Monday, October 12, 2015

Review of "Watashi no Otoko 私の男" (My Man)

I would never have expected this film to make it to Singapore if not for the Japanese Film Festival. No doubt this movie might have been based on the Naoki Award-winning novel by Sakuraba Kazuki, featured Asano Tadanobu and Nikaido Fumi delivering compelling performances and won various awards in domestic and international film festivals, the content of the film and the incest theme would have subjected it to potential cuts by the censors even with a R21 rating. Luckily, it seemed like the film managed to be screened intact without any scenes being left in the censors' office.

This movie was screened as the mystery film for this year's Singapore Japanese Film Festival but got another screening towards the end of the festival. I'm not sure how the turnout for the mystery film session was as I attended the latter session. From what I observed, the attendance rate was about 70%.

Again, if you haven't watched this movie and would like to avoid knowing the spoilers, I suggest that you may wish to skip this review.

The movie takes a rather different direction as compared to the novel which starts in June 2008 on the eve of Kusarino Hana's wedding and goes back gradually in time to depict the story between her and her foster father Jungo. On the other hand, the film starts off with the first meeting of Hana and Jungo at the shelter after she survives the earthquake and tsunami that hit Hokkaido. There are also key differences between both versions as highlighted on Wikipedia such as Hana's age at the time of the disaster (10 in the movie vs. 9 in the novel), the sexual abuse on Hana by Jungo which was not obvious from the film, the change in Hana's marriage partner, the evidence pointing to Hana's involvement in a murder and the ending of the stories. However, as I have not read the novel, my views on this movie will be solely based on the adaptation so there will be no comparison with the original material.

The story begins with 10-year-old Hana trying to escape the earthquake and tsunami that strikes Okushiri Island in Hokkaido and ends up all alone in the temporary shelter as her family had perished. In the middle of the night, a man named Kusarino Jungo (Asano Tadanobu) comes searching for Hana at the shelter and decides to adopt her as his foster daughter. Jungo had stayed with Hana's parents for a period of time when he was much younger and got into much trouble thus he decides to take care of Hana in a bid to repay the favour. However, Oshio (Fujii Tatsuya), a respected elder who lives in the same neighbourhood as Jungo, doesn't think he is capable of being a father because Jungo has no idea what it means to form a family since his parents died a long time ago and he has been alone all this while. Nonetheless, Hana still leaves with Jungo despite meeting him for the first time.

6 years later, Hana (Nikaido Fumi) and Jungo are living in Monbetsu, Hokkaido, where Hana is already a senior high school student while Jungo has to be away from home occasionally as he works in the Self Defense Forces. To everyone around them, Hana and Jungo are no different from other fathers and daughters despite the fact that they are not related by blood. However, to Jungo's girlfriend Oshio Komachi (Kawai Aoba), she can't help that her relationship with Jungo is merely sexual and that his heart is somewhere else. In addition, she has this nagging feel that things between him and Hana are not that simple especially since Hana seems strangely confident that Jungo is not serious about his relationship with Komachi and that she also gives off the vibe that she sees Komachi as a rival for Jungo's attention. Jungo himself doesn't seem to see a need to address Komachi's nagging concerns though. When Komachi sees Jungo and Hana behaving intimately unlike what a father and daughter would do, this sets off warning signals in her mind.

Meanwhile, Oshio who is a respected senior in the local area, continues to shower love and concern for Jungo and Hana and looks upon them as his son and granddaughter. However, he happens to see Jungo and Hana having sex in their apartment and Hana also catches a glimpse of Oshio through the window but decides against telling Jungo about it. While fearing that Oshio will expose them, Hana decides to distance herself from Oshio in a bid to avoid dealing with this problem. At the same time, Oshio does some checking and discovers that Jungo and Hana are actually related by blood. Oshio guesses that Jungo is well aware of this fact when he adopted Hana and assumes that she isn't and is being sexually exploited by Jungo.

In a bid to stop the incest between father and daughter from continuing, Oshio tries to hint to Hana that she is doing the wrong thing by sleeping with Jungo but is aghast to find out that she already knows that Jungo is her birth father and she is a willing party. No matter how Oshio tries to persuade Hana to give up on Jungo, she is adamant about their love for each other and how they need each other so much to get over the loneliness of being left behind by their respective families. While getting too caught up in their confrontation, Oshio finds himself stranded on a block of drifting ice and calls out to Hana for help. However, she turns her back on him as she realises that a dead man would never expose her and Jungo thus causing Oshio to drift towards the sea and freeze to death. During the funeral of Oshio, Hana behaves as if nothing has happened. Soon after, Hana and Jungo move to Tokyo quickly where he becomes a taxi driver while she continues with her studies.

In a strange twist of fate, Taoka (Moro Morooka), a police officer who lives in the same Monbetsu neighbourhood with Jungo and Hana, comes looking for them in Tokyo. Jungo is surprised by the visit and wonders why Taoka came all the way when the latter brings out the proof of Hana's involvement in Oshio's murder. In order to protect Hana and stop Taoka from exposing her deed, Jungo kills Taoka.

