Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Japan Cuts ’15: Asleep

There is nothing more tiring than depression. Nobody illustrates that better than Terako. She sleeps away most of her days, waiting to act cute and shallow when she meets her married lover. That is how he wants things to be. It is most definitely problematic, but it is hard to judge him or her too harshly in Shingo Wakagi’s Asleep (trailer here), which screens as a selection of this year’s Japan Cuts, the Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Terako has good reason to be depressed. Her best friend Shiori recently committed suicide and her lover will probably never be fully emotionally available to her. That is because she met Iwanaga after his irreversibly comatose wife’s accident. Clearly, he is still coming to terms with his wife’s state, but enough time has elapsed for him to seek companionship or whatever.

These are the sort of things Shiori always understood better than Terako. She was natural empathetic, yet it was she who took her own life. Ironically, her exotic line of work may have somehow taxed her psyche. Somewhat like the characters in Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, she would sleep beside wealthy men in a non-sexual manner, to console them when they woke in the night. That meant unlike Terako, she had to force herself to remain conscious throughout the long dark hours of the soul.

Banana Yoshimoto’s source novel and Wakagi & co-screenwriter Kai Suzumoto’s adaptation are not called Asleep for metaphorical reasons. It is a languorous film that shows its star, Sakura Ando, in many states of repose and partial undress. Frankly, there is probably a little too much of that. Granted, Wakagi is trying to instill a sense of inertia, but the first two acts definitely have a vibe of stifling uniformity. However, when Terako engages with Shiori in flashbacks and tentatively challenges Iwanaga, the film is quite compelling. In fact, Wakagi more-or-less pays off all our waiting with a terrific borderline magically real confrontation in the third act. You just have to get that far.

Ando’s performance is rather gutsy, considering how strictly she closes off her emotions. Nevertheless, she vividly conveys all sorts of issues undermining the young sort-of mistress. Arata Iura is just as restrained as Iwanaga. When you see him walking with Terako, he looks like he might shatter if he tipped over. However, the expressive Mitsuki Tanimura truly haunts viewers as the doomed Shiori.

Wakagi’s disciplined aesthetic approach is impressive, but its lethargy is contagious. There are just a handful of moments that carry the film, but they are honest and deep. Respectfully recommended for those who with a taste for intimately raw relationship dramas, Asleep screens this Thursday (7/16) at the Japan Society, as part of the 2015 Japan Cuts.