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Director – Seiji Tanaka – 2018 – Japan – Cert. 15 – 114m



Director – Seiji Tanaka – 2016 – Japan – Cert. 15 – 15m


On Dual Format Blu-ray/DVD, rental on Apple TV and Amazon from Monday, September 7th

Quiet, unemployed Tokyo University graduate Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa, also the film’s producer) lives with his similarly introverted parents. When one night his mum prematurely empties the family hot tub, he pays his first visit to the local bathhouse where he runs into chirpy classmate Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida) who talks him into attending their upcoming high school reunion.

At that event, he’s a fish out of water while everyone else gathers around the nondescript student Tamura (Yuta Okubo) who has since made good as a businessman and investor. Then Yuri rescues Kazuhiko and the pair sit conversing deeply on the staircase ignored by everyone else. A series of dinner dates follows, romance blossoms and before you know it he’s staying overnight at her flat.

Encouraged by Yuri, Kazuhiko gets himself one of two attendants’ jobs at the bathhouse run by the genial Mr. Azuma (Makoto Hada). Kazuhiko never wanted to go to work for a top company like most graduates and the work suits his temperament. He is however less than happy to discover that at night, the emporium doubles as a site for yakuza-sponsored murders of other yakuza by professional killer Kodera (Yasuyuki Hamaya).

Having stumbled on this fact, and possessing the essential ability to keep his mouth shut about it, Kazuhiko finds himself doing well-paid, cash-in-hand night cleaning shifts disposing of the bodies in the on-premises incinerator and mopping up the blood before the legitimate day customers come in.

Kazuhiko gets on fine with bleach blonde haired co-attendant Matsumoto (Yoshitomo Isozaki, also the film’s stunt arranger) who is less educated and asks no questions. Matsumoto is however not what he seems and already knows about the bathhouse’s secondary, illicit role. Azuma soon puts Kazuhiko in charge of Matsumoto for the legitimate day shift and Matsumoto in charge of Kazuhiko for the illegitimate night shift. Matsumoto was always going to get the original job, but something in Azuma made him hire Kazuhiko too. The desire to run the bathhouse without any of the yakuza extras perhaps.

Without giving too much plot away, although Kazuhiko successfully keeps schtum, he is drawn deeper and deeper into that yakuza side of the business which threatens to impinge on his relationships with not only Yuri but also his parents. Kodera frequently appears inside the bathhouse premises while yakuza boss Tanaka (Masanobu Yada) is an occasional visitor.

The narrative is peppered throughout with the trappings of violent yakuza crime thrillers. In the opening scene, a drugs dealer accused by Tanaka of cutting the product to make it go further is taken to the bathhouse and killed by Kodera’s vicious knife to the throat. An impressive fight scene midway though the movie has Kodera and, unexpectedly, Matsumoto single handedly-fight, shoot and kill their way through an assortment of yakuza minions on a stairwell in order to assassinate a rival boss. A further gangland boss assassination scene is thrown in towards the end.

The rest of the proceedings, however, are very different, comprising slice of life drama, low key romance and black comedy.

You might think this would be a dark and depressing film. Certainly its gangland elements are dark. However its main character is a young man trying to find his way in the world eschewing the graduate rat race and looking for something more traditional, which is the appeal to him of working in a community-oriented place like a bathhouse.

The quiet scenes of Kazuhiko ‘s life with his parents suggest a couple devoted to one another and a son with whom they get on very well. They may not say all that much verbally but are deeply content with the familial state of things. Kazuhiko’s relationship with Yuri, who one suspects fancied him at school and then lost touch after, is genuinely sweet and touching, indeed is a healthy and positive picture of what relationships can be like.

All of this ordinary, everyday Japanese living subject matter plays out in tension with the gangster genre elements. The film is a three-hander in the sense that it grew out of discussions between actors Minagawa and Isozaki and director Tanaka before the latter wrote his script.

Indeed, before this feature there was a 15 minute short Melancholic, happily also included on the Blu-ray, exploring the two characters and their relationship.

Film history is peppered with great shorts expanded into feature films that feel like the short has been stretched too thin over a longer running length. While the 15 minute Melancholic is an excellent short, the feature takes the basic characters and set-up then introduces other elements to make a highly satisfying movie that never for one moment feels like an overstretched version of the short that preceded it.

You could argue that this is a yakuza thriller at the very edges of that genre, but at least as compelling if not more so is the case that it’s really about the two different temperaments of two very different characters. Either way, it’s a deeply satisfying viewing experience. A film to seek out, watch and savour. A gem. A real treat.

As well as the original short, the Blu-ray also includes a half hour Making Of… and a fascinating half hour Q&A with the director and his two male leads.

Melancholic is out on Dual Format Blu-ray/DVD and rental on Apple TV and Amazon in the UK on Monday, September 7th.

Trailer (which incidentally completely undersells the film):

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