Melancholic (2019) by Seiji Tanaka

Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa) is a university graduate still living at home with his parents, having never found a full-time job. His listless existence seems drab and colourless with little excitement enlivening the daily monotony. Stopping by the bathhouse one day he bumps into a former high-school classmate, Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida), who asks him if he is planning to go to their upcoming school reunion. It is clear that she has an interest in him, but Kazuhiko’s social awkwardness almost leads to him missing his chance with her. He begins a halting relationship with Yuri and takes her advice to get a job at the bathhouse. However, both these developments come under strain when he discovers the bathhouse is being used as a front for yakuza hits and the disposal of corpses killed in gangland disputes. Along with his co-worker Akira (Yoshitomo Isozaki), Kazuhiko begins working this second job, unable to get out of his obligations to the bathhouse owner Higashi (Makoto Hada).

“Melancholic” is a black comedy with a twisted premise that creates a driving tension through its various relationships. It is tightly scripted, with Kazuhiko’s world and choices boiling down to only a few individuals: Akira, his co-worker, employee, Yakuza boss Tanaka (Masanobu Yata) and his girlfriend, Angela (Stefanie Arianne). The film is a blend of character study, with our protagonist stress-tested almost to breaking point by the uncomfortably dangerous situations he finds himself in, and comedy with often hilarious scenes arising from the peculiar premise of a socially awkward man at the centre of a gangland murder operation. Yoji Minagawa gives an amazing performance, permanently uncomfortable, squinting and shuffling, and baffled by everything from Yuri’s advances to discoveries about those around him. Mebuki Yoshida is incredibly likeable as the cute, kind and sympathetic love interest and the uneasy tentative nature of her relationship with Minagawa’s character is perfectly written and acted. Yoshitomo Isozaki provides great comic relief as Akira, whose poorly educated yet easy going character is at complete odds with the anxious Kazuhiko.

Written and directed by Seiji Tanaka, the film revolves around Kazuhiko and his relationships with the world, both romantic and as an employee. He is a man who has avoided finding a permanent job for unexplained reasons, either personal choice or due to his character. We see a former classmate who has become a major success as a pianist and his achievement seems in stark contrast to the apparent failure of Kazuhiko to find gainful employment. He is a man whose character defects, shyness and lack of motivation, seem to doom him to miss important chances in life. This is most painfully exemplified by his near-miss conversations with Yuri that rely heavily on her persistence to make their relationship work. The theme of work and obligations plays heavily throughout, taken to an extreme through the introduction of the yakuza and the disposal of bodies. There is a question hanging over the value of work and what causes people to do things for other people, especially despicable or otherwise intolerable things. Whether for money, for love, for fame, or out of a sense of solidarity with others, the actions of every individual are examined closely. The film offers no concrete answers, but it does give us a cast of expertly drawn characters that shed light on how people interact with one another and the vicissitudes of fortune that set people on certain paths.