Wednesday, June 30, 2010

NYAFF ’10 & Japan Cuts ‘10: Golden Slumber

Nostalgia—it’s a killer. Poor, hapless Aoyagi learns that the hard way. One minute he is listening to Beatles covers with an old college friend and before he knows it, he is the fall guy framed for the assassination of Japan’s Prime Minister. Freely remixing the familiar Oswald mythos for today’s celebrity culture, Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Golden Slumber (trailer here), screens in New York this week, as a joint presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film.

Aoyagi is one of the few average Joe deliverymen with his own fans. Several years ago he had twenty minutes of fame after coming to the rescue of a Japanese Pop Idol. Not particularly bright, that modicum of notoriety makes him a perversely fitting patsy for the evil scheme afoot. Thanks to his old (and now late) college chum, the noose has been fitted fairly well around Aoyagi’s neck, but he proves to be an unexpectedly elusive fugitive.

With its ever widening conspiracy and the frequent flashbacks to Aoyagi’s college years, Slumber is not unlike a more grounded version of 20th Century Boys for boomers. Similarly, there are some clever plot points that show how events from the past can influence the present. Still, it is a bit problematic that one of Aoyagi’s few allies is an apparent serial killer—and not of the Dexter variety either.

Reflecting the postmodern information age, nobody really seems to believe Aoyagi is guilty, despite the mountain of doctored evidence the authorities release to the public. Indeed, he is frequently compared to Oswald by name throughout the film. However, the compliancy of the news media in key moments frankly does not seem credible, given the current zeitgeist informing the film.

While we are mercifully spared most of the details of the meta-conspiracy itself, what we get is also predictably out of an Oliver Stone bag, with the anti-American firebrand eliminated in favor of an old political deal-maker (a tired cliché even in Japanese cinema.) Fortunately, the fugitive-on-the-run material works very well, celebrating the humanity of small acts of mercy Aoyagi experiences along the way. In fact, beneath the paranoia, there is a real heart to Slumber.

Earnestly likable, Masato Sakai heads a strong cast, bringing surprising depth to the film as Aoyagi. Yuko Takeuchi (seen on ABC’s Flashforward before the network sabotaged the show with annoying scheduling games) is an intelligent and charming presence as his old flame, Haruko. Akira Emoto seems born to play grouchy old men (as in All About Us), but again, he is also quite watchable as a prickly hospital patient who aids and abets Aoyagi.

There are a few head-scratching scenes in Slumber, but there are some genuinely endearing moments as well. One of the more sentimental conspiracy thrillers you are ever likely to see, it screens at the Japan Society on Friday (7/2) and Tuesday (7/6).