Satoshi and Ruriko Iwamoto are a typical married couple... or are they? Satoshi slips on a suit each day and heads to a large office where he administers his company's I.T. department, while Ruriko works from home, creating one of a kind, handmade teddy bears. Each morning Ruriko sends her husband off to work by whipping up a daily variation of cooked eggs - scrambled, poached, etc. Each night she greet hims with a smiling "Okaeri nasai", or "Welcome home". It's obvious that the two love each other, but as Hitoshi Yazaki's "Sweet Little Lies" progresses we observe that they often have very strange ways of navigating their affections. More often than not when Satoshi (Nao Omori) gets home in the evening he heads to his own little man cave, a room at the rear of the Iwamoto's apartment that consists of a floor cushion, a boom box, a stack of video games, a gaming console and a wide screen TV. To allow for ultimate concentration, or isolation, Satoshi is in the habit of locking the door of his little hermitage. The only way that Ruriko can access him when she has dinner ready, or his younger sister comes to visit is by calling him on his cell phone. Meanwhile Ruriko goes about creating soft and cuddly bears which she shows and sells at a local craft gallery. The only thing is that the one person we would expect to see at her gallery openings, Satoshi, is never in attendance. It seems after three years of marriage that the Iwamotos have become the face of Japan's work-a-day society and sharply declining birth rate. They're loving and dependent on each other, but emotionally removed and, as we learn from Ruriko, celibate for just over two years. Any spark of passion is vacant between them and Ruriko, the active anima to Satoshi's painfully passive animus, observes that maybe this passion is absent because it's not necessary. They and we learn otherwise as "Sweet Little Lies" progresses.
Director Hitoshi Yazaki, who last brought his film-making talents to bear on the lives of 20-something Tokyo couples in 2006's "Strawberry Shortcakes", has returned to show us the emotional innards of the lives of a 30-something married couple and how the gnawing loneliness that exists in both of them cause them to find solace outside their relationship. For Satoshi this comes in the form of Shiho (Chizuru Ikewaki), a young, very cute and very bubbly, member of his scuba diving club who, from the minute she appears on screen, goes about seducing her "sempai", as she calls Satoshi. For Ruriko, her ticket out of loneliness is Haruo (Juichi Kobayashi), a handsome client who begs Ruriko to give him one of her special teddy bears as a gift for his girlfriend Miyako (Sakura Ando). He gets the bear, but then quickly shifts his passions from his girlfriend to Ruriko. Yazaki paints each frame of "Sweet Little Lies" with faded blues, browns and off-whites, moving Satoshi and Ruriko into the proverbial moral grey area that makes their subsequent affairs possible. The only thing is do we in the audience buy that the arrival of Shiho and Haruo has really made the lives the Iwamotos any less lonely?
Japanese film has trod the territory of unhappy couples and adulterous relationships a fair bit in the past 15 years or so, and while watching "Sweet Little Lies" two films kept popping into my head, both as examples of how their directors got the territory right while Yazaki almost but never quite hit the mark. The first was Ryosuke Hashiguchi's "All Around Us" which featured the sublime performances of Tae Kimura and Lily Franky as a married couple whose lives go through some serious ups and downs over a decade. The other was the romance "Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise)" directed by Yoshimitsu Morita, a film that tried to make up for its over-wrought storyline of adultery with major doses of onscreen sex and nudity. These two films had what I think "Sweet Little Lies" lacks: a believable couple at its center and delicious carnality that tempts them out of the marital bed and into someone else's. I have to admit that my mixed reaction to "Sweet Little Lies" may have to do with my mixed feelings about Miki Nakatani. I can say that besides her turn in Hideo Nakata's hugely underapprecaited mystery "Chaos" she's never struck me as anything but a servicable actress. Her Ruriko wanders through her life with sad eyes and a bemused smile, neither of which spark to life upon the arrival of Haruo. Nao Omori as Satoshi fares a bit better as her man/ child husband. The scenes where Ruriko asks him to hold her and his attempt looks like that of a seventh grader as a junior high dance is motivation enough for her to run out the door and into Haruo's bed. Instead of giving us an onscreen couple with some kind of chemistry (even enough to make us believe that they once felt some spark or lust for each other) Yazaki gives us running symbolism instead. Ruriko's musing early on in the film that every couple needs a red rose and a white rose to function, red for passion and white for truth, is repeated again and again. Shiho offers Satoshi a glass of red wine or white and he chooses the passionate red. Later on Satoshi stands staring at a pure white beluga whale at an aquarium, the white whale of truth that he can't touch because of the glass that seperates him from it. Glass is another recurring theme. Ruriko polishes the windows of their apartment each morning and later confesses to Haruo that Satoshi is her window, a barrier between the dark of night and the warmth, light and safety of their home.
I can't say that I disliked "Sweet Little Lies". The cinematography by Isao Ishii is wistful and gauzy, and the sadness that it evokes is very affecting. Still I wanted to like this film a lot more than I did. It's absolutely true that you don't have to go the route of Morita's "Lost Paradise" and fill the screen with bare flesh to make a convincing film about adultery, but what that film had was what the Iwamotos' marriage severely lacks: passion. Yazaki only hints at the stakes of straying in his story -- maybe heartbreak, maybe even double suicide, but when Ruriko and Satoshi find themselves in the arms of their lovers they seem no more happy, not even less lonely then when they are together. Maybe that's the end point of the film, but it would have been nice to see their hearts quicken and a little blush of colour come to their cheeks at the thought of forbidden fruit. The same thing holds true for films as it does about a good marriage: they need both passion and truth. Without the former the latter is not enough.