"I have someone I care about, but that feeling I can never allow to be known..."
I guess those who have been in a one-sided relationship of some sort before will be able identify with the lead character Minako (Yuko Tanaka), a 50 year old woman who is still in the pink of good health, as demonstrated by her daily, grinding routine of waking up extremely early in the morning to prepare for her milk delivery work, where she has to lug bottles of Megmilk in a bag in a route around her town like clockwork, to exchange empty bottles for full ones, and to collect payment and issue receipt. And there's always be that one delivery stop that's right at the top, needing to scale a long flight of stairs in order to achieve customer satisfaction.
And peculiar enough, that stop happened to be a stop delivering to a man with whom she has been in love with for almost all her teenage to adult life, and not having the product appreciated, but poured down the sink. Having gone to the same school, we see that they're not talking to each other, and in their daily life always seem so close physically, but yet so far away. There's no eye contact, save for cursory glances by chance, and little acknowledgement of each other's existence. We learn that they share a past that probably destroyed all notions of being together, where clear attraction between the two was hampered from developing further by the earlier generation.
While I thought Minako was an interesting woman in herself, one who has kept her feelings suppressed for so long, one can only wonder what kind of damage it would do. If I read that the original Japanese title means "At some time the days you read books" and it's accurate, I felt the movie had a wonderful finale with that shot of her well stocked bookcase, likely alluding to the fact that she's not alone after all, and had probably fallen back on her crutch of sorts to deal with the pain of being alone, and back to a lifestyle which she had already been accustomed to for 50 years. Besides immersing herself in two jobs, she has those books which serve as a form of escapism, and occasionally pens little sweet nothings to song dedication shows on the radio.
Yuko Tanaka did a commendable job as the emotionally strong woman resigned to her fate and her decision to love none other, her object of affection, Takanashi (Ittoku Kishibe) was a more interesting character who has more facets. Staying true to marriage vows, he spends significant amount of screen time looking after his sickly bedridden wife (played by Akiko Nishina), while juggling with his job of social welfare in the Children's Affairs department in City Hall. I felt that as a childless couple, the job provided him a means to care, not for his own, but for other people's children, the troubled ones who are neglected and left to fend for themselves. In a rare moment of rage, we see how he angrily chides such wayward parents who don't appreciate and wastes their children's lives away.
The story by Kenji Aoki provides little quirks to make its characters appeal and succesfully attempted to provide a lot more glimpses and dimension into them as well, such as how Takanashi is a hopeless Haiku poet despite being a member of the Haiku club, and supporting characters such as the aged Minagawa couple, where Masao (Koichi Ueda) lent some comical though sad moments as he slowly turned senile, while wife Toshiko (Misako Watanabe) narrates and brings us through this love story of a single woman at 50. Even Akiko Nishina's performance as the bedridden wife was nothing short of arresting, with her character's enlightened state of knowing her husband's past, and making unselfish, and painful decisions in her sickly state.
It's what you can expect from a typical Japanese romantic movie, sans young, nubile leads as star-crossed lovers, but with all other elements in place such as romantic set ups, love songs and those quintessential restrained but affectionate behaviour. I thought the story was in danger of going down the beaten track when unrequited love gets consummated, but director Akira Ogata managed to steer clear of the usual melodramatic moments in such stories, though the story did call for some obvious plot development into the final act that you can predict, especially if you're already way past your Romance Movie 101.
Not being your average lovey-dovey story, I thought The Milkwoman told a strong story with unrequited love as a central theme, and frankly a recommended romance movie (though told at a measured pace) if you're in the mood for some bittersweet loving, reminiscence, and seeking to live without regrets.