Running Time: 113 mins.
Release Date: N/A
Director: Seiji Tanaka
Writer: Seiji Tanaka (Screenplay),
Starring: Yoji Minagawa, Yoshitomo Isozaki, Mebuki Yoshida, Makoto Hada, Hiroko Shinkai, Keiji Yamashita, Takanori Minagawa
Seiji Tanaka’s debut feature Melancholic won him a share of the best director prize in the Japanese Cinema Splash section at last years Tokyo International Film Festival (Masaharu Take also won for his film, The Gun (2018)) and one can see why as it manages to combine a number of tones and genres to create a film that feels fresh and original as well as socially conscious. Its tone has a litheness that makes it unpredictable. When I thought I had it figured as something along the lines of a hard-boiled crime film like Ken and Kazu (2016) after its opening, it switched up its style and continued to be unpredictable until the end.
The film starts in typical crime thriller territory with a drug deal gone bad for one dealer who is executed at a bathhouse but the film quickly cuts to Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa), our protagonist and the centre of the story. He is something of a slacker. Having graduated from Tokyo University you would expect him to be in some high-flying job but since leaving academia he has moved back home with his parents and spent his taking on part-time work and generally avoiding a career. A chance encounter with a girl he knew at high school at a bathhouse leads to him taking a job there as an attendant and he quite likes it, not least because he can talk to the girl. It seems like a normal workplace but the audience knows that it is a killing space for yakuza-ordered hits and when Kazuhiko stumbles upon this he ends up in a noirish underworld of gangland killings having been roped into cleaning up the resulting mess of various hits as part of his job alongside another new hire, Matsumoto, a guy with hair dyed blonde and an education far beneath Kazuhiko’s.
This could have been a typical story of a nerdy guy in over his head but the film keeps dancing between genres, a sweet romance with his ex-classmate Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida) providing light to the dark of a Nightcrawler (2014) style character observation piece as Kazuhiko finds he has a taste for the job and then a workplace comedy as he and his co-workers try to get along. All the while, the romance and gangster elements keep emerging again and again.
The script keeps every storyline ticking away and brings them to the fore with a plot twist or an evolution in a character’s development and this works well with the direction which nails each sequence with conviction so when gangsters have night time conflicts, complete with quick editing, there is the requisite tension and this contrasts well with seeing the budding relationship between the awkward Kazuhiko and the innocent Yuri who go on dates at izakaya and talk about life and hesitantly become intimate in long takes. What makes it all hang together are the actors who all play their roles with earnestness so each element is airtight and when their characters seem to be going off in cliched directions they will deviate or show another facet of themselves with an action or a stray comment regarding Kazuhiko’s behaviour or life which leads to another tone or reveals thoughtfulness. Kazuhiko is the man who acts as a tent-pole from which these various narrative threads hang off.
Yoji Minagawa’s performance as Kazuhiko is superlative in terms of the range of emotions he shows. He can be cowardly, grouchy and petty as shown in his interactions with Matsumoto, a source of workplace comedy, but he is also charming and intelligent and even brave when necessary. Kazuhiko is not leading-man material, his physicality is awkward and tightly wound, but this is charming in romantic stakes as he looks cute because he can’t quite work up the courage to look Yuri in the eye. He can be creepy as he gets used to his job of corpse disposal and relishes the money he makes but he also displays moral quandaries over his situation and, more importantly, a core of loyalty to friends and family which leads the film in an interesting direction as it shows an inter-generational conflict.
The theme of societal expectations and generation responses are explored smoothly so the film isn’t an empty confection. Kazuhiko is haunted by his educational background, his certificate of graduation literally looming over him at home since it is placed high up on a bedroom wall in a frame, and characters constantly refer to his university. He is expected to do well but found regular workplaces uninviting and uninspiring and so he finds a place for his awkward self at the bathhouse. Kazuhiko’s career path has always been to do what makes him happy, something that baffles the older characters, the bathhouse owner Azuma and yakuza antagonist Tanaka who adhere to old systems of control and obedience, and believe in human value based on societal positions and have profit-driven motives. They have created a corrupt and merciless workplace that drives people hard and discards them. This draws them into conflict with the younger characters who face this grim reality and turn away from it, finding comfort in family and friends something the film takes pleasure in as we watch over shared meals and drinks and an ending straight from a warm family drama as the younger generation live their lives the way they want to. It’s all quite remarkably handled and a joy to watch.
Kazuhiko’s life takes many twists and turns that will keep the audience engaged. It is reminiscent of something Nobuhiro Yamashita or SABU might have made in the 90s with their square or loser protagonists thrown into a crazy situation but it features such a wild medley of tones it is quietly audacious in what it combines and pulls everything off with aplomb for a sweet ending which offers a positive look at youth more concerned with friends and family and happiness than taking part in a vicious workplace environment.