As time goes by, Jungo seems heavily weighed down by the fact that he killed someone and sinks into the trap of alcoholism. On the other hand, Hana graduates from college and becomes a receptionist at a company where she later meets Ozaki Yoshiro (Koura Kengo) during a double date. However, when Ozaki sends a drunk Hana home one night, he bumps into Jungo who truly gives him a shock by behaving in an eccentric manner.

Towards the end of the film, Jungo heads into a high-class restaurant in Ginza dressed in a dirty suit and sandals to meet Hana and her fiance (Miura Takahiro) there. Despite trying to maintain a clear head during the conversation with the fiance, Jungo is distracted by Hana's foot moving up and down his leg as she gazes at him intently in a seductive manner. Unbelievably, the movie ends at this juncture. I remember that the audience including myself were stunned at the sudden ending and that there was no proper conclusion to the story or so it seems.

First of all, with regard to the story, we have to look at it separately as it is divided into three arcs i.e. the first in Okushiri Island which marks Hana's first meeting with Jungo, the second in Monbetsu which forms the bulk of the story and the last in Tokyo. In my opinion, I thought that the Monbetsu arc was simply the best and it's not because there were many gripping happenings during that period. It's the whole delivery of the story between Hana and Jungo and the beautiful scenery there which left such a deep impression on me. The first arc was understandably shorter but had its significance because it described the beginning of things between Hana and Jungo. The Tokyo arc was when the film started to go downhill especially after Taoka's murder. I thought the scenes between Jungo and Ozaki were totally senseless and rather unrealistic. More on that later. As for the ending, it left me baffled and I wondered what the director was trying to convey with that.

With regard to why Hana was willing to follow Jungo, I attribute that to the father-and-daughter blood relation between them. Hana might not have known at that point that Jungo was her birth father but perhaps it was her gut feel that she would be safe and happy with this man that she went ahead with him. Otherwise, for a child to believe in a stranger like that was simply unthinkable. On the other hand, Jungo's decision to adopt Hana should be due to the fact that he knew about her identity as his real daughter. That was why Oshio didn't believe that Jungo was capable of giving Hana a happy family to grow up in because Jungo himself hardly knew what a family was like. Of course, Oshio didn't know that Hana was Jungo's daughter or else things would have made more sense to him. As the movie did not go into details, it suggested that Jungo might have had an affair with Hana's mother thus leading to Hana's birth. Apparently, the novel seemed to have added another detail about Hana feeling alienated in her own family probably due to her birth secret but this was not specifically mentioned in the film.

In the Monbetsu arc, there are two main highlights i.e. the intimate scene between Hana and Jungo which was witnessed by Oshio by chance and the murder of Oshio or rather "leaving-him-to-die-on-the-drift-ice". The intimate scene was actually rather long compared to what you would usually see in other movies and I think that was a deliberate attempt by the director to show the raw passion and lust between Hana and Jungo even though a father and daughter shouldn't be behaving like this. What makes it more scandalous is that they both knew the true nature of their relationship even though I'm not sure that Jungo knows about Hana being aware of the truth at this point.

In any case, that scene started off pretty mildly with kissing and fondling but as the action heated up, the director chose to use the tactic of blood dripping from the ceiling as if it was a blood rain enveloping Hana and Jungo as they had sex. I took it to be a metaphor about the blood relations between them and as the two characters were drenched in the gory blood, it seemed to suggest the "dirtiness" of the relationship especially since it had stained Hana's white school uniform i.e. a violation of her innocence. When Hana spotted Oshio looking at them through the window because the curtains were not fully drawn, that's why the audience realised that the so-called blood rain did not actually happen and was a technique to present the director's take on the nature of the sexual relationship between Hana and Jungo. The absence of any mention of sexual abuse in the film seems to suggest that Hana was never forced into doing this. She saw it as a means to help Jungo overcome his loneliness and it probably worked the same way for her too.

The other highlight was the confrontation between Oshio and Hana on the drift ice. The scale and beauty of the background scenery accentuated the intensity of the scene as the two characters exchanged words on their different takes of the relationship of Jungo and Hana. Oshio wanted to bring Hana back to the "right path" but was surprised to know that she wasn't a victim as he thought. On the other hand, Hana saw Oshio as an enemy who tried to break the bond between her and Jungo and threatened the existence of their relationship. That was why Hana was willing to go to the extent of eliminating Oshio from their lives so that everything could remain the same. However, things were never going to be the same as seen from the fact that they left Monbetsu to go to Tokyo. It wasn't specifically explained why or who initiated the move but I assumed that Jungo and Hana might have made the decision after he became aware of what she did. Likewise, it wasn't entirely possible that Hana could have kept a straight face in front of everyone all the time especially since she was friends with Oshio's grandson.

