異人たちとの夏 (Ijintachi tono natsu)
Running time: 115 min.
Reviewed by Bob Turnbull
"They say you can't bring back what's passed. But that's not true because it's your past. You can take back whatever you like."
Hidemi Harada is at what you might call a low point in his life. He's divorced, living in an office building and stuck in a rut at work. He's a script writer for TV dramas and though he no longer has a passion for it, he's surprised one night when a co-worker tells him that he'll be quitting Harada's projects. It's nothing to do with the work though - turns out his friend just wants to date his ex-wife. Considering Harada's current state of mind (he's having trouble accepting what's happened in his life) and the stasis he's in, it's not the best news he could have received. Theoretically it should be good news or, at least, the push to put one chapter of his life behind him and move on. Particularly since later that night a lovely young woman named Kei (the only other tenant of the building during the night hours) shows up at his door. Obviously lonely and half-drunk, she tries to get him to invite her in. He rudely sends her away, though, and her last words to him are that she had imagined that he was a nice person...
The title of Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1988 film pretty much gives away that it's a ghost story, but the term (meaning to have no physical body or form) could just as easily apply to Harada himself. He's a shell of a human being when we meet him - he's going through the motions, barely showing respect to others and simply unable to move forward. After an unsettling experience checking out a location for a TV show, he winds up walking through his old neighbourhood in Asakusa and encounters a man who looks like a younger version of his father. After being invited back to his home, Harada meets the man's wife who just happens to look an awful lot like his mother. Since Harada lost both his parents in a tragic accident when he was 12, he's not quite sure what's going on, but he doesn't care - he's happier than he's been in quite some time to suddenly have a relationship with these two people. They treat him kindly, they offer advice, they teach him new things and essentially treat him like their son.
He uses this as a springboard to begin a relationship with Kei and it moves forward quickly. Kei has her own secrets that she insists Harada not ask her about, but life seems to be turning around for Harada. Except that his co-workers and other people he meets outside these two relationships are becomeing increasingly worried about his health - he's pale, haggard looking and even his teeth are beginning to rot. Obayashi sets up this disconnect as a horror film, though not in any typical genre way. The film is not without a few disturbing elements, but it's Harada's emotional state that's the most frightening - torn up by regret and loss it's hard not to put yourself through what he must have been feeling for all those years. This goes for Kei's lonelieness and almost desperate last chance efforts with Harada as well as Harada's youthful looking parents trying to deal with being deprived of their only child's entire life from 12 to 40. There's few pyrotechnics in the film (if you expect the kitchen sink aesthetics of "House", you're hopes will be dashed) simply because they aren't required. The thought of going through what these people have gone through is horrific enough.
What Obayashi does bring to the film (aside from really fine performances from all four leads - both female performances are subtle and very effective) is a sense of illusion to the proceedings. You can never quite be sure if what Harada is experiencing is really what is happening in reality. His apartment, the streets outside his parents home and the hallways of his building all feel very much like sets. To reinforce this feeling, certain scenes end by having the colours all fade away (except for blue) and then the image collapsing into the middle of the screen - essentially like someone just turned a TV set off. It's all in service of putting you in the middle of Harada's personal journey. Based on Taichi Yamada's novel (entitled "Strangers"), the film charts one man's progress towards accepting his past, putting it behind him and continuing forward with his life.
Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.