“Who are you? Why are you here?” both questions that might occur to anyone at any point in their lives, but don’t seem to bother the hero of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s off the wall B-movie thriller #Manhole (#マンホール) until he’s been trapped underground long enough to realise that his literal fall from grace might not be an accident after all. An existential journey deep into the soul of a seemingly blessed salaryman, Kumakiri’s defiantly absurdist drama is part social satire revolving around fluctuating identity in the social media age and meditation on the inevitability of karmic retribution. 

Shunsuke (Yuto Nakajima) does indeed seem to have it all. A successful estate agent, he’s about to get married and even has a baby on the way, only on his way home from a “surprise” party hosted by his work colleagues the night before his wedding he somehow manages to fall down an open manhole in the middle of Shibuya and becomes trapped there. His attempts to simply climb out are frustrated by a nasty gash on his thigh and a broken ladder while no one seems to be able to hear his cries for help. Though his phone still works, the only person who picks up when he calls is a former girlfriend, Mai (Nao), whom he threw over to court the boss’ daughter five years previously which makes it somewhat awkward to ask for help. 

As we can gradually gather, Shunsuke is not really a great guy and is in part in a hole of his own making. Even so, you can’t really confine someone to a hole just for being one. To begin with he busies himself with trying to solve various hole-related problems such as a leaking gas pipe with the salaryman tools at his disposal like the tiny of roll of sellotape in his pencil case or the cigarette lighter he was gifted by suspiciously aloof colleague Kase (Kento Nagayama) as a wedding present though there’s not much he can do about the weird foam or various animal corpses that surround him. 

It’s at this point he decides to enlist the help of the internet in setting up a profile on Twitter-like social media app Pecker where he identifies himself as “Manhole Girl” under the rationale that people are more likely to rush to the rescue of a pretty young woman than a 30-year-old salaryman who had too much to drink and fell in a hole. His readiness to do this hints at his internal duplicity and a confident sense of entitlement. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that whoever comes to his rescue might decide not to bother on discovering the truth. In any case, he soon becomes Pecker’s main character with engaged netizens keen to help him figure out where he is and, once it becomes clear it might not be an accident, who put him there. But claiming to be his own sister he’s also confronted with sordid speculation about his personal life and character that reveal there might be quite a few people who privately hoped he’d someday disappear down a hole in the ground and never come back up again.

Even before his ordeal, Kumakiri often frames Shunsuke looking at his own reflection hinting at a lack of self-recognition in the images that he sees of himself. Of course, he doesn’t know who any of the helpful netizens are either because most of them don’t use their “real” names or profile pictures that are actually of “themselves” just as he pulled a picture of a cute girl off the internet to create the Manhole Girl persona. He can’t even be sure of the identity of the people he speaks to on the phone, and wonders if Mai really did come to look for him when she says she’s been all over Shibuya and couldn’t find any open manholes. 

For a while it really does seem like he’s in “a completely different place”, some alternate dimension of existential purgatory. The sense of eeriness is only deepened by the strong blue-green lighting and ominous clouds above the hole that obscure the image of the full moon which, in the urban absence of stars and the disruption of his GPS seemingly caused by an unknown force, are all he has to go on in trying to figure out where exactly he is. Few will be prepared for the answer, though as some may expect Shunsuke knew all along for as much as it’s a “real” place it’s also a part of himself he sought to deny. Kumakiri excels in capturing the claustrophobic otherworldliness of Shunsuke’s near literal hell hole while mining a deep seam of cynical dark humour and anarchic absurdity culminating in an incredibly ironic and deliciously wry use of cheerful 1960s hit Sukiyaki. 

#Manhole screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley April 20/21 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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