It seems that reviews of films containing Fumi Nikaido grow to mammoth proportions and this is another long one for a film released in June of last year. I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers and barely mention what happens in the second half of the film. Read on if you care or dare because this film is about some taboo subject-matter.
Romaji: Watashi no Otoko
Running Time: 128 mins
Release Date: June 14th, 2014 (Japan)
Director: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri
Writer: Takashi Ujita (Screenplay), Kazuki Sakuraba (Novel)
Starring: Fumi Nikaido, Tadanobu Asano, Aoba Kawai, Kengo Kora, Tatsuya Fuji, Taiga, Itsuki Sagara,
“Parents. They f*ck you up.” – Philip Larkin
That quote seems apt for Watashi no Otoko, a beautiful but dark film that is sure to challenge all viewers. It starts off with a disaster, one that strips a girl of her family, and gets darker as she gets a new family. If I make a reference to the novel/film Lolita you will know the territory. A spirit of corruption hovers over the characters in the film, one that takes the bonds of family and poisons them with the perversion of incest and director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri makes no bones about being somewhat explicit while exploring the effects of an incestuous love affair on the characters.
Events start with a flashback to the past. An earthquake and tsunami has struck Okushiri Island just off Hokkaido and through one survivor we get a child’s disorientating and terrifying perspective of the disaster. A 10-year-old girl named Hana has escaped death but both of her parents have perished. She ends up in a disaster centre, a thin waif in white pyjamas wandering alone down dark dank corridors and through rooms at night before she strikes out for home with just a bottle of water. All about her corpses lie on the ground. Then she is discovered at her house by a rescue worker lighting the night with a candle, a handsome strong-looking 26-year-old man named Jungo Kusarino (Asano), a cook for the coastguard. He takes her hand in his and gently asks her questions before declaring, “You’re mine now.” When asked by another rescue worker what he is doing with Hana he states, “I found one. My daughter.”
The audience’s alarm bells are surely ringing over this situation and fellow disaster workers are equally suspicious. People around Jungo question him, how can he just take this girl he has “rescued” as his daughter? It turns out he is a distant relative and in the middle of a disaster a few words from a friend facilitates a deal with local authorities allowing Jungo to adopt Hana. “I’ll be her father. I want to have a family, too,” he states. One man with knowledge of Jungo’s background, Oshio (Fuji) a town elder says, “You aren’t good enough to have a family.” As tantalising as that little line of dialogue is for the audience, a quick glance from Jungo silences him especially with Hana around. “I’ve said too much,” Oshio smiles before backing down.
Jungo gets his way and both he and Hana board a car and ride off into the night, Jungo’s hand holds hers tightly, the camera focussing on his fingers caressing hers, and his words are all we hear as the darkness envelops the screen, “From today I’m all yours.”
The story resumes in the future, in a snowbound port town in Hokkaido. It is a serene place, cold and pristine, where the community clings together tightly and everybody knows each other. Hana has grown up. She is a beautiful middle school girl (Nikaido) bursting with laughter and brimming with happiness, popular with those around her. Jungo is in a relationship with Komachi (Kawai), a clerk at a local bank who is also the granddaughter of Oshio. Many expect Jungo and Komachi to marry which would help Hana gain a stable family life again since he is at sea a lot with the coastguard and she is alone but there is something strange about Jungo and Hana’s relationship and Komachi begins to scent something is amiss.
It starts with Jungo’s distance. She has to make every effort to visit him when he returns to shore, not vice versa. Komachi finds his lovemaking mostly passionless on his part, Asano looking positively bored and lumpen, his mind elsewhere during explicit steamy sex scenes with the sultry and sexy Kawai who bravely displays much of her beautiful and lithe body. There are major social slights like gifts Komachi thought Jungo bought for her on long trips actually being intended for Hana. And we come to the girl raised by Jungo…
That happy smiling girl exhibits strange behaviour when it comes to Jungo. Komachi, jealous about the gift, finds Hana out playing with her friends and their conversation turns to Jungo which is where things get slightly weird as Hana shows the same observations, care and knowledge of her man that a housewife would. What starts out as a friendly conversation about playing with friends, “Mai nichi tanoshii/毎日たのしい？” turns confrontational as Hana probes Komachi’s feelings for Jungo. The audience will get a shock as they hear Hana lecture Komachi about who Jungo needs as a life partner (a blood relative) and in a few words and with her sweet smile she reveals her possessiveness. This doesn’t go unnoticed by an already jealous Komachi and an increasingly worried Oshio.
As Komachi begins to get a better understanding of what lies behind the “family” unit that Hana and Jungo have established, the childishness of Hana’s behaviour becomes tainted with fears over the danger the girl might be in. Characters witness the way that Hana and Jungo always separate themselves from others and remain close together as seen in the party that Oshio throws for many in town. There is the way Hana is constantly caressing Jungo and the way he gives in and fondly returns her touches, and the fixation with fingers that was established in the opening of the film takes on more erotic tones.
