purging, but Yuka, tired of her strange friendship with Ryoko, doesn't even tie the ropes that tightly. The problem is that Yuka has forgiven Ryoko a long time ago, in fact it seems she barely thinks of the poisoned plate of mussels she once ate. Yuka's forgiveness isn't what Ryoko needs though. Before she can get better she needs to forgive herself, and not just for serving a plate of mussels that were past their sell-by date.
It's obvious that despite the obvious affection that Daichi has for her that Ryoko's marriage has simple run out of gas. The complex performances delivered by Makiko Watanabe and Hiroshi Yamamoto make this crystal clear. Ryoko slowly punishes herself not only for accidentally poisoning one of her patrons, but for realizing she no longer loves her husband, and Watanabe, whose previous roles have included Naomi Kawase's "The Mourning Forest" and Sion Sono's "Love Exposure", imbues her character with with a crippling sadness. For me, though, the pillar of "Lost Girl" is Yamamoto's Daichi who brings a natural humour to the film that otherwise could become unbearably bleak. The thin line that Yamamoto walks with Daichi is fascinating to observe - on the one hand his warmth and inside jokes that he shares with Ryoko speak of his deep love for her, but he simmers with pent up frustration and rage. He is doing his part in trying to help his wife, but he simply can't comprehend why she won't meet him half way. Their fights, both in private and, in one scene, in public are both heartbreaking and hilarious.
So many Japanese relationship films end up slipping into misty pastel romance, chest-beating melodrama, or in many cases both. It also doesn't help that they usually star various pop stars or models turned actors/ actresses with some pretty dubious acting skills. Thankfully in amongst these churned out dramas Japan has given us such gems as Ryuichi Hiroki's "Vibrator" and Ryosuke Hashiguchi's "All Around Us" that not only feature top-notch acting talent like Shinobu Terajima and Tae Kimura, but that give an honest, but never easy view of the trials and tribulations of love, relationships and marriage. Yamaoka's "Lost Girl" falls perfectly into this category. Despite the final shot that takes its subtle humour into decidedly unsubtle territory "Lost Girl" wonderfully avoids the obvious. Here's hoping that it will find a wider audience who will be able to appreciate its subtle yet deeply insightful story.