Drama, Films, Japan, Recommended posts, Reviews, Sci Fi

Happiness

A man turns up with a helmet that lets people experience their happiest memory in the latest offering from Sabu…

Cult Japanese writer director Sabu (real name Hiroyuki Tanaka), known for the likes of Dead Run, Chasuke’s Journey, Miss Zombie and others, returns with Happiness. The film is an off the wall offering, which as with most of the director’s work takes a simple though offbeat premise and transforms it into something thoughtful and unexpected.

The film opens with a quiet and mild-mannered man called Kanzaki (Masatoshi Nagase, recently in Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean) turning up in a small sleepy town in rural Japan, bringing with him a strange helmet which allows people to re-experience their happiest memory. Although the locals are initially suspicious, before long they’re queuing up to use the device, Kanzaki spreading joy to everyone he meets. However, he himself never seems to be particularly happy, the reasons for which become clear after an encounter with Inoue (Hiroki Suzuki, Ju-on: White Ghost), a young man who lives a hermit-like existence on the outskirts of town.

Happiness finds Sabu on more restrained and reflective form than he has been of late, the film unfolding without flash or fuss as it patiently reveals its secrets, being content to spend its early stages following Kanzaki as he wanders the village with the helmet, mostly spending time with its elderly residents. Without wishing to spoil anything, after a quirky and gently amusing first half it does venture into some pretty dark and violent territory, though even when confronting bleakness, it retains a philosophical and contemplative air. The theme of memory is key, Sabu meditating on whether or not happiness and sadness are essentially two sides of the same coin, and the gimmick of the helmet works well in this regard, thankfully never being overused as a cheap plot device. The many flashback scenes which result from the helmet’s use never feel gratuitous, and thanks to some well-judged editing and camerawork help give the film the atmosphere of a subdued dream, its moments of emotional clarity standing out in an often-powerful manner. While it’s tempting to read social commentary into Sabu’s examination of despair and why some people seemly choose to wallow in it, the film is first and foremost a humanistic character study, and an effective one at that.

The only real issue with the film is its slow pace, which will prove a challenge for some viewers. Even with a commendably short running time of an hour and a half, the film is never in a hurry to progress its narrative, and it does drag in places, in particular during the second half, which features a number of repeated scenes and flashbacks – to be fair, these are shocking and do have a point, and for some viewers at least will have the desired impact Sabu is aiming for. A strong, nuanced central performance helps considerably in this respect and keeps the film engaging, Masatoshi Nagase making Kanzaki likeable rather than simply stoic, and the film gets good mileage from slowly but surely peeling back the layers and exposing his inner turmoil. The film does build towards a cathartic ending which rewards viewers who have stuck with it, though again, unsurprisingly, Sabu doesn’t play things exactly as expected.

Sabu is always an interesting director, and Happiness is another solid addition to his CV. A meditative and moving work, the film takes what in other hands could have been a light-hearted and eccentric concept and turns it inwards, making for a fascinating look at both the best and worst aspects of human nature and the different ways in which we view ourselves and our existence.

Happiness screens as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2017, which runs from 30 June to 16 July.

Main image © 2016 LiVEMAX FILM

About the author

James MudgeJames Mudge James Mudge
From Glasgow but based in London, James has been writing for a variety of websites over the last decade, including BeyondHollywood in the US and YesAsia in Hong Kong. As well as running film consultancy The Next Day Agency, James is also the Festival Director of the Chinese Visual Festival in London, an annual event which showcases Chinese language cinema... More »
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