REVIEW: The Most Beautiful Night in the World - Daisuke Tengan (2008)
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
The name Daisuke Tengan isn’t as well known as say Takashi Miike or Shohei Imamura, but in terms of his contribution to contemporary Japanese cinema he stands shoulder to shoulder with these giants. If you’ve squirmed through the last quarter of Miike’s infamous “Audition” or if you’ve gone along with Shohei Imamura to explore the more eccentric side of Japanese society in his later films “The Eel” and “Warm Water under a Red Bridge ” then you’ve encountered Daisuke Tengan. He penned the scripts for all these films, in fact Shohei Imamura is his father so the last three films by the cinematic master (Dr. Akagi being the third) were real family affairs; and like the elder Imamura who paved the way for the excavation of the Japanese id with films like “The Insect Woman” and “The Pornographers” Tengan continues his father’s work in his latest film “The Most Beautiful Night in the World” (2008) by showing us that it isn’t the grand abstractions of linear time, technological progress, and history that defines us as human beings, but basic holdovers from our animal past like hunger, anger and most importantly sex.
Things start off with preparations in an unassuming coastal town for a visit by the Prime Minister, but the question is why? We learn quickly that the town has the highest birth rate, and in a nation like Japan that has the lowest birth rate in the developed world this is big news. Strangely enough the townsfolk don’t discuss the reason behind all the little ones, but a 14 year-old girl breaks the taboo and it’s through her narration that we learn about the series of events that led to the town’s thriving population.
Flashback to 14 years prior and reporter Ippachi (Tomorowo Taguchi) arrives in town to join the staff of a local newspaper, but discovers that besides the corrupt mayor negotiating to have a nuclear waste dump built nearby nothing ever really happens. “A journalist graveyard,” one of the other reporters tells him, but going with his journalistic instincts Ippachi starts digging up the dirt on some local characters and his view of this backwater begins to change. Through the doddering school principal, an amateur archaeologist (and pedophile) he explores the local stone circle built by the first inhabitants of Japan , the Jōmon. From the local priest he’s told about the two most dangerous people in town: Nihei (Ryo Ishibashi), a reclusive ex-student radical who lives in a boat on the river and Teruko (former Takarazuka actress Sarara Tsukifune), the proprietress of the local bar who, rumour has it, may have murdered both her husbands. The more investigating he does the more complex, and strange, the story of the townsfolk becomes. It turns out that Teruko is psychic and we’re treated to surreal scenes of her counseling the locals in her bar. We also learn that Nihei has left his radical past behind him (kind of) and has no plans to lob any grenades any time soon, but he has discovered an ancient Jōmon aphrodisiac that he believes will stop war and revolutionize society, an aphrodisiac that will lead to the films climactic (excuse the pun) 50 person orgy.
In a lot of ways “The Most Beautiful Night in the World” feels like a summing up of the ideas and themes that Tengan has visited in his previous screenplays: a man trying to hide his past (in this case Ippachi) assumes a new identity in a small town only to discover it populated by eccentrics as in his father’s 1997 film “The Eel”, a women possessed of strange powers and odd physical symptoms, the power play between the sexes and both the personal and societal power of sex. Everything is represented here and while I sat through the lengthy 2 ½ hour running time I sometimes felt like I was watching “Northern Exposure” by way of Haruki Murakami… which is a very good thing, at least for me. I love strange, but things get extremely strange as the film progresses and I really hope that that strangeness and the full frontal nudity featured in “Beautiful Night” doesn’t hinder it being seen and appreciated as an epic of the psycho-sexual skeleton of Japanese society both at home and abroad.