As Kafuku is riding up in the elevator to his apartment, those last lines from Chekhov are ringing in his ears. It’s about thoughts during dying days and what one might say to an Almighty. These are lines about suffering, mourning and living a challenging life. Kafuku is thinking of himself at this moment and his own situation.

He walks into his apartment, again seeing first the mirror as he enters, and then the narrative shifts radically. Perhaps it’s a time to be reminded that it’s Oto’s voice reading Chekhov and affecting him so much. Now Kafuku sees Oto collapsed on the floor.

He tries to rouse her, then checks to see if she’s breathing. He’s stunned for a few seconds, then calls the emergency number for an ambulance. The camera is poised above them. Kafuku remains remarkably calm as he makes the call.

In the short story, Oto dies of cancer. Even though the cancer comes on suddenly and progresses rapidly, Kafuku has some time to adjust. Here Oto dies in a flash from an aneurism.

The next shot we see is of the same shrine where Kafuku and Oto went to mourn their daughter on the anniversary of her death. There’s a driving rainstorm. We see Kafuku’s face first among the mourners. We don’t recognize anyone among the first mourners we see in the background because the movie has been so tightly focused on the couple. We have no idea what their social circle might be or what extended family they might have.

But at the first cut, there is someone we recognize — Takatsuki. He’s bowing down on the floor, then looks up towards Kafuku. He looks a combination of heartbroken and frightened. It’s a ballsy thing to do — to attend a funeral when the husband you’ve cuckolded is at the center of it. In the book, something similar happens, and the two men strike up a surprising friendship shortly after the funeral. It takes more time for the men to come together in the film.

Kafuku is greeting attendees as they leave. Two men bow with Kafuku, then as they walk off one says “So sudden … a cerebral hemorrhage.“ Then Takatsuki approaches. They bow at each other. Kafuku keeps his head down as Takatsuki raises his and then walks away. Kafuku‘s incapable of meeting his eyes. The camera stays on Kafuku after Takatsuki walks away. As he stares straight ahead, we hear Kafuku reciting Chekhov. At first we don’t know the source of the lines, as he says:

For 25 years he’s been pretending to be someone he’s not.

Then we see the back of Kafuku’s head and realize that we are now in the stage performance of “Uncle Vanya.” We’re about to re-hear lines that Kufuku practiced in the car earlier, ones he used to express his rage at the Takatsuki affair. His next lines:

Look at that swagger, acting like he’s some kind of lord.

We now see another actor, who says:

You envy him, don’t you?

Kafuku as Vanya responds:

Yes I do.

(He stands up and walks towards the back of the stage, the audience to his back … which makes for a dramatic film shot, but would have been a major theatrical faux pas.)

I envy him a lot.

(He then turns towards the audience.)

His first wife, who was my sister ... was a wonderful, kind woman. And she loved him from the bottom of her heart, the way an untainted noble human loves an angel.

(Long pause … Kafuku turns around, in part away from the audience, and towards the character he’s speaking to)

And his second wife, as you can see, is a lovely, smart woman. Why?

The other actor asks:

Is she faithful to him?
Yes … unfortunately.
Why unfortunately?
Because … (pause) … that woman’s fidelity … (long pause) … Is a lie through and through.

Kafuku now walks off stage and we can see another character inquiring about him, calling out “Vanya?” Those unfamiliar with the play might think Kafuku has broken down and walked off the production. But this is part of Uncle Vanya. This gives Kafuku a moment to compose himself during an extremely emotional moment in the play for him. The play continues without Vanya.

We then fade to black and fade back in with Kafuku driving his red Saab. The words “two years later” come onscreen. And now the audience, still in shock over the death of Oto, are greeted with a different kind of shock from the filmmakers.

The opening credits.

Yes, we have just sat through a 40 minute prologue, perhaps the longest in the history of film.

That Life Was Hard