Hachiko Hojo/Yuko Oshima, the heroine of Yuki Tanada’s “Romansu”, is one such cart pusher, dressed in a spiffy uniform and spreading good cheer. She may be little more than an ambulatory convenience store clerk to passengers, but to a bumbling junior colleague (Yoshimi Nozaki), Hachiko is a no-nonsense veteran and a fount of job-survival wisdom.
Hachiko’s smooth daily routine hits a bump when a lanky, goofy-looking passenger pilfers a box of snacks from her cart. She tries to turn him in to station authorities, but he makes his escape and an angry Hachiko gives spirited chase. To shorten a rather incredible story (scripted by Tanada), pursuer and pursued finally call an exhausted truce and embark on a journey together to find Hachiko’s long-lost mom, who has written her a heartfelt letter suggesting that she might commit suicide.
Tanada, tests audience sympathy with this sudden shift of focus, especially given that the shoplifter, Sakuraba/Koji Okura, is that least empathetic of types: a failing movie producer.
Cue the direction of the film shifting toward either labored opposites-attract rom-com or formulaic comedy about two lost souls discovering their respective grooves. But “Round Trip Heart” instead finds a mostly happy middle ground between these two dire extremes. Yes, Hachiko tenderly recalls a long-ago family trip to Hakone, before her flighty, fun-loving mom/Megumi Nishimuta broke up with her dad. And Sakuraba, who at first noisily denies wrong-doing and proclaims himself a big wheel, reveals his more believable (and pathetic) human side in the course of their adventure.
But rather than milk this material for sighs and tears, the film is realistic, and stays dry-eyed about its two principals — including their chances for romance. The 26-year-old Hachiko, keeps calling 41-year-old Sakuraba by the lightly insulting term “ossan” (“old man”) despite his protests. Coming from an ultra-polite Romance Car attendant this is funny, as well as indicative of her determination to maintain an assured clear distance from her ickily amorous traveling companion.
Also, Tanada’s film entertainingly reflects a fundamental truth: Strangers may bond on the road, but their personalities — and problems — remain the same when they part.
Can she get back on track? The answer is well worth the ride to the final stop.