John Williams is a Briton making films in Japan. This is his third feature but it borrows so extensively from David Lynch and Haruki Murakami that it lacks a heart of its own.
Yuichi Arisu (Koichi Sato) is a salary man leading a bland existence with Chisato (Tae Kimura) his beautiful wife who finds him distant. His only joy is in the supernatural mystery novels of Jo Kuroda (Kazuyoshi Kushida) which are set in Darkland, a mysterious alternate universe. A series of coincidences turn Arisu’s life upside down; he meets a psychologically disturbed chap in rabbit costume named Mr. Trickster (Akira Emoto), Chisato disappears and, when he falls asleep on the underground, he finds himself in conversation with Kuroda who wants him to tell his story, a story of an affair with a beautiful and mysterious woman named Kayako (KIKI) which begins at the eponymous Starfish Hotel. As the story is revealed and he searches for Chisato, Arisu‘s reality, memories and nightmares begin to mix.
If you are a fan of Haruki Murakami you can play spot the reference. A disappearing wife comes from The Windup Bird Chronicle. The mysterious hotel, alternate reality and weird animal-men can be found Dance, Dance, Dance. Throw in Alice in Wonderland and Lynchian alternate realities and you have a film beholden to its source material.
The film’s familiar story ransacks the personal life of Arisu. Prior to his wife’s disappearance he is living an existential nightmare as a simple office drone who takes refuge in different masks to avoid authenticity and responsibility for his actions. His life and his surroundings are sterile while he plays loyal salary-man.
His refusal to engage with anything or anyone outside of Jo Kuroda’s books on a meaningful level has stifled his marriage. Chisato feels the distance and is unhappy. Perhaps Arisu’s refusal to be a part of the world is to avoid the feeling of angst that one feels when one recognises the fragility of life. In any case the one moment he acts on his genuine feelings by starting an affair with Kayako is when his metaphysical reality comes apart at the seams.
Direction in this regard is solid and scenes are well-staged: when Arisu is disoriented we get POV shots that whirl around. When his trysts with Kayako are shown it is from a voyeuristic view. Although I complained about the film being derivative I bought the differences between the sequences taking place in Darkland and the bland reality Arisu holds onto.
I liked Darkland which is the place of great erotic potential with its warm colours and hazy atmosphere. His memories of Kayako have an idealised hue and you can see her mysterious allure.
As the barriers between Arisu’s memories, dreams and reality break down a simple pan of the camera can capture scenes from the different plot threads involved in the mystery and his guilt over his treatment of others is revealed.
Backdrops will take a nightmarish turn – grey reality will segue into a threatening red hued forest with shadowy trees. I felt that reality, memory and nightmare could be entered at certain points reminiscent of the dark corners that lead to hell in so many David Lynch films.
What horror there is doesn’t come from the sense of crumbling reality and individuality but comes from the mysterious Mr. Trickster. Dressed as a rabbit and leading Arisu down the rabbit hole Alice in Wonderland style he is a figure of fun and horror bursting with energy.
As the film progresses you hope Arisu comes to a realisation that people are more than just objects or roles – Chisato is more than a wife, Kayako is more than a mistress but his character stubbornly holds onto his social mask to avoid living authentically. His refusal to grow was frustrating but the melancholy and mysterious ending hints that Arisu’s mask is broken. It is this ending which lifts the film from unremarkable to interesting but maybe I’m reading too much into it.
Performances are good. Koichi Sato plays the bland salary man well but despite growing angst there really isn’t much growth thanks to the script. Tae Kimura is fine as a waifish wife. The stand-outs are Akira Emoto who is genuinely menacing as Mr. Trickster. At first just seedy he becomes both a pathetic and frightening presence and a great antagonist. KIKI gives the second great performance. Her portrayal of Kayako hints at so much mystery, damage and potential and oozes sexiness and escape.
Unfortunately the film’s story feels too inert. The mixing of different plot threads, time-lines and psychic spaces should have made me feel disorientated and engaged me but the atmosphere has a dull edge. The most interesting parts feel derivative of better stories and films. Beyond that there are good performances especially from Akira Emoto and Kiki and the sequences that take place in the Starfish Hotel are engaging. Crucially though the film feels bland. The mystery doesn’t grip and even with an intriguing existential reading there is little bite and substance.
Romaji: Suta-fisshu Hoteru
Release Date: 3rd February 2007 (Japan)
Running Time: 98 mins.
Director: John Williams
Writers: John Williams (Screenplay)
Starring: Koichi Sato, Tae Kimura, Akira Emoto, KIKI, Kazuyoshi Kushida