by Yuki Koh
Melancholic was screened as part of the Japanese Film Festival (JFF) 2020 line-up.
To encapsulate the film’s essence in a logline: Melancholic is about a befuddled man who unknowingly secures an ingenuous part-time job at a bathhouse – but soon discovers that its after-hours are used to murder yakuza targets and clean up their remains. Spoiler alert!
Melancholic: A Summary
Right from the get-go, the film directly sets its tone as a thriller, with direct shots of Koreda, one of the side characters, stabbing someone in the bathhouse and then cleaning it up.
Soon after, we delve into the perspective of Kazuhiko, the main protagonist who’s in an existential quandary upon graduation from the prestigious Tokyo University. After hopping from part-time job to part-time job, he finally lands upon a part-time bathhouse job after encountering Yuri, an old-time classmate, who encourages him to take it up.
One unfortunate night, Kazuhiko witnesses a murder by happenstance, and is therefore induced into the lifestyle of murder-and-clean-up. Tanaka is the main antagonist of this film who selects the people to be killed by his co-workers, Matsumoto and Koreda.
Although hesitant at first, Kazuhiko becomes oriented to the mundanities of this yakuza lifestyle alongside his co-worker Matsumoto, even going so far to tackle this amidst his thrummings of love for Yuri.
Eventually, the film climaxes into tragedy when Koreda dies from a fatal gunshot. At this point, Kazuhiko finally wakes up to the reality of partaking in such a lifestyle, and vows to protect his family and girlfriend. By collaborating with Matsumoto, he succeeds in taking down Tanaka.
I expected the film to approach its plot in an American Psycho, thriller-esque, full-on The Shining kind of manner, but it proved to rise to an even greater challenge of infusing comedy within tragedy. The balance between the comedic and tragic parts of the movie had me guffawing and then shrieking at some parts – all within the span of a minute. Being able to revert the mood that well is a stunning feat.
Categorised as ‘Crime’ and ‘Drama’, it proves to be surprisingly heartwarming and comforting when it reaches a denouement. Instead of feeling directionless, the film pays homage to the ‘little things in life’, like the value of friendship and romance.
It also decently tackles some subsidiary topics such as the over-esteemed value of one’s education in Japan. Time and again, Kazuhiko’s educational background is brought up as a way to criticise his choices of doing part-time work, much less the dabbling in murder and clean-up.
One gripe I have is the pace of the rising action. This film clocks in at around two hours, but Act Two could have gone a little faster. There are also glaring plot holes surrounding the yakuza and how killing Tanaka has failed to yield any consequences, much less a murder investigation into who and how Tanaka and Azuma were killed. Perhaps those aren’t the questions to be asked in this film.
Every moment of Melancholic felt organic and original, and it was an extremely pleasant experience from the start to finish. The reflective theme of ‘appreciating the little things in life’ is not anything new, but was fleshed out in a highly inventive and captivating form of cinematography and screenplay; it felt intimate.
As a directorial debut by Seiji Tanaka, this film was far above its standard, especially in terms of the actors’ skills and its editing quality. This has to be one of the best films I’ve watched in a while.