The Real Thing isn’t without considerable flaws, but it still allows plenty to percolate across its behemoth runtime.
The unspoken commonality of all the projects that find notions of TV vs. cinema foisted upon them is their duration. Not just the cumulative length of all the episodes/installments/etc. taken in sequence, but the exact runtime of each entry itself, and if the tenets of “narrative” filmmaking are fulfilled both within this singular block of time and the entire television arc itself. In short, can standalone status be argued for both an episode and the ostensible season it resides within?
It’s a conundrum that has been beaten to death, most recently with Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series — whose mini-films never ran below an hour — which, despite assertions from the director itself that it was a series of movies, was still considered television by innumerable publications. It seems that there will never be a unanimously agreed-upon rubric for this distinction (if one is even necessary), and Kôji Fukada’s The Real Thing will only compound the issue further for those staunchly drawing lines in the sand. The ten-episode adaptation of the manga of the same name was broadcast in October 2019, before reemerging as a 232-minute director’s cut for 2020’s hypothetical (as in canceled) Cannes lineup, though each respective entry ran around a modest half hour, far from the hour-plus sprawl of an episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, or even Mare of Easttown.
Unlike Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, you won’t find credit sequences stitched into The Real Thing, although there are a handful of lazy zooms in and out from protagonist Tsuji (Win Morisaki) and other characters that suggest an in-episode denouement. Still, the director-minted, marathonic rendition of The Real Thing is mildly suited to this percolating tension, where awkward exchanges and disastrous confrontations don’t exactly resolve as much as they unceremoniously stem themselves. Already entangled with two lovers — Ms. Hosokawa (Kei Ishibashi) and Minako (Akari Fukunaga), both whom happen to work at the same toy and fireworks company where Tsuji himself is an office drone — Tsuji’s own romantic career begins to collapse in on itself after he ends up in the right place at the right time to laboriously push Ukiyo’s (Kaho Tsuchimura) stalled car out of the way of an unstoppable train. The near-death experience opens up an interrogation of Tsuji’s own solipsistic shortcomings, which subtly mounts in absurdity, just barely scraping an almost dreamlike progression: this description suggests Ryüsuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II were it told from the point of view of the devilishly handsome and aloof Baku — one of the doppelgangers of actor Masahiro Higashide — and were his implacable mysteriousness traded for some comparatively minor dickhead malaise.
Tsuji’s male complacency meets its modest, if unwilling, match in Ukiyo. Seemingly in a perpetual state of economic precarity, shirked family duties, and frequent half- and mistruths, she fulfills the rightfully maligned archetype of the “manic pixie dream girl,” a distinction harped on by many critics already in their comparisons of the character to Melanie Griffith’s Melanie/Lulu in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. High-level crime-abetted debts, the risk of prostitution, an “estranged” husband and child (the former being undeniably abusive): Fukada’s delving into Ukiyo’s strange, unwieldy past largely eschews saccharine self-actualization for her male counterpart, the events playing as a little more frenzied, desperate in how deeply they sink their roots into even the most banal of everyday routines. The source material, as well as the initial television format, necessitates an expanded time frame, which in turn allows for the implications to settle and calcify, especially without a whirlwind presence like Ray Liotta to shake the audience loose.
Fukada makes good on such an abject, confused ennui with his penchant for antiseptic, digital imagery, a severe flatness rebuffing any and all conventional beauty. The nearly fatal meet-cute is brought forth in snatches of static frames, the parallel editing almost abstract in how it intriguingly saps any latent excitement from the straightforward fact that a train is barreling toward our two characters. All the frills of middle-class complacency are purely cosmetic, existing exclusively within the world of The Real Thing, rather than acting as audience footholds. Where Fukada’s previous film, A Girl Missing, courted genre indulgences only to dissipate into halfhearted moralizing, something of a harder, almost misanthropic edge is maintained here, so that even as scenes spin out past their warranted conclusions — an exhausting development in a film of this length — the characterization is preserved, and the external narrative becomes secondary to the internal (de-)evolution of Tsuji and Ukiyo. Bereft of Hamaguchi’s occasional magical realism or Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s more modest unease, The Real Thing descends into recontextualization more than it does any sort of transcendence. For something so long and still watchable, this is a feat in and of itself.