Japanese director Hiroki Ryuichi has had a pretty fascinating career, starting off in Pinku films, before being hailed in the mid-2000s as one of the country’s top New Wave indie helmers thanks to acclaimed outings like “Vibrator”. Having flirted with more commercial fare of late with “April Bride”, “Your Friend” and other more straightforward efforts, his latest film “The Egoists” sees a return to more searching and unconventional character drama. The film was based on the novel by famed author Nakagami Kenji, his last before his death in 1992, and follows two young lovers trying to find their place in the world, played by former teen star Suzuki Anne, who rose to fame after her turn in the popular “Hana and Alice” and by Kora Kengo, recently in “The Woodsman and the Rain” and who worked with director before on “M” in 2006.
The film opens in Tokyo, with a young hoodlum called Kazu (Kora Kengo) taking part in a Kabukicho club shakedown in an effort to clear his considerable gambling debts. Forced to leave the city as a result, he takes with him exotic dancer Machiko (Suzuki Anne) after confessing his love to her, the two hoping to make a new life for themselves in his hometown of Shingu. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, with his rich and traditionally minded parents looking down on her and refusing to accept their marriage plans. Kazu only makes matters worse by getting involved with a local loan shark with a past grudge against him, and with Machiko feeling lost in the picturesque though very provincial town, it starts to look like the odds are firmly stacked against the young lovers.
“The Egoists” is very much a low key indie character piece, mixing drama, crime and romance in down to earth though unpredictable fashion. “Keibetsu” is the film’s Japanese title, which translates as ‘scorn’, and there’s certainly plenty of that, with Kazu, and in particular Machiko running into disapproval at every turn in Shingu. However, the films strength lies in the fact that it doesn’t offer a simple dichotomy of good and bad, instead focusing very much on the weaknesses, passions and decisions made by his protagonists.
Hiroki Ryuichi has always been somewhat of a female-centric director, and that’s definitely the case here, with Machiko being the more interesting of the lovers. Whereas Kazu is essentially a decent fellow, ruined by his own immaturity, incompetency and insecurity, seemingly destined from the start to head down a one way street to self-destruction, Machiko is a multi-layered and more complex figure, both vulnerable and tough, and the film sees her undergoing a fascinating and wholly believable personal journey. Hiroki gets the very best from Suzuki Anne, the actress giving an amazing, career best performance that sees her truly inhabit her character, exhibiting a wide and highly affecting range of emotions – though she doesn’t drive the film, she undoubtedly provides its emotional anchor and finest moments.
Unsurprising, “The Egoists” isn’t the most cheerful of films, and though it does at times have a wistful yearning for bliss and acceptance, it’s obvious from early on that its central couple are unlikely to have a traditional happy ending in store for them. At the same time though, Hiroki manages to find a compelling authenticity which prevents the film from every becoming actually depressing, and despite all of its angst it steers clear of melodrama or anything too predictable. Unfortunately, perhaps as a result of eschewing a more traditional narrative, the film does tend to meander somewhat, and though it’s never boring, at around two hours and fifteen minutes does go on a little long (interestingly, a Director’s Cut of the film has also been screened, clocking in at 10 minutes longer).
Fittingly, the film has a semi documentary look, Hiroki employing a mixture of hand held camerawork and long takes without cuts, all of which accentuates the realism and makes for a very New Wave, cinema vérité kind of air, with several Godard references along the way. The film also packs in a great deal of nudity and sex, some of it recalling his earlier Pinku works, ranging from the joyous and romantic through to the violent and grubby. Along with the subject matter, this makes the film very much an adult affair, and further underlines its ambitions of providing a grounded look at the difficulties and consequences of wild love.
Hiroki Ryuichi is still very much one of Japan’s most interesting directors, and “The Egoists” is a fine addition to his body of work. Showing excellent character writing and with a superb performance from Suzuki Anne, it rewards patient viewers with rich emotional substance and truth.
Ryuichi Hiroki (director) / Kenji Nakagami (based on the novel by), Satoko Okudera (screenplay)
CAST: Anne Suzuki … Machiko