It is clear that they have grown interdependent upon each other and love each other but is it going too far? The film teases us.
The very slow rhythm of the film builds through naturalistic direction which shows characters going about their daily lives and allows a highly textured portrait of the relationship between Hana and Jungo that gets increasingly darker. We see the way the world slowly begin to admit to the strangeness that it was always suspicious of, ever so slowly, to ensure that audiences are dragged over the coals of expectations over what will happen next.
Then the film takes a step into pure darkness after teasing us for so long with whether Hana is a victim of Jungo’s upbrining and whether the two will take things into taboo territory. The couple finally give in fully to their mutual desire for each other in what I consider to be one of the most disturbing sex scenes I have witnessed. We knew it was coming but the sight of it is still off-putting and those with weak stomachs may turn off at this point. Jungo is soon caressing and gripping Hana’s body, the girl returning his passion knowing full well what she is doing to him and herself and framing it as one of sacrifice for the both of them in the grip of loneliness. It is sickening but the director hooks the audience back in by shooting the scene in a stylised and surreal way. The lovers are covered in a rain of blood symbolic of their passion and suggesting darker narrative turns and to remind us that we have spent the last hour watching a psychological drama.
Although disturbing it is not exploitative or sleazy. Kumakiri’s direction and scriptwriter Takashi Ujita’s writing has, up until this point, weaved interesting details about these two characters and teased the audience with what drives them and it is the trauma of the disaster that Hana survived (she has terrifying flashbacks to the fateful night when her real father rescued her and her new father Jungo took her in) and an unfathomable loneliness that the two feel and the love, no matter how awful, that they give each other that makes their relationship work. This idea of isolation is emphasised by the landscapes they inhabit and the shot composition. Hana often anxiously waits alone for Jungo’s return from his duty on a coastguard ship. In their snowbound town they are sometimes the only dash of colour in the snowy scenes, the rest of the world blank, devoid of people.
From this point the film descends into a melancholy tale of inertia, lonely desperation and self-destructive desire as the illicit relationship is threatened with exposure and the characters finally come up against the limits of their bond in a society where their ‘love’ is forbidden. A trip to Tokyo reveals just how far the two are willing to defend their connection and how they cannot give each other up.
Director Kazuyoshi’s script and the brilliantly subtle and nuanced performance from lead actor Fumi Nikaido delicately balance things for a lot of the movie ensuring that an observant audience pick up on a lot of details and atmosphere. The director exhibits a lot of control and focus in showing the characters psychodrama, the camera lingering on Hana and Jungo as they cast longing gazes or think things over and interact with other and this leads me to praise what really makes the film work which is Nikaido and Asano’s performance.
I am convinced that Fumi Nikaido is on her way to becoming the best actress in Japan (if not already there). I can think of few who match her commitment to roles where she can tell the audience some of the most complex things with the change of a facial expression and the way she holds herself. She handles Hana perfectly so we are never sure how much of a victim she is, how much of a dependency she has for Jungo and whether it was been fostered by him and if she has set out to do the same thing to him. Hana’s actions could be mistaken for teenage whimsy but there is always a layer of fierce passion underneath them that is unsettling. Nikaido is brilliant at conveying the confusion and damage from her past and the desire for her present that lie within her core.
Fumi Nikaido effortlessly creates a murky picture of the character so we can never be too sure what to make of her as she details the transition from perky school girl devoted to the closed-off world she has with Jungo, a man she loves, to the damaged and distant young woman at the end. Nikaido has the skill to disappear into characters and the look she gives at the end of the film will remain long with the viewer as they try and work out how to read this rotten relationship.
Asano was also incredible, making his character a complex, if a little too opaque man rather than a monster. Initially trim and well-built, he undergoes something of a physical transformation after relocating to Tokyo, putting on more weight and coming across as seedier. Despite his transgressions I felt some sympathy for him in his confused emotional state and desires. He is a violent and vile man who battled with his own demons and loneliness and failed, his own confusion over the role of lover and father stingingly made clear in the end when he says “I just want to be a father,” after a drunken encounter with a man interested in Hana near the end of the film.
Aoba Kawai also deserves special mention as Komachi, a woman unable to come to terms with what she is uncovering about Hana and Jungo hopeful but suspicious and gradually increasingly devastated and sickened with each turn of the story, mirroring the audience.
That the film never became too disgusting to watch is down to the strong performances and interesting script but despite these fine performances the only downside to the film is that by being too opaque about character motivations thwarts audience understanding of Jungo and his motivations. I would have liked more of an understanding of what drives Jungo and felt the second half of the film could have done with more time to explored him but the relationship between Jungo and Hana and the girl’s transformation makes for a strong engine regardless and I guess that getting a straight answer to those questions would be difficult just like in real life.
I wasn’t the only one convinced about the brilliance of the acting because Fumi Nikaido and Tadanobu Asano both picked up awards at different film festivals!