Osamu Dazai is one of the twentieth century’s literary giants. Beginning his career as a student before the war, Dazai found himself at a loss after the suicide of his idol Ryunosuke Akutagawa and descended into a spiral of hedonistic depression that was to mark the rest of his life culminating in his eventual drowning alongside his mistress Tomie in a shallow river in 1948. 2009 marked the centenary of his birth and so there were the usual tributes including a series of films inspired by his works. In this respect, Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Pandora no Hako) is a slightly odd choice as it ranks among his minor, lesser known pieces but it is certainly much more upbeat than the nihilistic Fallen Angel or the fatalistic Villon’s Wife. Masanori Tominaga had made an impact with his debut film The Pavillion Salamandre and seemed to be a perfect fit for the quirkier, darkly comic Pandora’s Box but perhaps in the end it was too perfect a fit.
Inspired by events from Dazai’s own life, the story centres around a young man at the end of the second world war who has been suffering from tuberculosis for some time but kept quiet about it expecting to die soon and remove the burden on his family. However, when the war finally ends Risuke (Shota Sometani) inherits a new will to live and commits himself to a sanatorium to treat his lung condition. Whilst in the hospital he comes into contact with writers and poets as well as pretty nurses all the while proceeding with his plan to become a “new man” for this “new era”.
At once both hopeful and nihilistic, Pandora’s Box mixes gallows humour and denial in equal measure as the motley collection of inpatients waste their days away in this eccentric establishment which looks after them well enough but promises no real progress in terms of their health. Each of the patients receives a nickname when they enter the sanatorium so Risuke quickly becomes Hibari (sky lark). Tellingly, these nicknames overwrite real world personas – original names are recalled only at the time of death. Deaths do indeed occur but aside from these unhappy events, no one acknowledges the seriousness of their condition or the possibility that they may die from it, never leaving the hospital again. Physical pain and suffering is almost entirely absent though Risuke gives ample vent to his mental anguish through his letters to a fellow patient who has now been discharged back into the unseen chaos of the post-war world.
Indeed, the sanatorium might be a kind of idyll in this era of instability. Well fed and well cared for, the patients are far better off than many left adrift in the starving cities but the outside world rarely impinges on the isolated atmosphere of the sanatorium. Events change slightly when a friend of Risuke’s, Tsukushi (Yosuke Kubozuka), is discharged and a new nurse, Take (Mieko Kawakami), arrives stirring up various different emotions amongst the male patients in Risuke’s ward. Striking up a friendship with the younger nurse, Mabo (Riisa Naka), Risuke finds himself torn between two very different women.
Although its tone is necessarily one of depression and numbness, Pandora’s Box ends on an improbably upbeat note in which Risuke remarks that just like a climbing plant he may not know where he’s going, but it will certainly be a place of bright sunlight. A minor work filled with dark, ironic humour it’s perhaps unfair to expect the same kind of impact as Dazai’s more weighty efforts but Pandora’s Box is a lower budget affair which, although interesting enough in terms of direction, fails to make much of an impression outside of its obvious pedigree. The light jazzy score and deadbeat voice over add to the period feel whilst also lending an air of hopeless yet buoyant resignation to Risuke’s ongoing journey into the post-war world. This, in many ways, is what we’re here for – Risuke, unlike Dazai, has made a commitment to forge a way forward in which he plans to fight for the sun rather sink below the waves.
Original trailer (no subtitles)