Japan is clearly no stranger to edgy, taboo-baring dramas. After all, it was only less than a year ago that the sent in Soko Nomi Nite Hikari Kagayaku as their representative for the Oscar competition. Feeling he would be able to one-up Mipo Oh's dark and grim drama, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri started work on adapting Sakuraba's novel Watashi no Otoko (My Man). The result is one of the more impressive dramas to come out of Japan in a long time.
Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Sora no Ana) is one of Japan's better kept secrets. Not all of his films are great, but along the way he has made some very worthwhile dramas and even his lesser films aim to add interesting angles and ideas to what is otherwise a rather strict and timid genre. The past few years Kumakiri has been struggling to match the quality of his earlier films, Watashi no Otoko puts him right back where he belongs.
Do not expect an easy watch. This isn't one of Japan's stilted, piano-driven dramas about love and loss. Instead it dives into an incestuous relationship between a young girl (Hana) and her legal guardian (Jungo). Hana was left orphaned by a big earthquake when Jungo found her wandering around a nearby shelter. Unable to keep a healthy relationship and start a family of his own, Jungo adopts Hana and vows to better his life.
But Watashi no Otoko isn't a simple incest warning. Instead it digs deep into the twisted relationship that blossoms between Hana and Jungo, in order to find out what truly binds them together. Hana isn't a mere victim in the relationship. While clearly scarred by the events in her childhood, she's come to accept Jungo as her lover and will stop at nothing to protect their relationship. Jungo on the other hand tries to ward of his guilt while attempting to accept the morally deplorable happiness he has finally found.
Visually Watashi no Otoko is a welcome step up from Kumakiri's previous films. Shot on three different formats (16mm, 35mm and digital - one for each time period the film covers) and taking optimal advantage of its cold and icy settings, Kumakiri paints a dark yet stunning picture of wintry Hokkaido. There are also a few truly stand-out scenes: the haunting intro, the blood rain and the scenes on the ice floes are all of stunning beauty. The visual prowess isn't constant, but there are more than enough moments that jump out and leave a lasting impression.
It's the brooding soundtrack that's the true driver of the film's grim atmosphere though. All the key scenes are accompanied by eerie ambient drones and/or loud noises, upsetting what is otherwise a starkly beautiful selection of more typical drama music. I'm always happy to see a director acknowledge the extra push a good soundtrack can give a film and Kumakiri clearly jumped at the opportunity.
For a drama of this magnitude you need a couple of good actors to support the heavy-handed dynamics. Jungo and Hana aren't the most pleasant characters and many of their actions are pretty much impossible to (fully) identify with for anyone with a sane, healthy mind. Listing Tadanabo Asano as Jungo was a safe bet, casting Fumi Nikaido as Hana on the other hand quite a gamble. Nikaido was great in Jigoku de Naze Warui but this was something different altogether. Hana is the kind of role that, when handled the wrong way, can pretty much destroy an entire career. Nikaido shines though, even trumping Asano on several occasions. The two form a stellar couple and manage to draw some unexpected but necessary empathy from the audience.
Watashi no Otoko has its fair share of uncomfortable scenes. I've become quite accustomed to sitting through some fucked up stuff, but Kumakiri still managed to make me twist in my chair on several occasions. It's not quite up there with Omori's Germanium no Yoru and it's not as nihilistic or barren compared to similar films, but Kumakiri doesn't shy away from anything. He is quite open and direct when it comes to the film's themes, which is sure to put some off the queasier people in the audience.
If you're up for slice of madness wrapped up in heavy-handed dramatics, Kumakiri created quite the masterpiece. With a superb soundtrack, two killer leads and some visual punch he delivers a film that has the power to linger. That is, if you can stomach what Kumakiri has to show. Watashi no Otoko is probably a film that only speaks to a selected audience, but if you think you're a part of that you simply cannot let this film slip by. Watashi no Otoko is a sublime punch to the gut that screams future classic.