Nagai Sanpo is a modest Japanese drama that passed the West by virtually unnoticed, much like Okuda's other films. Okuda is a well-known face for people familiar with Japanese film, but his directorial efforts appear much harder to sell across the border. Not sure why though, if you look at the popularity of films like Koreeda's Dare Mo Shiranai and Aruitemo Aruitemo it's clear there is a solid market for these type of films.
Nagai Sanpo isn't my first Okuda, a couple of years ago I watched Shôjo and was pleasantly surprised by the most natural and non-dismissive way in which Okuda approached a rather touchy subject. Nagai Sanpo is comparable in the way that Okuda once again tackles a subject where he reverses the reigning moral code, pleading for more understanding and respect towards people and situations we as a society don't fully understand.
The film begins with Matsutaro abandoning his own house after his wife has died. Matsutaro's relationship with his family is sour and even though he leaves the house to his daughter, she isn't willing to forgive him that easily. Matsutaro rents a small, barren apartment, ready to whither away all by himself. His new neighbors aren't going to let him live his final years in peace though, as their rows, arguments and fights travel through the thin walls, keeping Matsutaro wide awake at night.
His neighbors also have a young daughter (Sachi) which they both neglect. Matsutaro pities the child and he suddenly sees his chance to atone for his past sins. When his attempts to get close to Sachi fail, he kidnaps the girl hoping to heal both himself and Sachi by organizing an extensive road trip for the both of them. In a sense, Nagai Sanpo is Okuda's Kikujiro no Natsu, only written from a more dramatic perspective.
Visually Nagai Sanpo matches the looks of a very decent, solid and traditional Japanese drama. The start of the film looks a little depressing at times, but once the road trip starts and the rural Japanese landscapes make their entry there are quite some beautiful shots to admire. The editing is not unlike Takeshi Kitano's, often cutting to static shots showing motionless characters in between more traditionally filmed scenes. All in all it's a pleasant film to look at, but there's little you haven't seen before.
The soundtrack too is textbook material. Expect violins, piano tunes and some heavy-handed J-Pop to cover most of the film's musical adventures. It's a solid score no doubt, it never comes off as too sentimental and it never feels as if you're tricked into feeling certain emotions, but if you've seen your share of Japanese dramas it may feel a little too familiar at times.
Films with debatable moral codes often rely heavily on their actors to convey the moral dilemma and so it was essential to the success of Nagai Sanpo that Okuda picked two very strong leads. I don't think I've seen Ken Ogata in a lead role before but he handles it with considerable ease, portraying a broken man that plans to do well in his life even when the law doesn't permit him to do so. Hana Sugiura also deserves her share of praise, it's never easy to work with children but she is absolutely perfect as the young Sachi. It's weird to see that she never played in a film again after this role. The secondary cast is equally strong, with Saki Takaoka deserving extra credit for taking on her less than sympathetic character.
While Nagai Sanpo has a couple of very powerful and emotional dramatic scenes, I feel that Okuda did have a little trouble keeping a good balance between all the dramatic elements. At times he pushes his luck a bit too much, introducing extra dramatic tension where the film didn't really need any. There are some scenes that could've been left out (also bringing the running time down a little) without the film losing any of its dramatic power and while these moments are rare, they do make you wonder why Okuda included them in the first place.
That said, the film left me with a very contented and warm feeling. These hesitant moments are quickly forgotten when Nagai Sanpo closes in on its dramatic climax and strings together a couple of most impressive scenes. Once again Okuda succeeds in delivering a slightly uncomfortable drama which doesn't really stray from the beaten path while still providing enough food for thought. A smart combination that only strengthens the question of why this film didn't receive broader international attention and appreciation.