Japan (2019) Dir. SABU
Ghosts ruin everything. They ruin people’s lives by haunting them, keeping them away from buildings, being generally disruptive, and can bring misery to those who possess the uncanny ability to be able to see and make contact with them. But, that is he burden one has to bear in life since we’re all here for a purpose.
Civil servant Kenji Fujimoto (Naoto Kataoka) thinks he has got away with doing little in his job at city hall until he is given the task of overseeing the demolition of an on old dance hall. The hold up? A ghost is scaring away workers and even psychics who try to enter the building. Kenji needs to find a solution and as luck would have it, he learns of a high school girl Yukiko (Aina Yamada) who can interact with spirits.
After saving her from a suicide attempt, Kenji takes Yukiko to the building to meet the ghost, formerly a dancer named Mary (Nozomi Bando). She is waiting for her boyfriend Johnny to come back to her and won’t leave until he does. Unbeknownst to Kenji and Yukiko as they go in search of Johnny, Kenji’s boss (Taro Suwa) has called upon the Yakuza to demolish the building.
Dancing Mary is not a horror film despite the premise and how some have chosen to classify this. It is, however, an unusual yet inexplicably successful blend of disparate genres – supernatural concepts interweave with romantic drama, light comedy, violence, road trip, and a bit of a life lesson thrown in for good measure to bring it all together. It is one of those cases where, on paper, it sounds like a surfeit of ideas will lead to a film overstretching itself, but the Japanese have this enviable knack of confounding such expectations with their cinema.
SABU (or Hiroyuki Tanakato his friends and family) has always marched to his own beat and this film is no different, evident from the very first frame, which does little to let the audience know what is in store. For the next 105 minutes, nothing feels for certain even with the straight narrative, ironic given the film’s central message is about finding a purpose in life, something to gives us not just direction but a sense of certainty.
Resembling your average Sadako clone, Mary has held off enough people over the years to propagate the urban myth about the building being cursed. Like a Japanese Carrie, Yukiko – also resembling Sadako – is bullied for her ability to see ghosts, driving her to unleash a peculiar sonic disturbance to repel them. Following Yukiko’s suicide attempt, she shares a hospital room with two older women dying from cancer. They mock Kenji for being so listless and urge him into finding something worthwhile to do
Yukiko is inspired by this to accept Kenji’s request for help though remains feeling like an oddity with her odd gift, whilst Kenji sees everything as an inconvenient chore with no empathy for anyone, living or dead. So, of course, this is going to be a life changing journey for both of them but certainly not a predictable one – when was the last time you had to fly to Taiwan with the ghost of an old school Yakuza?
To facilitate Kenji’s growth as a human being he needs to understand what he is up against, and the plot device for this is him holding hands with Yukiko which takes him into the spirit world she can see. Apart from the wry little smile we afford ourselves at seeing this schoolgirl and suited desk jockey hand in hand, SABU adds a distinct visual flavour to the experience by presenting these scenes in monochrome to distinguish these parallel existing worlds.
It proves to be just as poignant a gimmick as it is enigmatic yet doesn’t feel pretentious or arty, flitting between colour and black and white, and only merging when the spirits they meet have fulfilled their duty. This includes aforementioned Yakuza (Ryo Ishibashi), whose body still has the daggers and blades that killed him in it (yet Yukiko still asks him how he died; “I was poisoned” he responds dryly) and Johnny (Kaito Yoshimura), Mary’s obnoxious punk rocker boyfriend.
Johnny and Mary seem like an odd pairing but the flashback revealing their story is full of surprises about both, and whilst it is hard to rate this as the most tragic tale shown, it is unquestionably the most heart wrenching. If you never expected SABU to be capable of sentimentality and crowd pleasing saccharine, this will be as much of a wakeup call for you as the one Kenji gets in the touching denouement.
Fulfilling one’s life potential is a common theme in cinema as the Japanese are very keen on encouraging this ethos in their daily lives, but instead of usual corporate or communal indoctrination, SABU has chosen a more whimsical, charming, and pointed way to impart this ideal. Yet, it doesn’t feel didactic in spite of its directness; the idea is allowed to seep into our consciousness through each of the vignettes put before us.
Naoto Kataoka heads a fine cast, charting Kenji’s exponential growth without betraying his core characteristics, abetted by Aina Yamada’s unlikely heroine of sorts as Yukiko, whose chemistry together is a key strength of the film. Even with this enjoyable anchor, the supporting characters are just as essential in giving them something to bounce off, and everyone brings something unique to their roles to make this work so wonderfully.
With everything neatly wrapped up in the end, Dancing Mary leave us wishing there was a little more of it for us to enjoy, perhaps a something about Kenji’s background or more scenes of Mary scaring off those intruding on her spectral squatting. Supernatural and uplifting don’t usually go hand in hand in cinema but credit to SABU, he has managed to achieve just that with this imaginative, thoughtful, and wholly accessible film.