Perfect match? Takumi Saito and Aya Ueto in Hirugao: Love Affairs in the Afternoon. Photo: FEFF

Having established his popularity with the world premiere of The Kodai Family last year, actor Takumi Saito is back at the Far East Film Festival with Hirugao: Love Affairs in the Afternoon, directed by Hiroshi Nishitani.

On the fourth afternoon of the festival, the Italian audience watched the world premiere with Saito, Nishitani and leading actress Aya Ueto.

The character Saito plays is unlike the rich, handsome prince in The Kodai Family. This time he’s a taciturn researcher who specializes in insects, Yuichiro Kitano. “In contrast to humans, who are confined in their own system, Yuichiro learns from nature and becomes truthful to himself,” Saito said before the screening.

Hirugao tells a classic tale of infidelity and an illicit affair that entangles star-crossed lovers. The movie opens with the disordered life of Yuichiro’s former lover Sawa Sasamoto, played by Ueto, who has moved to a seaside town, seeking to forget about the love of her life.

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The film follows the narrative of a popular television series, also called Hirugao, that aired in 2014. The series was a hit, catering to the timeless craving for romance. “There is less and less romanticism in the new generation. I would like to revive a sense of romance,” Nishitani says.

Hirugao may be the most important movie in Saito’s career, the one that establishes him as Japan’s leading man, but the film is also turning point for Ueto, whose stage persona had been one of purity and cheerfulness.

“I am ashamed to say that I’m really bad at love scenes, which are a job that I’ve been avoiding,” Ueto said. “I was not confident enough to get involved in a drama about adult romance.”

The actress only accepted the part when the director convinced her the world of adultery and illicit love was so far removed from her image.

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The twists and turns of the plot are similar to those in the television series, but a feature-length film offers audiences much more than the small-screen format.

“There is a difference in making film and television dramas,” Nishitani says. “It is much easier to communicate with films.”

The director considers it his task to encourage the audience to use their imagination. So we have devices such as passages from the soap opera that compare affairs to fireflies, insects that emit light as a warning.

Hirugao: Love Affairs in the Afternoon stars Takumi Saito and Aya Ueto meet the press at the Far East Film Festival. Photo: Kenta Kato

The character development may appear to be illogical and the plot overly sentimental, but Nishitani succeeds in crafting exactly what is expected: a soap opera where love overrides everything.

“Seeking and proving supreme love, karma of mortals and redemption, it was possible to make these themes much deeper than the original for this film version,” he said.

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Hirugao recycles well-worn plotlines common to run-of-the-mill melodramas for bored housewives. But the popularity of the tale may indicate that representations of infidelity still function as a vent for unfulfilled desire.

What makes Hirugao appealing is not so much its passion and romance but its justification of uncontrollable desire and its acceptance of the inevitability of the consequences of such desire.

“I strongly hope another sequel will be made,” Saito said. “You’ll see what I mean after watching the film.”

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