happiness still“Memories are what warm you up from the inside. But they’re also what tear you apart” runs the often quoted aphorism from Haruki Murakami. SABU seems to see things the same way and indulges an equally surreal side of himself in the sci-fi tinged Happiness (ハピネス). Memory, as the film would have it, both sustains and ruins – there are terrible things which cannot be forgotten, no matter how hard one tries, while the happiest moments of one’s life get lost among the myriad everyday occurrences. Happiness is the one thing everyone craves even if they don’t quite know what it is, little knowing that they had it once if only for a few seconds, but if the desire to attain “happiness” is itself a reason for living could simply obtaining it by technological means do more harm than good?

A man gets off a country bus carrying a large, mysterious looking box. He stops into the only visible building which happens to a be a “convenience” store housing a wizened old woman who tells the man to just take the bottle of water he is trying to buy because once she gets rid of everything in the shop she can finally die and escape her misery. The man leaves the money anyway and exits the shop, only to make a swift return, take a large helmet studded with old-fashioned round typewriter keys out of his box and place it on the old woman’s head. After the man makes a few adjustments the old woman is thrown into reverie, remembering a time when she was just a small child and her mother greeted her when she arrived home all by herself. Overwhelmed with feeling her mother’s love, the old woman comes back to life and rediscovers a zest for living which she’d long since given up.

So begins the strange odyssey of Kanzaki (Masatoshi Nagase) who finds himself in one of Japan’s most depressed towns where everyone hangs around listlessly, sitting in waiting rooms waiting for nothing in particular, passing the time until it runs out. Suggesting one of the women in the strange waiting area might like to try on the helmet, Kanzaki gets himself arrested but after the police try it out too he comes to the attention of the mayor who invites him to stay hoping the “happiness machine” can help revitalise the dying community and stop some of the young people blowing out of town looking for somewhere less soul-destroying to call home. Kanzaki’s request to access the town census, however, hints at an ulterior motive and it’s as well to note that a happiness machine could also be a sadness machine if you run it in reverse.

SABU’s long and varied career has taken him from men who can’t stop running to those who can’t start, but the men and women of Happiness are impeded by forces more emotional than physical manifesting themselves through bodily inertia. Like many towns in modern Japan, the small village Kanzaki finds himself in is facing a depopulation crisis as the old far outweigh the young and the idea of the future almost belongs to the past. Those who don the happiness helmet regain access to a long-buried memory which reminds them what it feels like to live again. Almost reborn they start to believe that true happiness is possible, that they were once loved, and that their lives truly do have meaning. Yet they can experience all of this joy only because of the intense collective depression they’d hitherto been labouring under. Happiness is only possible because of sorrow, and so the two must work in concert to create a kind of melancholy equilibrium.

Melancholy is a quality which seems to define Kanzaki, inventor of a machine he says can make people happy. As it turns out, his motives were not exactly all about peace and love but a means to an end, his own sorrows run deep and his solution to easing them is a darker one than simply becoming lost in his happy memories. Turning his own machine against itself, he forces a man to relive what he claims is the worst night of his life – one which he could not forget, and one which plagues him every night before he tries to go to sleep. Showing him happy memories too only seems to deepen the pain, though the explanation they eventually offer for his subsequent actions makes him a victim too, betrayed by those who should have protected him and eventually taking his revenge on innocents whose only crime was to be a happy family in front of a man from an unforgiving one.

Painting his world in an almost comforting green tint which can’t help but recall the dull but calming colours of a hospital, SABU channels Roy Andersson by way of David Lynch in his deadpan detachment which becomes humorous precisely because of its overt lack of comic intent. The clues are planted early from a flash of Kanzaki’s wedding ring but refusal to answer question about his family to his hangdog expression and general air of someone who carries a heavy burden, but SABU neatly changes gear surreptitiously to explore what the true explanation is for Kanzaki’s strange machine and improbable arrival in such a small, uninteresting town. Memory is a cruel burden, offering both joy and sorrow, but there can be no happiness without suffering and no life without a willingness to embrace them both the same.


Happiness was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Busan trailer (no subtitles)

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