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“Dreams for Sale” is the latest film from Japanese writer/director Nishikawa Miwa, a hard hitting drama which follows a husband and wife duo trying to make money through unconventional and duplicitous means. As with her award winning previous outing “Dear Doctor”, the film is an offbeat affair exploring the lengths people will go to for self-preservation, or in this case, economic survival and the chasing of modest dreams. Bleakly amusing and unpredictable, the film enjoyed success at a variety of international festivals, premiering at Toronto at 2012 and screening at London, marking another critical success for the always impressive Nishikawa.
The film follows husband and wife Kanya (Abe Sadao, “Yatterman”) and Satoko (Matsu Takako, “Confessions”), a happily married couple running a small though successful izakaya pub. After it burns to the ground, they find their lives falling apart, Satoko having to work in a low class restaurant and Kanya spiralling into depression. To salvage their dreams and get back on their feet financially, they settle on an odd scheme of fraud marriages, inspired by Kanya being paid for sleeping with an old client (Suzuki Sawa). Somewhat reluctantly, he agrees to woo and wed a series of rich, lonely women, only to leave them and abscond with money, a plan which initially seems to be working well. Inevitably, things become more complicated when the poor man starts to develop a conscience, not to mention feelings for one of his victims, an unfortunate single mother trying to look after her young child (Kimura Tae, “All Around Us”).
The emotionally bleak “Dreams for Sale” never plays out even remotely as expected, with some of the best written and developed characters of the year, not to mention cerebral and insightful takes on modern gender roles politics. Nishikawa keeps things firmly grounded and painfully believable throughout, and though increasingly tense and eventful, the film retains a raw, quietly confrontational humanism throughout. Perhaps what stands out more than anything else is the sharpness and moral complexity of her script, which subtly reverses male/female roles on a number of different levels, with Satoko being the one who drives the scheme and initially seeming the stronger and tougher of the pair, in traditional terms at least. Nothing is quite so simple, however, and the shifting relationship between the couple, and indeed their own values, identity and sense of self. This makes for rich and substantial drama, and though grim, the film is emotionally engrossing, and really does sink its teeth into the viewer through to its harrowing, though fitting conclusion.
It’s not a wholly depressing experience, thankfully, and Nishikawa never merely wallows in obvious melodramatic misery, lightening things up with some dark humour and laughs peppered throughout. Wisely, the film’s comedy is of the observational kind, and though it can at times be a little close to the bone, the jokes are never specifically aimed at the characters or directly at their expense. This can be seen for example through a subplot in which Kanya becomes involved with a rather large former Olympic weightlifter, and though there are some gags relating to the awkwardness of their size difference, Nishikawa again uses this primarily for commentary on changing notions of masculinity and femininity in modern Japanese society.
It’s this kind of sharpness which characterises the film throughout, the script rarely putting a foot wrong and Nishikawa balancing suspenseful drama with intellectual concerns to great success. She also manages to get the very best from her two stars, without whose sterling work the film would never have worked. Abe Sadao is on top form, in a different role to his usual comedic performances, adding pathos and sympathy and ensuring that Kanya never becomes a straightforward weak or emasculated male figure. However, it’s Matsu Takako who really shines, continuing to prove herself one of the best Japanese actresses working today with a powerful and multi-layered turn that makes Satoko one of the most well-realised and substantial female protagonists for quite some time, and whether the viewer likes her or not (certainly, much of her behaviour is morally questionable), she’s impossible to not feel involved with and invested in.
“Dreams for Sale” is easily one of the best Japanese films of the last year, and hopefully the one which will see Nishikawa Miwa becoming as well-known and respected as she deserves to be. An insightful and gripping piece of dramatic cinema, it’s an uncommon marriage of the entertaining and the thoughtful, and is a challenging film which works, and indeed impresses, on many levels.
Miwa Nishikawa (director) / Miwa Nishikawa (screenplay)
CAST: Teruyuki Kagawa