Growing up is not easy, especially in Japan.
Â Available on the Internet. Approximately 125 minutes.
Inoue Meiko is almost twenty-four-years old. Almost immediately after college, she took an entry-level office job that she has grown to hate. Her mother frequently sends her packages of vegetables, most of which she just lets pile up and go bad. Taneda Nauro, her boyfriend since their first year at college, has been crashing at her apartment, as his part-time job as an illustrator does not pay the bills. They almost never see each other on the weekday and a lot of that time is spent bickering. Neither of them seem to be able to figure out how to deal with adulthood, with Meiko struggling to get on and Taneda passive-aggressively resisting.
They have three other friends from college. Yamada Jiro, who goes by â€œBillyâ€, is set to inherit his fatherâ€™s pharmacy. Kato Kenichi and Kotani Ai have also been going out since the first year at college. While Ai has found a job at a clothing store, Kato is in his sixth year at college. Pathetic, right? It may seem as if the two of them are moving in different directions, but Ai puts up with Katoâ€™s arrested development out of sympathy for his need to stave off the inevitable boredom of his future for as long as he can. There is also the possibility that she actively encourages his immaturity to maintain some form of vicarious escape from her adult life. Tandeda, Kato, and Billy had formed a band in college and played for their fellow students. After graduation, however, they stopped performing and came together only for the occasional practice session in a studio.
One morning at work, Meikoâ€™s boss scolds her for not doing her job right, neglecting to note her actual contributions. Later, he apologizes and asks her on a date. Almost immediately, Meiko says that she is sick and asks to go home. Nauro (whom she insists on calling â€œTanedaâ€) is still sleeping when she gets back, and she mumbles to him that she feels like quitting her job, even though she would never do that. Taneda sleep-talks that she should quit, claiming that they will figure out something. So, the very next day, she turns in her notice. She spends the rest of the day playing video games, wandering around, shopping, bothering Ai at her store, and watching the band practice. Meiko figures that she has enough savings to last a year or so, and she can just relax until she finds another job. In the meantime, she considers trying to find a hobby the way Taneda plays guitar for fun.
Taneda, of course, is a little less supportive of Meiko quitting her job when he is fully awake, and he freaks out. After a night of drinking with the others, he finally acknowledges that what had been the status quo for the past year cannot go on. Yet, he continues to do nothing about it. Eventaully, Meiko pressures him to do something serious with the band. Taneda and the guys had paid lip service to get out of the practicing phase, but Meiko is serious. She wants him to stop being so miserable at his job and follow his real dream of playing in a band for real, with gigs and records. Meiko argues that it is only his fear of criticism is holding him back. After more passive aggressive behavior at work, Taneda decides that it really is time to move forward with the band. However, he is going to do it his way.
This movie is based on a manga and, while it maintained many elements, the vibe seems quite different. The author of the manga was, at the time, the age of the main characters. Perhaps he was living in a similar situation as the characters and experiencing the same identity crisis. As such, the manga is full of desperate impotence, aggressive goofiness, bitter sarcasm, misanthropic contempt, anxious philosophizing, and self-loathing. The movie director, however, was around 35 or 36, significantly older than the characters. As such, the movie has that wistful Japanese semi-nostalgic vibe, with more sweet resignation, sympathy, and low-key melancholia. Both have their merits, though I find myself drawn more to the movie. That may be because I saw it before I read the manga (which was actually just a few days ago) or it may be because I am closer to the age that the director was than I am to the author.
It is not so much coming of age than leaving of age. In this case, though, the leaving involves a lot of foot-dragging. This is not a last hurrah before adulthood; that last hurrah happened two years ago. While their college years were not necessarily the greatest that they could be, there was a sense of possibility. Now, there are just options, all of which seem soul-sucking. All of the characters know that they have to suck it up and deal with real life, but they do not really have the heart to do so. None of them have illusions of being special, quite the opposite; it is just that they feel like their identities are going to get subsumed in the machine that is Japanese adulthood. They are less rebels than cowards with terrible self-esteem issues. They all of trouble speaking up for themselves, even amongst each other. And any time they get the least bit philosophical, they immediately backtrack with a self-deprecating comment about pretentiousness. Granted, the comment in question usually is somewhat pretentious, but the turnaround time is a bit sudden regardless.
