Can you outrun sorrow or should you just accept defeat and remain within a bubble of despair? Forced out of his self-isolation, the hero of Asato Watanabe’s debut feature A Dobugawa Dream (ドブ川番外地, Dobugawa Bangaichi) tries to find out, looking for a home among those who’ve fallen through the cracks. This down and out ditch town maybe where you end up when you don’t know where else to go, but there’s comfort in knowing others got there before you, if not so much in realising that they have all failed to leave, either accepting the imperfect present in rejection of a possible future, or wilfully residing in the past.
Highschooler Tatsumi (Yuwa Kitagaki) is a lost young man filled with pent-up rage and frustration. He hasn’t filled in his career survey because he has no idea what to put in it and no amount of irritated cajoling from a less than well-meaning teacher is likely to change that. His only outlet is the dream of sailing away with his best friend on the makeshift raft they’ve crafted from refuse at a disused boatyard, but that dream dies when he discovers him hanging, barefoot his body swaying in the breeze. Unable to process his loss and the guilt that accompanies it, Tatsumi imprisons himself in his room watching VHS tapes of old TV shows until a series of angry voices from the other side of the door eventually forces him out of his place of safety and into a strange new world.
Running blindly, Tatsumi wanders through a dream until he is eventually engulfed by a cheerful street funeral which turns out to be in honour of a man still alive – Tsuchiro, a middle-aged former shogi champ now a drunken rogue and what passes around here for a guardian spirit. Questioned by the local bobby, Tsuchiro passes Tatsumi off as his own son, a ruse no one believes but one with a grain of truth. In Tsuchiro, an infinitely cool presence all sunshades, yukata, and shit-eating grin, Tatsumi finds both a father figure and a double. Just as he is chasing the ghost of a friend he couldn’t save, Tsuchiro is in flight from himself, uncertain of his own identity now he no longer sees it reflected in the eyes of an opponent.
Trapped in this strange netherland, Tsuchiro has chosen oblivion. He drowns his sorrows but secretly plays shogi alone by nights while Tatsumi listens in silent consternation from the next room as his tiles click down on the bloodied board. Originally reluctant, Tatsumi finds himself becoming the older man, dressing in the cast-off clothes of the street and drinking himself out his sorrow but quickly becomes disillusioned with what he sees as Tsuchiro’s hypocrisy. The older man offers him a home among those who have nowhere else to go, but the wily bar hostess, though trapped herself, cautions him that he might not want to stay here, among the perpetually lost, for evermore.
A climactic argument sees Tsuchiro offer some tough love, telling Tatsumi that if he wants to stay he needs to leave his darkness at the door, but Tatsumi doesn’t want the superficial solution the older man has found. He’s angry, and he’s powerless, and not yet ready to face his pain but there are other people he will fail to save precisely because of his solipsistic rage – a lesson age tried to teach him but he was too impatient to see. Further loss and an altruistic act of sacrifice push him towards a reckoning in a deeper dream which allows him to interrogate the ghosts of the traumatic past and, perhaps, make his peace with them.
Alternating between bleak despair and absurd humour, A Dobugawa Dream takes its broken hero on an oneiric odyssey through grief, despair, and eventual rebirth as he learns to reconnect with the world around him and prepares to sail away from the traumatic past into the dreamed of future. Escaping the Dobugawa dreamscape, he takes its wisdom with him, no longer running but moving forward all the same. A beautifully composed and remarkably assured debut from Asato Watanabe, A Dobugawa Dream is both a tale of marginalised lives and the corrosive effects of unresolved trauma, and a gentle hymn to the sadness of letting go.
A Dobugawa Dream made its international premiere at Raindance 2019 courtesy of Third Window Films.