Asleep, as befits its title, is a quiet, gentle and slow-paced film about Terako (Sakura Ando), a young woma who is having an affair with a somewhat older married man named Mr. Iwanaga (Arata Iura). Provided for by him, Terako has little to do with her time but to wait for his calls and increasingly turns to sleep as a means to pass time until their next rendezvous. When the two get together in town, their meetings are “like the shadow of a dream,” as she puts it in the film’s voice-over narration.
Terako did have one close friend, a roommate from college named Shiori (Mitsuki Tanimura), but she moved out and took a peculiar job as a companion to various customers – men, women, even foreigners -who want or need someone to sleep besides them in bed, no sex acts involved. Unfortunately, Shiro committed suicide and is now available to Terako only in memories and in dreams.
Based on a short story from a 1989 compilation of the same name by author Banana Yoshimoto, Asleep draws the viewer into Terako’s downward spiral of increased lassitude. The film’s dramatic tension is derived from this engrossing descent into deeper and longer periods of lethargy, which contrast with the audience’s identification with Terako and their desire for her to somehow pull out of it. Not until the film’s final moments is there an indication of which way things will probably go for Terako.
Director and co-screenwriter Shingo Wakagi has crafted a compelling piece of psychological cinema. There’s no real backstory aside from the fact that Terako and Shiori were once friends and shared an apartment. Similarly, aside from the fact that they met in winter, there’s no information about how Terako and Mr. Iwanga happened to come together. We merely meet them in mid-relationship, a point that is essentially a state of romantic stasis, thereby causing Terako’s problem with spending too much time asleep. But her story is fascinating one and serves as a showcase for Ando’s considerable talents as an actress.
Asleep is the first of two Centerpiece Presentations that will be playing at Japan Society NY’s JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film on Thursday, July 16. The second film is 100 Yen Love, also stars Sakura Ando, who will be present for introductions and Q&A at both films. Miss Ando is this year’s recipient of the festival’s CUT ABOVE Award for Outstanding Performance in Film.