Nasa (Eri Tokunaga), a Japanese online columnist, ponders the question of whether men and women can be platonic friends, without romance or sexual attraction getting in the way. To that end, she books a series of sessions with a ‘friend-for-rent’ and writes her experiences into her column. As she and her charming paid-for friend Sota (Atsushi Hashimoto) grow closer, Nasa finds her original plans put to the test.
Blindly throw a dart at the Internet, and you’re most likely to hit pornography, a meme about a cat, or an article about something weird that has happened in Japan. English-language culture around the world has a leering, vaguely racist fascination with Japanese society: distinctly different to our own, and thus dismissed as somehow wacky and humorously surreal. The idea of renting people was one of the more widely mocked concepts of recent years. It forms the centre of Maiyu Akiyama’s intimate and intriguing feature Rent a Friend.
In Japan you can pretty much rent someone for any social situation imaginable. Need a girlfriend to take to a family gathering? Want a crowd for a relative’s funeral? Feel like wandering around a city with a companion? All of this is possible.
It is very much a film of two halves. The first is completely charming and a breezy watch: Nasa pays for Sota to be her friend in paid hourly increments. He is an attractive and pleasant man, and shows a seemingly genuine interest in her and her hobbies. They seem to have an immediate rapport – one so strong that it seems immediately obvious that Nasa’s question over whether those platonic friendships are possible is going to be answered in a very definitive fashion.
Before long, however, this neat romatic comedy formula begins to collapse. Sota strikes a chord with Nasa’s flatmate – an aspiring singer whose interest in music matches Sota’s own. Nasa’s column begins to exaggerate Sota to comic effect, with no thought put into how he might react when he reads it. Most interesting of all, if you pay someone to be your friend how can you ever be one hundred per cent certain that the affection they show you is because they like you or because you are paying them to like you? Rent a Friend is surprisingly brief, running a shade under 80 minutes, but it packs a lot of character and story development into the time it has.
Atsushi Hashimoto and Eri Tokunaga are both appealing actors, and share a chemistry that seems effortless and amiable. Tokunaga balances her role deftly between comedy and drama, while Hashimoto’s easy-going charm makes him very believable as a man who pretends to be someone’s friend for a living. The earlier scenes in particular are a delight, with scenes of casual banter that are heart-warming and relaxed. When the film takes a dramatic turn at its mid-point, things momentarily feel a little uneven, but they soon settle down and sustain the viewer’s interest.
It’s a small film, with modest ambitions, but it is also a small wonder of one too. It amuses, and charms, and provokes thought.
Rent a Friend is currently streaming for free online via the Japanese Film Festival. Click here for more details.