The unhappy keynotes of many self-destructing love affairs are missed communications and crisscrossing motives. Steven Okazaki, in his sweet, low-key little movie, “Living on Tokyo Time” (Westside Pavilion, Los Feliz), shows another jag: cross-cultural disharmony.

The movie--shot in minimalist style in minimal San Francisco backgrounds--has a spare surface and a rich subject. It presents two lovers who can barely communicate: Ken (Ken Nakagawa), a gentle Japanese-American janitor and aspiring rock guitarist of less-than-zero personality, and Kyoko, a quietly quizzical Japanese tourist on extended stay (Minako Ohashi).

The two stumble into a marriage that really isn’t a marriage, in a milieu that seems gently askew. Kyoko wants simply to get a green card; her strongest nuptial goal is a visit to Yosemite Park. Ken, a dreamy, introverted young man of almost pumpkinlike passivity, drifts amiably into wedlock as a favor to Kyoko and their mutual friend, Lana (Kate Connell).

When he falls in love, it’s partly out of habit and proximity, and perhaps because Kyoko awakens some mostly stifled cultural roots. Delicate, agreeable, with a porcelain loveliness, she represents for him the classically devoted Japanese wife, dutiful servant of an arranged marriage--and he descends into hopeless, torpid heartbreak when his tentatively asserted passion falls on deaf ears.


Writer-director Okazaki and his actors have great fun with the insistent, right-angled politeness of this couple: Kyoko keeps calling her husband “Mr. Ken” and he asserts his spousal rights with all the flair of a theatergoer who suspects his ticket may be stamped for a different night.

Okazaki isn’t completely successful, but once you slip into his movie’s laid-back rhythms and ignore its low-budget austerity and occasionally awkward performances, it has its own special rewards. “Living on Tokyo Time” suggests a world examined lucidly, but from a corner. The larger implications come by focusing on something apparently slight--details and conversations outwardly unimportant.

The film, when it works best, makes you feel like a voyeur. It seems to be staged not for, but despite you: the actors working at cross-purposes, miscommunicating and caught in their own airless psychic cubicles, as if staring through glass that is continually misting over.

Ohashi gives the film an exquisite center; the humorously blank-eyed Nakagawa is like a drowsily banged-up bee buzzing toward and around it. The lonely crowd around them is played, mostly charmingly, by a cast of San Francisco stage and TV actors and non-professionals, of whom several stand out: Kate Connell, with her monotonously smoothed-out hedonism; Lane Nishikawa as a snaky-eyed hip counterman and manju peddler; co-writer John McCormick as rock band leader Richie, a specialist in calculated licks and yowls; Keith Choy as the misunderstood Taiwanese, Lambert, who explains his intelligence with the snappy chauvinism, “I’m Chinese!”


“Tokyo Time” (Times-rated: Mature, for sex and language) deals with the spaces between emotions as much as the emotions themselves--and sometimes they’re beyond its reach. The slipped cadences, the extended pauses, the overdeliberate dialogue that expresses Ken and Kyoko’s marital cul-de-sac, all work less well in the other scenes; Okazaki often can’t get a real ensemble rhythm going. And Okazaki’s cinematography--he edited as well--has a sometimes smeary quality that doesn’t jibe with the precise camera placements and performances.

But we shouldn’t judge low-budget films like this with the same calibrations we use for mass-audience movies. The pleasure of this kind of project comes from the width of the private window the film maker opens--and Okazaki and co-screenwriter McCormick have some clever, piercing or poignant observations to make on Japanese-American relations, assimilations, breakups, careful love and the hubris of fledgling lovers and rock bands.