Can men and women ever just be friends? Or are platonic relationships all doomed to fall into familiar patterns of romance and sexual tension? It’s an age-old question that journalist Mochizuki Nasa seeks to explore in Akiyama Mayu’s debut directorial effort Rent a Friend (Sukigime Otoko Tomodachi, 月極オトコトモダチ).
When we first meet Nasa (played by Tokunaga Eri), a rather meek and quiet woman, she’s at a bar with her co-worker lamenting the state of dating in your late-20’s. Engaged in a chance conversation by Yanase Sota (Hashimoto Atsushi), an attractive and seemingly aloof man, Nasa is immediately curious about his claims to have a “switch” that prevents him from falling in love with his female friends. What Nasa soon comes to discover is that Sota is a “friend for hire”, someone who rents out their time to lonely people looking for a no-strings-attached companionship. Captivated by the idea, Nasa begins to dedicate a series of columns to Sota, or “Rental-kun” as he comes to be named, and the experiences they share as contractual friends.
Under the guise of writing a novel inspired by his job, Nasa and Sota begin to spend time together roaming around looking for photography spots – as they do so, Nasa documents their time, his personality, and her feelings towards him. As they continue to explore towns and the breadth of their relationship, the lines between what is real and what is an act begin to blur out and Nasa is left with more questions than answers.
The relationship between Nasa and Sota, while based entirely on a monthly contract, is sweet and refreshing. There are boundaries drawn and adhered to, and yet it is still affectionate, compassionate, and reflective of a genuine friendship between two adults. Whether she is taking photos of him at landmarks or he is helping her recover from a cold, slowly they begin to open up to each other. And through watching these displays, it’s not difficult to believe that a platonic relationship between a man and a woman is actually possible, as long as there’s no competition for their attention.
As one could expect, things between Sota and Nasa begin to get complicated when Sota meets Nasa’s roommate Tamaki Ono (Ashina Sumire) and they bond over a shared love of music. As Sota and Ono begin to spend more unconditional time together, Nasa’s true feelings rise to the surface, surprising even herself. A true and raw representation of human relationships, Akiyama paints a painfully vivid picture for those in the audience that know all too well the pain and frustration of losing someone you like to someone close to you. The fear and apprehension that rises with the belief that if only you had been more fun, more interesting, or more talented than your rival, then maybe your relationship wouldn’t have started to disappear.
In a push to make her article more interesting, Nasa is driven to break the rules of her arrangement with Sota, further complicating their relationship. As a viewer, it’s easy to relate to the idea of making risky behavioural choices in an effort cling onto a relationship that we believe is dying. Through Nasa we can relive the thrill and secondhand embarrassment of doing wild and crazy things to attract the ones we have feelings for.
An atypical approach to a love story, Akiyama’s first effort as a director is filled with much heart and enthusiasm, resulting in a piece of work that is relatable as well as unconventional. Lead actors Tokunaga and Hashimoto are a delightful pair who share an easy chemistry. Nothing about their relationship in the film feels forced, despite us knowing otherwise. Even at their lowest points, the friendship and potential romance between Nasa and Sota feels completely authentic and propels the story forward with ease. What Akiyama leaves us with at the end of it all is a feeling of familiarity and satisfaction.
Rent a Friend is part of the 2019 Japanese Film Festival.
For more information, visit: https://japanesefilmfestival.net