Bright Future (Akarui mirai)

Japan (2002) Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Only in Japan could a jellyfish be a symbol for a disenchanted young man to find his place in the world. Although this is a work from Kiyoshi Kurosawa and he is at his most obtuse with this slow, brooding arthouse drama.

Yuji Nimura (Joe Odagiri) and Mamoru Arita (Tadanobu Asano) work part time at a towel factory under manager Fujiwara (Takashi Sasano) whose attempt to ingratiate himself with his younger staff only irritates them. Fujiwara offers them both full-time contracts but Mamoru, having refused to advise Yuji, instead quits after purposely failing to warn his boss that his jellyfish was poisonous.

Wanting to retrieve a CD he lent Fujiwara, Yuji heads to his boss’s house only find him and his wife’s dead battered bodies. Mamoru is arrested and put on death row for the murders, and having entrusted his jellyfish to Yuji and connected with his estranged father Shinichiro (Tatsuya Fuji), Mamoru commits suicide before his execution. In losing the jellyfish, Yuji teams up with Shinichiro to find it leading to a new start in life.

As I said above, this is Kurosawa in a non-charitable mood with Bright Future in making the audience work hard to fathom what he is trying to say with this sombre tale. Well, I say “the audience” – I actually mean “just me” as a look at other reviews for this film reveals a number of other viewers seem to have followed the flimsy plot and discerned its themes with ease.

Even though the murder occurs inside the first 25 minutes, this is a slow moving film full of passages of stillness and quiet that border on the inert, offering hardly anything to be considered dynamic with the exception of the graceful water ballet of the poisonous red jellyfish, which Mamoru is trying to acclimatise to fresh water, in its luminously lit tank.  At this early stage, it is the only thing that is “bright”.

The relationship between Yuji and Mamoru is odd; they spend a lot of time together yet rarely talk. At one point, Mamoru explains to Yuji a hand signal message he plans to give him – one means “wait”, the other means “go ahead”. What does this relate to? Mamoru doesn’t even explain it to Yuji but it does become clearer later on whilst also raising new questions.

Yuji talks about how he can see his future in his dreams but we can surmise they didn’t include him working in a towel factory for an intrusive 55-year old wanting to reclaim his youth by turning up unannounced at Mamoru’s apartment. Granted, this isn’t sufficient motivation for murder but in Yuji’s frustrated mind, especially once Mamoru quits his job and summarily leaves his jellyfish to Yuji, the old man needs a beating.

Further questions are raised when Mamoru gets there first and is cryptic in his chats with Yuji when he visits, ending their friendship when Yuji vows to wait for Mamoru’s release. It is only once Mamoru reconnects with his father that he decides to end it all – a rather extreme sacrifice to make for a friend but again, it has significant ramifications later on that reach beyond Yuji’s future.

It’s actually difficult to be vague about the plot and not spoil anything because of how each step of the journey requires discussion in order to understand what came before it and why it leads to the nest stage. So my attempt at a non-ruinous potted version is Shinichiro ends up taking in Yuji after Mamoru’s death which, after a bumpy start, sets him on a path to his future.

Being an arthouse film and Kurosawa a director who doesn’t spoon feed his audience, much of this is expressed through allusion and symbolism, hence the jellyfish. Arguably one of the more esoteric ways to send a positive message to the aimless youth of Japan it could work as whimsical, if only Kurosawa wasn’t so abstruse with his presentation.

Similarly, Yuji is used to highlight the very problem Kurosawa is addressing, briefly aligning with a gang of unruly teens all sporting Che Guevara T-shirts. They occupy the denouement of the film where one is expected to read between the lines as to why this is relevant, otherwise this will just appear like a wilfully pretentious way to bring this tale to a close.

Even though Kurosawa had a number of hits under his belt by this point, including Pulse and Cure, the production values are incredibly raw and low-fi, as if the entire budget was spent on the jellyfish. The use of different cameras is noticeable between shots within the same scene, whilst dark or nighttime footage is painfully grainy. This lack of gloss often adds to the mood, but mostly emits an amateurish vibe for a professionally made project.

Ashamedly, I used to get Joe Odagiri and Tadanobu Asano mixed up when in different films, but seeing them together on the same screen has made me realise how daft I was. Ironically, this pairing creates a palpable senpai/kohai-like relationship despite the unexplained distance between them in communicating, which spills over to the other double act of Odagiri and veteran Tatsuya Fuji.

Many will be baffled by this film; others will enjoy analysing every scene, searching for meaning in the slightest detail. My take is probably simplistic and assuredly wrong but here goes: Mamoru didn’t want Yuji to be aimless like him. He also regretted not being a good son, so he saved Yuji from rotting in jail then, when the time was right, took his own life so his father could have the son he always wanted in Yuji, leading to Yuji finding the direction he needed.

Or maybe not. I can’t say I fully understand Bright Future nor can I rate it as one of Kurosawa’s better films. It has something, but could have been a bit more enigmatic if only the director was a little more accommodating to the audience.