Just because you’re smart and graduated from a top university, does that necessarily mean you have to put on the salaryman straitjacket in order to become “a success”? The dejected hero of Seiji Tanaka’s Melancholic (メランコリック) isn’t quite so sure, but then he’s always been the type to amble through life going wherever the wind blows him. The time is about to come, however, when decisions must be made and priorities decided lest someone else decide them for you.
Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa) graduated from Tokyo University but he’s never been in full time employment and has no definite career plans. Still living at home with his parents, he floats between part-time jobs with little sense of forward motion while his mum and dad are content to let him find his way, if a little exasperated. On a rare visit to a public bathhouse he ends up running into an old high school classmate, Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida), who half-jokingly advises he apply for the open job at the baths seeing as it’s bound to be less stressful than your average salaryman gig. Smitten but too awkward to do much about it, Kazuhiko applies for the job and consents to go to a school reunion as a means of seeing Yuri again. Much to his surprise, however, the bathhouse has a second life as a yakuza kill room with on site body disposal facilities.
Asking questions about what goes on at the bathhouse after dark, Kazuhiko’s boss Azuma (Makoto Hada) tells him that it’s dangerous to know things you aren’t supposed to know, but Kazuhiko is not good with hints and his natural curiosity won’t it let it rest. After he finds out about the secret yakuza backroom deal, Kazuhiko has a “difficult” choice to make – elect to help out with the “night shift”, or die. Kazuhiko chooses to help out (he likes being helpful) and discovers that he actually doesn’t mind it all that much, especially considering the “bonus” package Azuma gave him for being a good boy.
The extra money made Kazuhiko feel as if he could grasp that swanky salaryman life without having to submit himself to the rat race. He uses the money to take Yuri to a fancy French restaurant where he’s flummoxed by the wine list and she’s uncomfortable, but still it goes well even if they both resolve to go somewhere more casual next time. Kazuhiko’s inferiority complex is only enflamed by the lingering presence of Tamura (Yuta Okubo), another old classmate made good, who is also interested in Yuri and is everything Kazuhiko feels himself not to be – handsome, successful, filthy rich, cultured, and confident.
Being allowed in on the after hours business made Kazuhiko feel as if he’d been promoted, that Azuma obviously trusted him and that there might be more overtime coming if he played his cards right. His confidence receives a further knock, however, when he realises that a punkish colleague who joined at the same time as him, Matsumoto (Yoshitomo Isozaki), is technically in a more senior position despite being a barely literate drop out with bleach blond hair. In way over his head, Kazuhiko still desperately wants to regain some of that status and approval he felt was his when the cleanup business was their little secret.
An awkward, naive, but sincere man, Kazuhiko marvels on realising how many yakuza seem to be “around” before Azuma and Matsumoto remind him that not everyone involved with crime is a bona fide yakuza. The bathhouse outfit is, more or less, run by freelancers but still at the mercy of mob boss Tanaka (Masanobu Yada) who has an iron hold over Azuma because of outstanding debts. Azuma would like to put a stop to the night shift, but can’t – or so he claims. As is later pointed out, for those getting on in years an unsatisfying status quo is often preferable to a turbulent new. Though Kazuhiko has no real objection to working the night shift as far as the clean up goes, he is not completely comfortable with its wider implications, often asking why it was someone had to die only for Matsumoto and Azuma to shrug and say it doesn’t matter. They had orders and carried them out, anything else is an irrelevance they don’t need to worry about.
Kazuhiko, however, does worry if in a fairly minor way until his gradual descent into the world of crime drags him into a vicious quagmire in which he must accept the seriousness of his situation along with its potential costs. Despite the original animosity and natural sense of distrust, what wins out is a sense of fellow feeling between unlikely allies Matsumoto and Kazuhiko who begin to see a way out of their mutual malaise through seizing their own futures and daring to pin their hopes on things they assumed unattainable, like love and friendship. Rather than chasing the salaryman dream, or climbing to the top of the yakuza tree, they pick an ordinary kind of “good enough” success in which moments of warmth and togetherness become the only things which give life meaning. A surreal ode to just muddling through and learning to be happy in the moment, Melancholic more than lives up to its name but despite all the darkness eventually finds real joy in the easy pleasures of mediocrity and mutual acceptance.
Melancholic was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened at the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival where director Seiji Tanaka and actor Yoshitomo Isozaki will be present for a Q&A.
Original trailer (English subtitles)