Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) has gone out and bought himself a new rod and reel, some bait and a snazzy new vest after getting an invite for a fishing trip from his old college buddy Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka). Even if they don't catch any fish he envisions an afternoon of laughs and hashing old memories back and forth from their school days: the social club they created designed around grading fast food restaurants, their summer job working at a fireworks company with their old buddy Kazu (Hitori Gekidan) and Aoyagi's old girlfriend Haruko (Yuko Takeuchi), and their favorite Beatles album "Abbey Road". Aoyagi's afternoon doesn't go as planned though, not in the least. Instead of the great outdoors he ends up, with the little help of from a drugged water bottle, getting knocked out by Morita. Strange way to say "It's been way too long, old buddy!" but it was never part of Morita's plan to going fishing with Aoyagi. Actually this was never part of Morita's plan at all. Their day together was planned by someone else, someone who told Morita that if he brought his old friend to this exact spot, which just happened to be along a parade ropute, and drugged him until the Japanese Prime Minister's motorcade makes it's way past that Morita's gargantuan debts would be totally forgiven. You see, someone wants the Japanese Prime Minister dead and they want to pin the assassination on the unsuspecting Aoyagi. It's this dead simple and devious plot line that forms the basis of Yoshihiro Nakamura's edge-of-your-seat thriller "Golden Slumber".
If there's a director who can lay claim to the title of "The King of Journeymen Filmmakers", at least of the past ten years, it has to be Nakamura. With his career starting by penning such films as Hideo Nakata's "Dark Water" and Yoichi Sai's "Doing Time" (both mini masterpieces) the 40-year-old Nakamura has gone on to direct every kind of film you can imagine, from the J-Horror variation "The Booth", through the medical drama "The Glorious Team Batista", to the punk rock song that saves the world film "Fish Story". An auteur Nakamura is not. It's hard to find any pattern in his 12 movie filmography other than that three of them, including "Golden Slumber", are adaptations of the novels of Kotaro Isaka. Like his North American counterparts such as Stephen King and Michael Crichton the 39-year-old Isaka is hugely popular, but is far from being a literary genius. What his novels may lack in literary credibility they may make up for in tightly-crafted and hooky narratives, the kind of fiction that makes great screenplays. "Golden Slumber" is no different.
As one of the characters in "Golden Slumber" states at about 50-minutes into its 139-minute running time, "What a perfectly written scenario!" You see whoever has set the wheels of this assassination plot in motion has made sure that they've picked the perfect scapegoat to hang it off of. Two years previous to the series of events in the film Aoyagi, a run-of-the-mill delivery man for a large courier company, saved a pretty young pop idol (Shihori Kanjiya) from a burglar. It made him an instant hero, and a minor celebrity who will still on occasion be recognized by people in the street. So after the prime minister dies in a huge explosion during his parade and Aoyagi's photo is splashed across TV screens and newspaper headlines Aoyagi, this former everyman hero, finds it very hard to hide; in fact if it wasn't for the help of two totally deus ex machina characters, a mysterious serial killer (Gaku Hamada) and a hospitalized sewer worker (Akira Emoto) Aoyagi would be in the hands of the shadowy med in suits who may, or may not, be the ones who set him up as the 21st-century Lee Harvey Oswald.
Is an innocent everyman on the run, desperately trying to clear his name after being accused of a crime he didn't commit, an original story? Absolutely not. With such films as Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest", Andrew Davis' "The Fugitive", and Tony Scott's "Enemy of the State" that innocent everyman on the run forms his own genre of films. "Golden Slumber" doesn't add anything new to this genre, except maybe the fact that it was made in Japan, but Nakamura's film can stand proudly at the front of this pack by being an utterly engaging piece of entertainment. So many times Japanese movie studios have tried to replicate a Hollywood thriller or action style film and failed miserably, either because Japanese films don't enjoy the same astronomical budgets that their North American counterparts enjoy, or because the cookie cutter Syd Field/ Robert McKee three act structures that comprise the engines of these types of films are just not as common in Asia. "Golden Slumber" is the rare Japanese film that gets the heart-stopping chases and continually racheted tension Hollywood thrillers right. There are two main players in this success. Of course one is Nakamura who, as he works from a script by Kotaro Isaka himself, never lets Aoyagi's run from justice lag for too long. The other is lead actor Masato Sakai. Sakai pefectly embodies his everyman character, a normal working guy always ready to be of help, always with a friendly smile on his face; but it's the eyes, frightened, tearful and alone, behind Aoyagi's smile that really makes Sakai's performance sing. His action/ thriller hero doesn't have rippling muscles and a gun in his boot. Aoyagi is a skinny, awkward guy who is just looking for "a way back homeward" like in The Beatles song "Golden Slumber" from which the film takes its title. Of course the supporting roles in the film are 100% expert as well with standouts being Teruyuki Kagawa's menacing government agent and Shiro Ito's scene-stealing performance as Aoyagi's father.
As I write this review the excitement I felt while watching "Golden Slumber", the bond that I formed with Aoyagi, all comes back to me and I find myself wishing I could return to that world again. It's true that hardcore fans of Hollywood thrillers may find the Japanese tendency to not tie every plot point up neatly and the time they give to charcater development a little off-putting, but I think that the vast majority of moviegoers will end up loving "Golden Slumber" as much as I did... that is if a domestic DVD distributor has the foresight to bring it to our shores. Let's keep our fingers crossed.