by Andrea Grunert
Acclaimed actor, artist and model Iseya Yūsuke has directed two films – Kakuto (2003) and Fish on Land (Seiji: riku no sakana, 2011). After this brief experience behind the camera, he apparently preferred to continue his acting career and concentrate on the Rebirth Project, which he launched in 2009 (1). However, the two films which he directed deserve closer scrutiny.
The main protagonists in both Kakuto and Fish on Land are young men in their early twenties. Kakuto, based on a screenplay written by Iseya, focuses on one tumultuous night in the life of Ryō (Iseya) and his desperate quest for a cigarette packet full of ecstasy which he was supposed to sell for a local yakuza boss but which he has accidentally lost. In Fish on Land, the adaptation of a novel by Tsujiuchi Tomoki, the unnamed main protagonist recalls a summer twenty years ago when, as a final-year college student, he went on a cycling trip round Japan. Kakuto, which could be translated as “awakening person” or “awakening city”, was produced by Kore-Eda Hirokazu, with whom Iseya worked as an actor in After Life (Wandafaru raifu, 1998) and Distance (2001). Some of Kakuto’s narrative and formal aspects are reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (UK, 1996), in particular the episodic structure, the character of the psychopathic gangster, the scatological language, the recurring use of extreme close-ups and of lenses that distort the image to suggest hallucinations and dreams. The sequence in which Ryō vomits, the camera remaining for an inordinately long time on the disgusting liquid he has disgorged, recalls images of body liquids and excrement in Trainspotting, but as Claude R. Blouin put it: “Japanese cinema gives a great deal of room to everything that oozes from the body, a sign that, being alive, it is a factory of constant rejection, a place of metamorphosis: urine, blood, stools, semen, sweat, tears.” (2) Iseya’s directorial debut is by no means a mere copy of Trainspotting and can be fitted into the framework of a new Japanese cinema with a penchant for experimentation, as in the work of Sono Sion, Sogo Ishii, Miike Takashi, Miki Satoshi, Aoyama Shinji and other young filmmakers.
Kakuto follows Ryō and several other characters, most of them only loosely connected with each other. In a series of subplots they meet accidentally or just appear by chance at the same place in a suburb of Tokyo. This is the case with the two yakuza in the red sports car which Shinji (Kase Ryō) steals from the car park outside a supermarket where Makoto (Takano Hassei) and Naoshi (Itō Atsushi) are waiting for their friend Ryō. The two men in the car are the film’s comic duo, contributing an element of slapstick-like humour.
Kakuto starts with a voice-over narration by Ryō before the other characters – including Makoto, Naoshi and Shinji – are introduced. There is no connection between Shinji and Ryō, whereas a group of male students are acquainted with him but play no role in the subsequent narrative. Their presence and talk about sex and fun contributes to the portrayal of young and rather well-off males like Ryō in contemporary Japan. They also talk very much about Ryō, who is a mystery to them. Successful in exams but hanging around with yakuza, he is the epitome of coolness and therefore a kind of idol for them.
Other and more important characters are Tezuka (Terajima Susumu), the son of a yakuza boss, and his henchman Suzuki, with whom Ryō has some dubious business deals involving pornography and drugs. Nakamura (Kagawa Teruyuki), a police officer who is part of a team that observes Tezuka and eventually arrests him, is another character in the film whose story evolves parallel to the main plot about Ryō.
Apart from the first sequences, which take place a few days beforehand, Kakuto is concerned with events on the night before Ryō’s 22nd birthday. In Fish on Land, the frame is spatial rather than temporal as most of the action is set in House 475, a drive-in bar-cum-diner in the countryside. In the early 1990s, the protagonist (Moriyama Mirai). who is addressed as Traveller (3). has an accident while cycling that is caused by one of the customers at the drive-in. Instead of continuing his journey, he starts working at House 475 during this last summer before the beginning of a new phase in his life. He becomes acquainted with Shōko (Nae Yuki), the owner of the place, with its manager Seiji (Nishijima Hidetoshi), and with a group of young men who are regular customers at House 475 as well as with the little girl Ritsuko (Ihara Ryoka) and her blind grandfather Genji (Tsugawa Masahiko).
