Minato (Nana Mori) is a university student still living at home with her parents and her irritating step-brother Toru (Hokuto Matsumura). While helping a friend undertake a teen fashion shoot in Shibuya, Minato is caught by Toru posing in a schoolgirl’s outfit and orange wig. In a spontaneous act to save her dignity, she pretends to be someone else – only for Toru to blindly ask her out on a date. At first she sees it as an opportunity to teach her lothario brother a lesson, but the more her masquerade goes on the more smitten he becomes.
Currently screening across Australia at this year’s Japanese Film Festival, Liar x Liar is a live-action film adaptation of Renjuro Kindaichi’s shojo manga. Director Saiji Yakumo is no stranger to adapting pre-existing material, having previously adapted both novels (My Pretend Girlfriend, The Dark Maidens) and a collectable card game (Touken Ranbu). In many ways it is a relatively formulaic comedy of errors: Toru loves Minato’s new identity Mina, while Minato begins to romance bookish history nerd Shinji (Yuta Koseki). All sorts of expected comic near-misses and crises ensue. So far, so generic, but it benefits enormously from a knowing, in-your-face screenplay by Yuichi Tokunaga and from a spectacular comic performance by Nana Mori. Against the odds, Liar x Liar lifts itself above its material and begins to play out with a canny self-awareness of both genre convention and its own immensely awkward premise.
That works for the first half at any rate. The second is a different matter, and to explain why we are going to have to directly discuss the plot of the film; consider this your spoiler warning.
Even when the film is at its best, it is riffing from a somewhat awkward and odious premise: a young man dating an attractive young woman, unaware that she is his sister. Step by step it paints itself into a corner until you can see the logical conclusion, and it is an unpalatable one.
The film bends over backwards in an attempt to justify the storyline. There are constant reminders that Minato and Toru are step-siblings only, and not blood related, plus the audience is assured more than once that under Japanese law step-siblings can legally marry one another. When the time comes for brother and sister to be honest, admit their mutual affections, and pair up at the climax, no amount of caveats or justifications escape the immediate and palpable sense that the film is fundamentally broken. The romance and the awkward comedy is ruined the moment the audience recognises where the plot is headed.
It is particularly hard on poor Shinji, presented throughout the film as the ‘other man’ in this strange little love triangle. He is well-played by Koseki for as long as the narrative allows him to be consistently characterised. Once the story requirements need him to stop being a valid romantic choice, there is an inexplicable about-face and a genuinely unpleasant scene in a hotel room. So much of the goodwill generated by Liar x Liar‘s first half is simply burnt up like garbage in the second. I have not read the original manga, and I assume the absurd loops required in the second half of the film originated on the page, but it’s a staggeringly awful and tone-deaf conclusion. Thankfully Japan is constantly awash with romantic comedies based on manga; if they’re generally to your taste, you can safely assume a more enjoyable option is just around the corner.
Liar x Liar is playing at the Japanese Film Festival. Click here for more information.