This started off so well. In the first 30 minutes or so, Kurosawa paints this specific and yet universal picture of the repercussions of globalization, economic slowdown and growing unemployment – and all this through the life of this middle-aged Japanese everyman, Ryûhei Sasaki. The portrayal of how unemployment not only renders one literally jobless but also without an identity almost and without any sense of authority / respect is just perfect and completely palpable. And lest you think this is all a series of bleak, depressing scenes, the film has an endearing sense of wit throughout the first half. The tips that Ryûhei gets from his friend who’s been unemployed longer are both hilarious and devastating simultaneously.
Another thing that the film really gets right is this portrayal of a family where everyone is alienated despite seeming normal on the surface. The scenes where they’re just having dinner are just beautifully framed and shot and I loved the way the perfectly-laid, sumptuous-looking dinner table serves as the arena for the most disruption. Everything is polite and perfect on the outside but it’s clear that we’re always on the brink of something cracking. There’s something almost Ozu-like about these scenes of domesticity. There are also some scenes that are almost wonderfully ambiguous throughout this first half (the same sense of ambiguity really went on to bug me later incidentally). In particular, there’s a scene where the little kid, Kenji, is observing a piano lesson from outside a house. It’s not clear what it is that has him so engrossed – whether it’s the music coming from the piano, the little girl who is playing it or the beautiful piano-teacher.
I think the first time I lost a bit of confidence in the film was when we find out what happened to Ryûhei’s friend. While it’s perfectly plausible, it disrupts the tone of the movie and suddenly the film takes a far darker turn than I had anticipated. But that was just the beginning as it turns out. The movie just comes unhinged in the third act. For a while, the movie turns into a nightmare of sorts with every single character coming unhinged and basically hitting rock bottom. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself but given the tone of the rest of the movie, this is very disruptive. Secondly, it just feels very implausible and inconsistent. Plus, it’s gets heavy-handed with characters wondering aloud about whether it’s possible to start over. This is also done in a really messy way with lots of random plot points being introduced all of a sudden. A new character is introduced (only plus is that this is played by Makoto from Eureka which had me kinda excited for a while) and a brown paper bag full of money makes a sudden appearance and so on. Heck, there are events happening on screen where I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. As I type this, I realize that this might sound pretty wonderful on paper, but it’s not messy in a good way imo. The way that this whole bizarre turn of events is resolved is equally unsatisfying.
But then, just when I had sort of given up on the film, there’s a final scene that is beautiful and touching and kinda left me feeling more positive towards the film overall.