Melancholic (Cert 15)
2 Discs DVD/Blu-ray Combo (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 114 minutes approx.
“It’s dangerous to know something you are not supposed to know.”
Unfortunately, when we are told to mind our own business our curiosity overwhelms our better instincts to oblige, yielding consequences that fall between ruining a surprise or ending up in deep trouble.
Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa) is a graduate from Tokyo University yet despite the odd part time job, remains unemployed and living at home with his parents, aimlessly drifting through life. After meeting a former high school classmate Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida) at a public bathhouse, she encourages Kazuhiko to apply for a job there which he does and gets the post as cleaner.
But after watching colleague Akira Matsumoto (Yoshitomo Isozaki) engage in quiet talks with their boss Azuma (Makoto Hada), Kazuhiko stays behind one night to see what the secret is. To his shock, he learns the baths are used by local Yakuza Tanaka (Masanobu Yata) as a place for hitman Kodera (Yasuyuki Hamaya) to kill Tanaka’s enemies. Instead of being punished, Kazuhiko is let in on the gig to clean up after Kodera.
Seiji Tanaka’s debut Melancholic is about as ordinary as a film can get whilst boasting an interesting premise that looks at what happens when the ordinary and the extraordinary collide. But just when you think everything is plain and steeped in mundanity, the sly twists creep into view, and all bets are hereafter off in what we should expect from the rest of the film.
Which is one of the core themes of this film – defying expectations. Nobody in the cast is what they seem, yet not through deliberate deception, the right questions aren’t asked because nobody has a need to ask them. Look deeper behind the amiable facades of these people and the one question that should be asked is “Are you happy?” and to paraphrase Fleetwood Mac, they might not give the answer you want them to.
For Kazuhiko, the recurring query he faces is why a Tokyo University graduate is working in a bathhouse, which he defends with a coy “Why not?”. At a school reunion, where he meets Yuri again, Kazuhiko sits in the shadows whilst another ex-classmate brags about his successful post-graduate life. Keen to impress Yuri, Kazuhiko spins a few yarns about working for big companies before settling in at the bathhouse, which she falls for since it is not unheard of for high flyers ending up in less than auspicious employment.
Having a job and a girlfriend marks the start of the exponential turnaround in Kazuhiko’s life, and he even gets on with floppy-fringed, blonde haired co-worker Matsumoto too. However, it is fair to say the added responsibility of his after-hours bonus work brings about the biggest shift in Kazuhiko’s otherwise dreary existence and then some, one which he is ill prepared for.
One of the many revelations that define the tacit mystique of this film is that despite his apparent ease with the killing in his bath house, Azuma is in fact only accommodates Tanaka because he is in debt to him. Also, Kodera is Azuma’s employee, a former hitman looking to quit and work a normal job, but he too is indebted to Tanaka, who tries to hire him full time.
There are more surprises but you’ll have to watch the film yourself to find out what they are. Whilst they may not be earth shattering in the grand scheme of things, they work so well in this context due to the easy going, almost placid tone and languid pacing that creates a sense of natural cosiness. This makes the characters a lot more believable in their interactions, and in how the audience receives them.
As such, the few bursts of violence, which are mild in comparison to most Yakuza flicks, aren’t necessarily shocking or jarring when juxtaposed with the awkwardness of Yuri and Kazuhiko navigating their way into a relationship. The shift in tone and content is subtle and smooth, yet the flow of the narrative and the gentle atmosphere is never once disturbed because is plays out like the peaks and troughs of an average day.
Relating a story with murder at its heart and avoiding the usual excesses associated with it is not easy, but Tanaka is presenting a character study about finding one’s place in life and not a straightforward Yakuza tale. There are many layers to this, such as Kazuhiko is trying to get to the heart of why the victims should die, to which Matsumoto and Azuma have no answer other than to get on with the job.
Conversely, there is the age-old generation divide of the youth looking to move things forward and the elders happy with the status quo, largely for being more convenient for them to remain in such stasis. Ironically, this clash of philosophy is a staple plot for many Yakuza films, with the hungry young lion looking to depose the stuffy old boss, and without giving anything away, dictates the climax of this story.
Debuting directors rarely find their feet in their first film but Tanaka shows hints of being a unique voice here, creating a fascinating world in which the presentation is unhurried and unassuming, yet engrossing and plausible, disguising a mordant intent of the script to question many existential concerns in a relatable if askew way.
Like Tanaka, Yoji Minagawa is also a first timer but it doesn’t show. He essays Kazuhiko’s growth in measured manner, picking up on the nuances required to make the audience feel for him every step of the way. Mebuki Yoshida is the least-likely looking love interest but that is a compliment, her genuine warmth and personality making Yuri so cuddly. As Matsumoto, Yoshitomo Isozaki provides the charisma Kazuhiko lacks whilst bringing hidden depths to the role.
Melancholic couldn’t work in any other country than Japan as a premise, yet its message and themes are universal and very relatable, something we should all be happy with. An impressive, understated debut indeed.
Melancholic Short Film
Behind The Scenes
Q&A With Director and Cast
Rating – ****
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