By Roxy Simons.
“It’s dangerous to know something you’re not supposed to,” Kazuhiko’s boss at the local bathhouse tells him in Seiji Tanaka’s Melancholic. Feeling nosy over what is going on late at night at his workplace, Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa) decides to stake the place out, but quickly realises that there’s something far more ominous taking place than cleaning bath tubs: the yakuza are using the building for executions. Discovered by his stony-faced colleague Kodera (Yasuyuki Hamaya), Kazuhiko is given a choice – clean up their mess or join the recently deceased.
Favouring self-preservation, Kazuhiko chooses to do their bidding and become a part of the clean-up crew. The role comes with its benefits, of course, a large bonus and the pride such a huge pay-out gives him after years of being an unemployed graduate of the elite Tokyo University. But, when his colleague Matsumoto (Yoshitomo Isozaki) starts to leave the dirty work to him in order to embark on shady dealings with Kodera, Kazuhiko starts to feel jealous, and is keen to try his hand at what they’re doing.
Kazuhiko is not the first person you’d think of as a yakuza lackey, he’s awkward, shy, and still lives with his parents. Even his oversized glasses and general melancholy gives him the air of being ‘a loser’, as director Seiji Tanaka puts it while speaking to All the Anime about the film at the Udine Far East Film Festival. “A film director I’ve taken great inspiration from in my life is Woody Allen,” he says of creating his lead character. “So the moment I decided to write the character of Kazuhiko I had the image of Woody Allen and the face of Minagawa overlapping in my mind.”
“I think you can understand then why I decided to have him wear glasses, and other small details of his personality. He’s charming and at the same time a loser,” he claims, as he reflects on Allen’s early works. Yoji Minagawa, meanwhile, saw Kazuhiko as “a character who develops and unfolds over time”, and felt he “wasn’t aware of any cuteness or being charming,” despite Tanaka’s sentiments. “I was just trying to portray a human being,” he says, getting to the point quickly, much like the character he was tasked with playing.
Reflecting on Kazuhiko’s journey, and dealing with the somewhat archetypal character of a lonely awkward guy struggling to get by, Tanaka goes on: ‘It’s all about the theme that I wanted to portray this time around, that whatever happens in your life there is supposed to be a way for you to love your own life.”
“If you think about Kazuhiko, he doesn’t have a job at the opening or at the end of the movie, that does not change. What changes is the way he perceives life, and because of that he gains a new perception of life, and you feel that he has developed as a human being.”
Tanaka and Minagawa worked together both on and off screen, with the latter also acting as producer for the dark comedy turned crime thriller. The pair were first introduced by an acquaintance when Minagawa started out his career, when Tanaka was focusing predominantly on his work in theatre. Detailing how their first meeting had an impact on him, the actor explained: “Seven or eight years went by [after our first meeting], and I still had a very strong memory of Mr Tanaka as I respected his view and knowledge about theatre, about everything concerning that. I respected him so much that when I wanted to make a movie I just went straight to him with the idea of us making a film.”
The pair made the film with a markedly small budget (¥3 million, about £21,500) and shot it over ten days, splitting the shooting schedule over five weekends because Tanaka had a full-time job to work around. “Since Minagawa was also the producer of the film during the weekdays, what we would do was film on Saturdays and Sundays,” Tanaka explains.
“I thought filming would become difficult because of this, but then for Minagawa, who is the lead actor at the same time as being a producer, it was important for him to have time not only as an actor but also as a producer to work on the project. So, since he would have five days a week to do his work as a producer, later on we realised that it was a good thing.”
Melancholic is a dark comedy that works on many levels. Tanaka’s film is impressive for a low-budget production, it has an intense, powerful original story penned by its director, while it also features a talented cast at its heart. It’s hard not to be enthralled by the whole production. The stakes may be high for the lead characters but that’s what makes Melancholic all the more thrilling to watch. While Kazuhiko may not appear to be right for the job he’s inadvertently signed up for, we can’t help but feel for him, and want him to succeed in his endeavours. He may be a loser, like Tanaka says, but he’s a charming loser.
The production blends genres like action, romance, family drama and spy thriller with ease, exploring them all in turn without feeling overburdened by the many threads it’s pulling. It’s a testament to Tanaka’s vision that it all works so smoothly, and there’s not a moment that goes by while watching the film that feels superfluous or unnecessary. It’s clear that Tanaka has a bright future ahead of him. And given the many awards and accolades that the director has received for his debut feature, it’s clear there are many who feel the same way.
Melancholic is released by Third Window Films on Dual Format Blu-Ray and DVD on 7th September 2020.