What starts off as a coming-of-age film, morphs towards an ode to V-Cinema and Hong Kong action films, and finally, emerges as a touching human drama. In his debut feature, “Melancholic”, director Seiji Tanaka and actor/producer Yoji Minagawa create a menagerie of overused but fun Yakuza movie plotlines, scenes of familial domesticity, dating life, friendship, young vs old, and notions on college education. It’s the lens in which the story is framed, the eyes through which we see through, and how elements of other genres are woven together that make it such a unique and fantastical debut. “Melancholic” succeeds In that genre blending, in a way that many films have not been able to master. Director Tanaka is able to respect and innovate upon the Japanese action cinema of the late 80’s and 90’s, through the eyes and constant disbelief of a 20-something college graduate.
Casting actor Yoji Minagawa couldn’t have been a better choice, as he shines amongst his well-rounded cast. He’s on par with the best out there and believably steps into his character as he becomes Kazuhiko. Kazuhiko pulls you in with his hand gestures, ticks, extremely awkward eye movement, and charming energy. Think Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver”, or Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate”. Yoji Minagawa has the potential for many intriguing characters in what would be an exciting future for Japanese Cinema.
Strange, socially inept, immature, careless, unvalued, and frail are characteristics that can be used to describe Kazuhiko. He has graduated from a prestigious university, yet his efforts to find a decent job are to no avail, but eventually, he lands a job at a bathhouse. There he begins new relationships with boss Azuma and coworker Matsumoto. After leaving work one night, he gets the feeling that something’s off and returns to the bathhouse again through the side exit only to find a murder taking place under the watchful eye of his boss. Kazuhiko promises to keep his mouth shut and consequently takes the late-night janitor shift which consists of ridding the bathhouse of dead bodies. Slowly he is pulled deeper into a world of crime against his will and in order to protect himself, his friends, and his family from a yakuza boss, he must fight for a way out.
Romance and relationships play a big role in “Melancholic”. The addition of melodrama forces you to reconsider what kind of film you’re watching. Kazuhiko falls in love with Yuri, his classmate from high school. As Yuri and his parent’s lives are threatened, love and family become roots for realism that are endangered by over-the-top gangster violence. This fusion creates the style of the film. Because Kazuhiko is deeply grounded in both worlds, he is the bridge between them for the viewer. The genre-blending works because of how Kazuhiko deals with the hands he’s given, with his awkward and messy self. This is an awkward protagonist, an image uncommon in both family dramas and gangster flicks. The incredible melding of all these elements paves way for this film to have the ending it does. A rush of love, a lesson on kinship, loyalty, kindness, and giving back.
Kazuhiko’s graduation certificate roots the film in modern reality. Even though Kazuhiko has graduated from a prestigious university, it means nothing. New doors aren’t opening for him and he’s just as he was before attending university–jobless. The certificate, framed on his wall, looms over and antagonizes him. It’s constantly brought up and questioned in amazement. “You must be a genius!”, and “Wow you graduated from..?!”. Director Tanaka explores societal ideas of education and institution starkly contrasted against the post-college students’ reality. Kazuhiko ends up at the job he gets instead of the job society implies he can get, because of society’s very nature. A modern idea tackled by the rage of the young director. One that implicates a theme of generations colliding.
A grand idea tackled in the film is the idea of old vs new, the traditional versus the contemporary. It’s a through-line within the film with the stage set for young adults versus middle-aged and older adults. Azuma, the bathhouse owner, and Tanaka, the yakuza boss both want to desperately preserve what they have. To them, change is destabilizing. It threatens their power and place in society. Arguably, change is inevitable and within every generation, it is ingrained within the young. Kazuhiko and Matsumoto are progressive in where they place their values; family and friends. They refuse to be defined by their current circumstance as they are subject to change at any given moment, nor do they care. But because they are working within the pre-existing systems set by the older generations–Azuma and Tanaka, it’s inevitable that their thinking will clash. Taking one step further back, Tanaka also uses this as a metaphor for the filmmaking itself. “Melancholic” does not belong solely to one genre. By taking the heart, guts, and tropes of V-Cinema, and subverting them, Tanaka reinvents and invents a beautiful and contemporary genre hybrid.