In the case of the Tokyo arc, Jungo's action to kill Taoka was understandable especially since he knew that Hana killed Oshio for their sake and he needed to kill Taoka for the same reason. However, it appeared that Jungo was not as strong psychologically because Hana seemed to be able to lead a normal life in Tokyo while he wallowed in this deep despair as if he could see no future for himself. That was when the relationship dynamics seemed to have changed. Previously, it might have appeared as if Jungo was calling the shots because he was the one who adopted Hana and as the adult and a man, probably seemed to have more commanding powers in the relationship. However, by the time Hana becomes a working adult, the tables seemed to be overturned because Jungo looked like he was clinging onto Hana for survival. In the ending especially, Hana was making this point clear to Jungo by making him come to this high-class restaurant to meet her fiance and yet still seducing Jungo under the table. At least to me, it felt like she was sending this message to Jungo that she will  never be his after she gets married and yet there is no running away from her for Jungo because his existence would have been nullified if he couldn't stick to Hana. That seems to resonate with the title of "My Man" because Jungo ultimately will become Hana's man and not the other way round.

One particular scene which I thought was extremely senseless was the meeting between Ozaki and Jungo. I don't know if this scene did appear in the novel but can you imagine Ozaki doing pretty much everything that Jungo ordered him to do including stripping? They were perfect strangers up to the point they met and surely you wouldn't expect a daughter's boyfriend or potential suitor being ordered to take off his clothes by the father-in-law and him actually obeying the order? That was why I couldn't comprehend the logic of having Ozaki do that in front of Jungo and it is no wonder that he literally escaped when he couldn't stand Jungo anymore. I also wonder if the fiance role taken up by Miura Takahiro was a result of this development because it did seem from the novel that the fiance should be Ozaki instead. In any case, I thought it was a waste for Koura Kengo to come in and do a few scenes especially this very weird one. Likewise for Miura, the fiance role in the movie seemed to be of little importance.

Talking about the acting, Nikaido Fumi really impressed me this time. Not that I wasn't impressed in the past but this particular film really showed how good she could be. From a seemingly naive and innocent teenager to a manipulative woman by the end, the changes in Hana were handled so well by Nikaido and she seemed so fully immersed in the role. The two scenes which I highlighted in the Monbetsu arc above were solid proof of her versality. While dressed in a school uniform, she had to show the innocence of a teenager and the maturity of a woman in that intimate scene with Asano Tadanobu which was really intriguing to watch. Not many actresses of her age group can do something like this. I especially liked her interaction with Fujii Tatsuya and how her desperation to convince him to leave her alone and not try to correct a "wrong" when she saw nothing wrong was really sad to watch. Nikaido really showed how powerful her acting could be and matched up to more experienced veterans like Asano and Fujii with ease.

As for Asano, he did well as Jungo especially in the Tokyo arc where he showed the downward spiral in Jungo's life after killing Taoka. However, what the audience knows about Jungo is pretty fragmented e.g. his past, his motive for adopting Hana and what triggered the change in their relationship so I personally feel that Hana's development was more compelling to watch and displayed in a more complete and comprehensive manner while Jungo felt more distant from me and I hardly feel that I know him towards the end as to why he still pines for Hana despite knowing that she will never be his.

And my ratings for this movie...

Story: 8.5 out of 10 (Save for the scene between Jungo and Ozaki which didn't make sense and the abrupt ending, the story was pretty engaging especially in the Monbetsu arc. )

Acting: 9 out of 10 (Excellent acting from Nikaido and Asano. The supporting characters such as Koura were rather under-utilised which I thought was a pity.)

Theme song/BGM: 6 out of 10 (Music used was largely in sync with the feel of the scenes but there was nothing in particular which left a deep impression)

Visual effects / Scenery: 9 out 10 (The marks are for the Monbetsu arc for the breathtaking winter/snowy scenes especially at the drift ice area. The Tokyo arc was dirty and messy which seemed to reflect the state of Jungo's life so visually, it wasn't that nice to look at.)

Teamwork / Chemistry: 8 out of 10 (Asano and Nikaido really did well together although I personally felt that Nikaido was slightly more outstanding on virtue of her character development. Asano's character was rather weak from the Tokyo arc so the chemistry between the characters sort of waned by then. )

Total: 40.5 out of 50


Edge said...

I disagree that there is a control shift in the ending scene. I believe she was telling Jungo that in essence nothing has changed. In much the same way he had to, at one point, appear 'normal' with a girlfriend (Komachi), the roles have now reversed. She has now managed to normalize herself to society, but still loves (passionately I might had) Jungo. I see no other reason to want to reconnect with someone with whom she had such an intense and intensely unconventional history with and flirt seductively with if not to re-establish that relationship

Difficult to watch but ultimately thought provoking and acted beautifully

HoneyDew said...

I was nodding at every sentence that you have written.. Agree to your views 100%.. After watching this,I am closely following Nikaido Fumi's work.. She is different from many actresses of her age who put on a cutesy act..

Tadanobu Asano was good too... I have watched some more of his work and he is good in them too...

I too agree that the story didn't end well.. There were lot of unanswered questions in my mind.. Probably the director wanted that... I was frustrated by the end since the questions remained unanswered and made me think a lot...

Anonymous said...

I think the marriage of Hana will end in a quick divorce because her husband will soon find out how messed up she is and she will come back to Jungo for comfort. Jungo and Hana will stay together llike husband and wife until jungo suffers from a heart attack from overexertion. the end.