Knowing that The Mars Canon is a Japanese film, the title might bring to mind an anime actioner with some nimble, wide-eyed character entering a giant robot to do battle on the Martian landscape. That could scarcely be further from the truth. The Mars Canon opens with 29-year old Kinuko (Makiko Kuno) snuggling with her lover, 43-year old Kohei (Fumiyo Kohinata), on a grassy hillside on a bright, lazy Sunday. The movie dares to start with a slow, leisurely pace, and it never does get much faster.
Troubling Kinuko is the fact that Kohei is married and has a young daughter. That limits her to seeing him once a week, usually on Tuesdays. Furthermore, despite showering her with affection, Kohei demonstrates no signs of wanting to leave his wife for her. One day, Kinuko bumps into Hijiri (Mami Nakamura), a one-time co-worker, and Hijiri’s roommate, Manabe (the actor known only as Kee), a street poet slacker. Hijiri is a cute, quiet woman but unreserved when she speaks. She spends her spare time holed up in her closet listening to Bollywood music. A libidinous clown, Manabe pursues every woman he sees and Kinuko is no exception. That visibly displeases Hijiri though Manabe fails. Soon, Hijiri is trying to talk Kinuko into breaking it off with Kohei while nursing Kinuko through a nasty cold. While Kinuko resents Hijiri’s pressure, she enjoys the time they spend together until Hijiri’s motives become clear – she is in love with Kinuko.
Suffice to say, this story is pretty common, even with the lesbian twist. It has been employed countless times from Gone With the Wind to Days of Heaven. Even with the lesbian angle, there is Bound, Being John Malkovich, and most recently, Mulholland Drive. The material is that of any generic love triangle movie except buffed with an art film sheen. The takes are long and there are few close-ups. The action is demure instead of overblown or melodramatic. Director Shiori Kazama tries to build up more tension by keeping the camera rolling a few beats longer than expected in scenes to create a sense of awkwardness. That works to a degree, but the technique becomes so repetitive, it quickly loses its edge. This kind of story simply isn’t up to such a humorless, solemn treatment.
The movie is helped by the balanced writing by Tomoko Ogawa and Shotaro Oikawa. They give the audience a tough choice in deciding whom Kinuko will choose. Hijiri is socially inept and amorally selfish but clearly willing to do anything to please Kinuko. Kohei is kind, compassionate and forgiving. He is sincerely in love with her, and he makes Kinuko happy when they are together. Still, can or should Kinuko make him leave his family? The weakness in the screenplay is its failure to supply Kinuko with any kind of personality that would explain and motivate the other characters’ attraction to her.
The Mars Canon is highly unusual for a Japanese film in having a female director. It is Kazama’s third feature-length film. She seems to aspire to the stylized looks of Michelangelo Antonioni and Hirokazu Kore-eda. Her eye isn’t as good as theirs yet, but she shows promise. The most beautiful shot in the movie shows Hijiri and Kinuko on the roof of a skyscraper at night before Kinuko is aware of Hijiri’s intentions. They seem to float over Tokyo and its sea of neon lights. Overall, though, The Mars Canon rarely reaches such compelling heights..