Get a life!
In the first and last sequences of Fish on Land, the protagonist, now an adult (Nikaido Satoshi), comes back to what remains of the drive-in, which has apparently been abandoned after the tragic events that took place there during his stay twenty years ago. In the long flashback that constitutes most of the film, he is depicted as a quiet young man, observing rather than playing an active part in the story. In Kakuto, Ryō, played by Iseya and in a more lively manner, is presented as an extrovert and happy-go-lucky young man. However, he behaves like a trapped animal after losing the drugs given to him by the yakuza, well aware that he must fear their murderous revenge. In the sequences in which he experiences the hallucinatory effects of the drugs he consumed in Tezuka’s apartment, he gradually loses control of body and mind. The squalid pedestrian tunnel where he collapses contributes to the impression of his degradation. Half-naked, wearing only his underpants in the wintry night, Ryō is closer to hysteria than to his former carefree self.
Kakuto starts with Ryō’s voice from the off talking about a recurring dream he has had since childhood and in which he keeps running “in an endless, monotonous landscape” (4). This dream becomes reality when he is chased by Tezuka brandishing a katana (the long sword of the samurai), which adds a comic dimension to the situation. Iseya’s approach to crime and violence is playful just as Ryō, whose life revolves around drugs and parties, is a nonchalant but nevertheless sympathetic young man. His credo is “Why bother living if it is not fun?” He shows some concern for the young women he finds for the yakuza, and he is eager to believe the lie that they will not be exploited as prostitutes. Apparently without financial problems, he enjoys life in a most carefree manner, and Iseya’s acting – his boyish grin and extrovert behaviour – emphasizes the character’s immaturity.
Traveller is spending a last summer of freedom before the end of his holiday, which also marks the end of adolescence. By contrast, the easy-going manner of the aimless young protagonists in Kakuto does not mask the disorientation of the young generation in the early 21st century as represented by Shinji, whose introversion and aggressiveness are almost pathological. Naoshi, however, no longer wants to run away, even though this is the advice Ryō once gave him. At the end of the film, Naoshi accepts responsibility for himself and his pregnant girlfriend, and Ryō turns out to be a very polite young man and not simply the wild and carefree young man he is presented as throughout the film.
A tragic event puts an end to Traveller’s stay in the countryside. In a voice-over, the adult Traveller comments on it: “And then I escaped to reality.” The reality he refers to is that of adulthood, and twenty years later, Traveller has joined the ranks of the working population and is apparently what could be described as a respectable member of society. He has escaped from the drive-in, which, located in the middle of nowhere, is presented a kind of enchanted place where, as a young man, Traveller was fascinated by the hidden desires and secrets of the people he met there.
Both films deal with adolescence and the path to adulthood. The troubled young Shinji, who is a kleptomaniac with a penchant for violence and self-destruction, also undergoes a change with the help of Nakamura, who discovers him collapsed in a phone box which he has just vandalized in an act of frustration. Shinji is amazed by the police officer’s genuine concern, Nakamura even wiping the mucus from his running nose.
Iseya’s concern is not the dangers of drug consumption or a corrupt society in which the economy and organized crime are closely linked. Instead, his films focus on the feeling of uncertainty and alienation, both in present-day Japan and in the modern world as a whole. “But Japan is totally fucked,” says Ryō from the off at the beginning of Kakuto. Naoshi and Traveller decide to change their lives, whereas Seiji tries vainly to escape from his violent past. Genji says about him that he has too much social conscience. According to the old blind man, humanity can only survive by being less sensitive. These and other reflections on human behaviour and social conditions are addressed in the dialogues of both films. In Kakuto, the aquariums with exotic fish symbolize society’s insincerity – despite their transparency, they are a means to imprison the fish. In Fish on Land, Seiji reveals the hypocrisy of a couple – a man and a woman – who campaign for animal protection, pointing out that their big car and the perfume the woman wears represent a danger for animals and the environment.
