“What do you want from the world?” the sad sack hero of M Harris Sheikh’s noirish drama Howling (遠吠え, Tooboe) is asked on three separate occasions giving first a non-answer, then the answer he’d like to give, then the real one which is far less heroic or edifying but at least honest. Like everyone else, he too is howling into a void putting a brave face on his inner insecurity while longing to play the hero in his own life only to discover that no matter how many chances he’s given he may not be up to the mark.
A self-professed nice guy, we first meet Ryuji (Ichiro Hashimoto) trying to help a young woman at the karaoke bar where he works escape sexual harassment in the workplace promising that he can protect her while pledging to kick the other guy’s ass, only as it turns out the other guy is her boyfriend and it’s Ryuji who’s been harassing her. Quite clearly uncomfortable, the young woman informs Ryuji she’s already reported him to HR and he’ll probably be fired today which is exactly what happens but rather than take this as an opportunity to learn Ryuji goes around telling everyone it was all a misunderstanding and he’s fallen victim to a needlessly judgmental society. “The world is tough for middle-aged men” he adds, lamenting that even having a “friendly discussion” with a younger woman has somehow become inappropriate.
It’s these twin facets of his personality that go on to precipitate his downfall in his intense desire to conform to the masculine ideal as a protector when coming into contact with two women who are each in need of his help. Apparently never having had a girlfriend, Ryuji is overexcited when a 20-year-old college student, Akane (Yukino Takahashi), contacts him, a 40-year-old man, on a dating app never really considering that there might be something untoward going on right until the moment she explains that she’s trying to hire a randomer to kill her abusive father who happens to be the chief of police which is why she can’t hire a professional. Meanwhile, a school reunion grants him the opportunity of reuniting with middle-school crush Chisato (Sonae Kotani) only to discover that she has since married the bully, Tsuchida, who made their lives miserable and is trapped in an abusive relationship. Ryuji had been unable to protect her when they were children but claims to be different now. Then again Tsuchida said the same the thing and clearly hasn’t changed at all. Hoping to solve all his problems by getting a sudden windfall and proving that he can be the hero, Ryuji agrees to Akane’s plan but of course eventually disappoints himself realising that his fantasy of being a saviour is just that.
Meanwhile the two women, who happen to be neighbours in a swanky high rise apartment block, begin by believing that they cannot escape their situations alone but need a male saviour each placing their hopes in the overeager Ryuji but finally freeing themselves perhaps spurred on by Ryuji’s male failure but otherwise rendering him an irrelevance. By the final confrontation each of the trio has sustained a wound to the hand to which Akane and Chisato jokingly refer as an eye of truth just like the hero from a manga yet with its own degree of truthfulness in that the women begin to see that their freedom is theirs for the taking while Ryuji is finally forced to accept that his presence is unnecessary proving his mettle only with a gesture of nihilistic futility.
On the other hand we can also see the hand of a highly pressurised society on his fragile masculinity as he accidentally bonds with a pair of weird street preachers crying out for revolution but with an ironic bent. The first is a former Todai graduate who lost a good job in advertising because of all his unhealthy coping mechanisms. He preaches about a creating a truly fair society free of inequality brought about through a deadly virus claiming that his guru, the Master, is the origin not only of the coronavirus pandemic but every other dangerous pathogen known to man. Somewhat contradictorily, the Master reveals that he once lived in a swanky high rise apartment and would like to do so again which sounds somewhat incompatible with the goals of his revolution assuming he’s not planning to build so many that everyone who wants one can have one. The contradiction is further borne out in Ryuji’s answers about what it is he wants from the world, firstly stating ordinary requests such as a decent job, home, wife, children etc before admitting he’d actually prefer a really big house, lots of women, and respect from other people the last emphasising his internalised sense of belittlement and failure.
The world that Ryuji inhabits does indeed seem to be oppressive and ominous, the strange overgrown alleyway below an overpass where he first encounters the revolutionaries reflecting the dark path of his soul while in the film’s complex production design the sterile space of the upscale tower block becomes a kind of trauma room where truths are aired leading to the final confrontation whimsically scored with circus music in which the women literally take matters into their own hands, and even the diner where Ryuji meets Akane takes on a Lynchian sense of the uncanny. Darkly humorous with its deadpan gags of giant spaghetti and the completely random entrance of an unrelated older woman also with a glove on her right hand ranting about her daughter’s hairdresser boyfriend and his koala neck tattoo, Sheikh’s absurdist drama quietly builds to its theatrical conclusion bringing down the curtain on a bloody tableaux the world as prophesied turned upside-down.
International trailer (English subtitles)