“Why was living so hard for him?” a brother remarks of man he assumed to have died in an accident after severing ties with his family, though with little sympathy in his voice and in truth should the brother be dead it would be all the better for him. Adapted from a novel by Keiichiro Hirano, Kei Ishikawa’s A Man (ある男, Aru Otoko) asks questions not so much about the limits of identity and the existence of an authentic self, but the kinds of labels we place on others and the prejudice that often accompanies them that makes some want to run from themselves.
Accidental detective Kido (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a lawyer who previously represented the recently widowed Rie (Sakura Ando) in her divorce from her first husband, is a case in point. He tries not to react while his wealthy and extremely conservative father-in-law runs down a case he’s just won representing the parents of a man who took his own life after being expected to work extreme overtime by an exploitative company solely to fulfil the image of the salaryman. The father-in-law sneers and complaints about the family receiving compensation before moving on to a rant about the welfare state scoffing that “real” Japanese don’t rely on such things which are only for “Koreans and people of that ilk”.
Aside from its unpleasant xenophobia, the remark is insensitive as Kido is himself third generation Zainichi Korean, though a naturalised citizen of Japan. Throughout the film, he’s bombarded with social prejudice and racist abuse to which he chooses to say nothing, because there’s nothing he can really say, though leaving us to wonder if his decision to marry his wife (Yoko Maki), the daughter of a wealthy and conservative family, is an attempt to secure his own identity as a member of Japanese society even while bristling at her further demands, that they should invest in a more impressive, larger detached house as recommended by her father and also have another child.
Kido’s quest to uncover the “true” identity of Rie’s husband Daisuke (Masataka Kubota) who is discovered to have been living an assumed identity when the brother of the man whose name he borrowed arrives at his memorial service, is also a quest to affirm his own identity which is in many ways as self-constructed as Daisuke’s is assumed to be. The interesting thing is that Daisuke, who said little of his past, used the other man’s backstory leaving no doubt that is not quite a case of mistaken identity that brings Kyoichi (Hidekazu Mashima) to Daisuke’s memorial service, though he is quick enough to disparage the life the deceased man shared with Rie in a rural “backwater” while making vague references to insurance policies and inheritances and simultaneously offering to pay for the funeral expenses as if reclaiming ownership over Daisuke’s legacy.
Like Kido’s father-in-law, Kyoichi appears to be a cynical and self-interested man and it’s not difficult to see why the other Daisuke may have wished to escape his life with him. As an older man points out, everyone has things in their past and though they might not seem like much to others it’s natural enough to want run from yourself, to leave everything behind and start again somewhere else. In Japan, this is much easier to do than in some other countries and it’s true enough that changing one’s name is not that uncommon either. Rie’s young son Yuto, now old enough to question his own identity, took his mother’s maiden name after the divorce, then Daisuke’s surname Taniguchi when he married his mother. Now he wonders what his name should be if it is not Taniguchi and who he really is underneath it.
In essence, we give people names as a kind of label to describe our relationship to them as a means of mapping out the world. These labels also come with prejudices such as that directed towards Kido as a Zainichi Korean and to another of the “disappeared” men who struggled to emerge from the shadow of his father’s crime as a death row felon. The projection of an identity can be harder to live with than the identity itself. When Kido’s wife tells him that he doesn’t seem himself and she wants him to go back to the way he was before, it’s a rejection of the new identity that has begun to surface through his quest to identify Daisuke and an instruction that he conform to the image of him she has constructed for herself as a typical Japanese salaryman not so different from her father in their affluent, middle-class existence.
Having satisfied himself that he understands the man Daisuke came to be, Kido’s self-image and sense of identity seem to be reaffirmed. He is happier with his wife and son, and has fewer doubts about his place in the world, but then he’s suddenly confronted with an unexpected revelation that undermines his new sense of security in causing him to doubt the veracity of the image he has of others, and consequently of their relationship with him which again leaves him unanchored unable to affirm his image of himself without its reflection. Rie’s final acceptance that in the end she never needed the “truth” (now that she has it) points to the same answer, that in the end Daisuke’s name was irrelevant because he was the man he was to her at the time that she knew him and this is all we can ever really know of each other in a continual act of faith in interpersonal connection. A man can be many people at once, or in quick succession, and none of them any less “real” than another. “It’s nobody’s life but your own,” Kido is reminded even as he struggles to reorient himself in a merging of identities self-constructed or otherwise but perhaps destined to remain forever a stranger to himself.
A Man screens in Chicago March 18 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
International trailer (English subtitles)