Iseya is however less interested in a philosophical discourse or psychological portrayals than in revealing his characters through mise en scène devices to which the actors, including Iseya himself, contribute. As an actor, Iseya communicates in a highly convincing manner the physical and psychological pain Ryō undergoes when he fights against the effects of the drugs he has taken. His face and body reveal his fear when Suzuki questions him about the missing drugs. Iseya’s portrayal of Ryō may have a narcissistic dimension, but this is however perfectly in tune with the immature character he portrays. The title of Fish on Land is a clear reference to Seiji – a secretive person who does not talk much and seems out of place. He behaves like a fish out of water and only seems happy when playing with the little girl Ritsuko. The exquisite lighting of the shots in which he disembowels a boar in a nocturnal setting also contributes to the air of mystery that he exudes. Nishijima Hidetoshi’s nuanced body language makes this character’s sadness and loneliness perfectly tangible.
The central drama around Seiji is not revealed until the last third of the film, and the first two thirds give a succession of impressions from the everyday life of the people at the drive-in. Kakuto is structured in a more sophisticated way in which the different subplots converge. Shinji finds the Lucky Strike packet with the ecstasy that Ryō has dropped. Later, when Shinji is making a phone call, Suzuki forces him to leave the phone box, where he then finds the missing drugs. Despite its highly elaborate structure, Kakuto does not feel over-constructed. Instead, it has a smooth, playful rhythm, a fluidity close to human life, something that characterizes Fish on Land even more strongly. In both films, there are a-chronical shots and scenes that are not story-related, and Fish on Land in particular has many beautifully framed landscape shots as well as images of the empty drive-in, of insects, the sky, the moon, and water.
Fragmentation is also expressed by extreme close-ups. In other shots, the camera, which is very mobile in Kakuto, remains close to the human bodies, a technique that reinforces the aesthetic and emotional space of the films. It is also a means to limit the field of vision, and it creates an effect of fragmentation, as does the lighting. In Fish on Land, the contrast between light and shadow and between day and night contributes to the feeling of mystery and supports the film’s latent tension, emanating partly from the suppressed desire between Shōko and Seiji. In Kakuto, darkness sustains the idea of a nightmare into which Ryō is suddenly projected, but this does not mean that it creates an impression of bleakness. The night ends with moments of joy in which Ryō and his friends, now in possession of the missing drugs Suzuki found and has now given to them, can finally feast, drink, smoke and chat, quickly forgetting their previous worries. The hedonism of these young urbanites can also be understood as a normal part of adolescent life that will not necessarily prevent them from taking on the responsibilities of adulthood and accepting its conformism. Fish on Land does not simply end as a tragedy either. Ritsuko, whose forearm was severed when she was attacked by a serial murderer with an axe during that fatal summer, has recovered, and twenty years later she is a beautiful and self-confident young woman.
The awful night in Kakuto seems like a bad dream, but unlike the recurring dream he talks about in the opening sequence and from which he awakes with a cry, Ryō finds himself back in broad daylight and normal life. Iseya avoids any moral judgment of his characters, preferring instead to create vivid portrayals of young Japanese males, catching their moods and emotions marvellously. In Fish on Land, his subtle mise en scène allows the viewer to share the light-hearted moments of a summer trip as well as to sense the hidden desires and repressed memories lingering under the surface. If Kakuto is a mixture of adventure, fun and nightmare, Fish on Land has in addition a dreamlike quality that constantly challenges the idyll suggested by the beauty of nature. In both films, Iseya succeeds in revealing his characters’ feelings through cinematic devices, with the ordinary filmed in a way that takes into account the complexity of life in the 21st century. On the basis of this aspect of the two films in particular, I can only state that I would have liked to see more of Iseya behind the camera.
1 “The Rebirth Project” is a multi-faceted business inspired by the idea of sustainable development.
2 Claude R. Blouin, Au fil des métamorphoses : Journal de lecture, Montréal : Quota Bene. 2021, p. 101-102. [Author’s translation]
3 In the credits, the main protagonist is called Boku which means “I” or “me”. There are several words for “I” in Japanese, and they differ according to sex and/or age. “Boku” is mainly used by boys or young men.
4 Note that the character Iseya Yūsuke played by Iseya in Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s After Life talks about a similar recurring dream.