Ai seems to be the most settled of the group, though she seems to have the need to maintain a foot in their world. Billy is just on autopilot until he inherits the store. Taneda is spinning his wheels at a job that will not sustain him professionally, financially, or emotionally. Kato seems like the worst of the bunch, having not even entered the workforce two years after he was supposed to.
Meiko tries earnestly to act like a grownup, at least in the outside world. Yet, it seems as if the outside world has no faith in her. It is just as bad as Taneda says it is and Kato is right to hold off as long as he can. So she drops out and reverts to a childish existence, with no parental figure to manage her, save for a mother who shows up suddenly and then leaves after scolding her for quitting her job without a backup plan. Meiko knows that her current situation cannot last, and she knows that she will end up suffering if she does not get another job soon. Yet, that cold reality is not motivation enough for her to get her act together, as she has little faith in herself. Oddly enough, this lack of drive is what drives the story forward, yet it happens through other characters before coming back to her.
All of these characters know that they will need to make a choice regarding their futures, that they are on borrowed time, and procrastinating will only result in more pain. Nevertheless, they cannot help pushing back things as much as possible. It is important to note that Meiko does not simply decide on her own to quit, but she uses Tanedaâ€™s semi-conscious statement of support for support. Similarly, a lot of what happens with the band come either indirectly or directly from Meiko pushing them from outside, even if she is merely saying what all three members had been saying. It is as if the characters hold themselves back, but push each other forward. Perhaps it is because they each have trouble functioning as adults, yet they want to prevent the others from heading down a self-destructive path. There are only a few major individual choices that characters make regarding their own lives and none of them are really depicted on screen.
There are few times where this situation is made obvious through symbolism. The most obvious one is when Meiko sees a balloon outside her apartment and tries to grab it just as it starts to float away. Another time, which is more blatant in the manga, is how a lot of the vegitables that her mother sends her just piles up and goes bad. The actual title of the story, Solanin, is based on the resulting poison from the bad potatoes.
This is not some Western flick where some woman takes a year off to find herself in some spiritually and romantically exotic location or where a group of middle-aged men go off for a night of drunken debauchery in order to reclaim their youth. This is an Asian movie, where it is important what people mean to other people. Here, the relationship is of a group of college friends. They share struggle with post-college life and the concept of who they are to each other, though they have different ways of coping or not coping. When Meiko quits her job, their barely-balanced world threatens to completely collapse. It is only through the band that the group starts to find a new purpose and a new sense of who they are together. Yet, even the idea of being a professional band is an existential crisis, as that threatens to place them in a box and on a single trajectory that is no less oppressive or regimented or soul-sucking or identity squelching than any other boring job.
The main actress in this movie is Aoi Miyazaki, whom you may recognize as the voice of the mother in the anime film Wolf Children. So far, I have seen nine out of the forty-five (so far) movies that she has been in and, while I liked her performance in all of them, this is the only movie that she has been in that I really really liked. The others are either pretty good, okay, simply not to my taste, or downright boring. This one really moved me, even if it do not move the three user reviewers on IMDB. I felt for all of the characters, as frustrating and annoying as they may be at times, with Meiko as the center. Sometimes, adulthood is boring and oppressive. Yet, there is no going back.
Much of the music, by the band and otherwise, is performed by the rock band Asian Kung Fu Generation. The music isâ€¦not quite as out there as the name might suggest. Their music is not really my cup of tea, but rather pleasantly harmless. I found their style to be quite appropriate to the vibe of the movie, and I really do enjoy the title track, at least the movie version. To be harder or wilder or moreâ€¦pretentiousâ€¦would not have worked well in showing people stuck between their destiny and the transitional phase. There is a kind of beautiful uncertainty there, which fits perfectly.
Some people who might find it difficult to relate to or sympathize with these characters might roll their eyes at the movie. Those for whom these characters hit too close to home might find it an uncomfortable sit. Still, I would recommend that both camps check it out. They might not like, but they might really like it. Of course, I say that only because I really like it.
WTF ASIA 97: God of Gamblers (Hong Kong: 1989, approx. 125 minutes)
I could find nothing online with subtitles
WTF ASIA 98: Snowpiercer (South Korea: 2014, approx. 125 minutes)