Pumpkin and Mayonnaise (Japan, 2017) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2019]

Masanori Tominaga’s relationship drama Pumpin and Mayonnaise is a determinedly low-key affair that shows a fair amount of questionable behavior within its succinct 90 minute running time without ever taking sides. Based on a manga by Kiriko Nananan, it provides an even-handed look at a cash-strapped young couple who continue to share a rented apartment even when their relationship hits the rocks. Pivoted on performances that never shy away from the contradictions that arise when people question their wants and needs within the boundaries of a domestic partnership, this is an incisive piece of indie cinema.

The problems here start when 27-year-old Tsuchida (Asami Usuda) takes a hostess job at an after hours establishment to support her aspiring singer-songwriter boyfriend Seiichi (Taiga) who has been in a creative slump since leaving a band. She makes decent money by drinking with the club’s flirtatious clientele but Tsuchida realizes that she can earn considerably more if she accompanies these lascivious high rollers to hotel rooms. One such customer notes that Tsuchida seems “out of place” in this environment. Nonetheless, he extends the offer to be his mistress. Soon, she is hiding extra income in a cigarette packet and deceiving Seiichi, although this double life has in part come about because of her boyfriend’s lackadaisical approach to life.

Upon discovering the betrayal, an incensed Seiichi declares their relationship over but financial circumstances entail continued co-habitation. They rarely see one another, though. The previously work-shy Seiichi throws himself into various menial jobs (deliveryman, cleaner, bartender) while Tsuchida hooks up with old friend and admirer Hagio (Joe Odagiri), who is about as directionless as Seiichi but exudes a self-aware ‘bad boy’ cool.

This is the sort of character study that could build to the emotional explosion caused by one person learning of another’s indiscretion. However, Tominaga gets the recriminations out of the way relatively early to take things in a perhaps unexpected direction. In a fit of shame, Tsuchida’s throws away the ‘tainted’ money only to later retrieve it and stash it away as a back-up resource. Tominaga acknowledges the grand gestures are made when a relationship seems to be everything but really wants to explore the more considered changes that emerge in the aftermath.

Events are mostly presented from Tsuchida’s perspective and she gets an arguably unnecessary voiceover that only serves to spell out what is being intimately conveyed through the deft performances. However, Seiichi gets almost as much screen time and his sudden evolution from happily unemployed artist to tireless grafter makes for an interesting contrast as the inward-looking Seiichi is prompted to challenge his attitude towards the world while Tsuchida wrestles with her inner self. Seiichi’s routine may be radically overhauled but he remains the same placid person he was when sitting around the apartment. The kind of artist who loves the process but cares little for the spotlight, he finds a new way to pass the time until inspiration strikes but his fundamental outlook remains consistent. Tsuchida, however, is torn between a need for affection and a yearning to live her life honestly. In Japanese society, it never seems possible for her to have both.

Tominaga adroitly balances their paths by going back-and-forth between the ex-lovers providing further insight into how their relationship has floundered as a result of over-looking crucial differences in favor of the benefits of co-habitation. Having their penultimate conversation take place through a shower door perhaps overstates the point but Usuda’s credibly torn performance goes a long way to overcoming cliché staging. In-keeping with the film’s glimpse of Japan’s indie music scene, one of the best scenes here is heavy on reverb, although it’s not a band performance. An intimate flashback plays out with the dialogue inaudible and the soundtrack instead filled with murmuring, discordant electronic noise that evokes fluctuating dynamics in a relationship that may not be immediately discernible yet have a profound effect on how it develops.

It’s a quietly stylish film with Tominaga and cinematographer Yuta Tsukinaga demonstrating a nice feel for the urban milieu, particularly the bar where Hagio hangs out. In a less well-observed film, Hagio would be a one-note device but Tsukinaga’s layered screenplay and Odagiri’s rumpled screen presence make him a rounded character who just happens to have fallen back into Tominaga’s orbit. Its one example of how Pumpkin and Mayonnaise is apparently casual yet minutely focused on its agreeably flawed subjects.

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2019, which is showing at selected UK venues from February 2 to March 28.