Blank 13 (Japan, 2017) [JAPAN CUTS 2018]

Bookending an immeasurable physical and emotional distance father and son stand atop a hospital roof, eyes meeting only out of necessity, silence reluctantly broken for the passing of pleasantries. Testament to the unforgiving neglect and absence served by the failed Matsuda patriarch, the gulf between these two men never closes, inescapably enclosed within the confines of a single frame. Such a magnificently captured scene echoes the never-ending suffering triggered not just by fatherly abandonment but by his very presence and proximity to those he is supposed to care for. Resurfacing from every poignantly exquisite nook the bitter sting of these memories runs deep in Blank 13. Takumi Saitoh’s eloquently rousing debut sings from the bottom of many a heart pained from the loss of someone who meant polarising things for different walks of life.

Shot within seven days and constructed to the duration of human cremation, Blank 13 is a projection of memories of Masato Matsuda (Lily Franky), a debt-ridden gambling addict who deserts his wife Hiroko and two sons, Yoshiyuki and Koji, under the excuse of purchasing cigarettes. Now tasked with the brutal reality of raising two children single-handedly, Hiroko is forced to handle two jobs just to escape the clutches of desperation and poverty. Thirteen blank years later (where the film takes its name), Masato is awkwardly reunited with his youngest son whilst dying of stomach cancer. At his sparsely attended funeral, he is remembered and eulogised by the social oddities and outcasts he came to know fondly in the empty years his own family endured, much to the bemusement of his own children.

Fluctuating between the comical present and the vivid flashbacks of a tormented past, the opening chapter of Saitoh’s film is a beautifully blended depiction of a family unraveling at the hands of Masato, a feeble man depicted through a notably absent Franky performance. Tapping into the selfish persona of a parental figure hiding from responsibility, Franky seldom appears in the picture yet his manifestation means his presence is continually felt. From one hardship to another, the family he leaves behind struggles to make ends meet. Instead of falling into the trap of melodrama, Saitoh remains concise with Misutoshi Saijo’s script, uncovering only the immediate wounds of Masato’s departure, wounds left open for the span of thirteen years never to truly heal: an older son who joins an ad agency to never become a man like his father whilst Issey Takahashi’s nonplussed Koji, whose tenuous connection with his father lies in their mutual love of baseball, is afflicted with the frustrations of a pregnant girlfriend to whom he seldom pays attention and the resurgence of his own failures during his fleeting reunion.

Heralding in its second chapter the film’s title sequence hurtles back to Masato’s memorial service; though dead, his lingering presence is still felt, our gaze constantly returning to his portrait. Abandoning the crisp Christopher Doyle-esque cinematography for a largely improvised skit featuring comics and other special appearances Blank 13 shifts to the uncomfortably humorous eulogies of fellow mah-jong and pachinko players, waitresses, magicians, and other quirky oddballs who have come to pay their respects. With spectacular and unashamedly hilarious performances by the likes of Jun Murakami, Jiro Sato, and Hiroshi Kanbe among others, their touching testimonies illuminate a whole new man out of Masato, a man whom, admittedly, we know next to nothing about. Its light-hearted delivery, whilst tonally and stylistically alien to the piercing drama of the first half, reflects this resurrection of character whilst never detouring from the deluge suffered by his family, who look on with vacant expressions as each friend details what meaning he brought to their lives, a deadpan response to such fanciful and remarkable tales of compassion.

Despite the heart-wrenching scenes from a family flooding the screen in the prelude to the funeral, accentuated by the moving sound design and score from Nobuaki Kaneko, Blank 13’s charm is unearthed in its second act. Takahashi, Saitoh and Mayu Matsuoka (playing Koji’s girlfriend) take a backseat as the focus is pulled from under their feet, reassuring the absent character study and placing greater value on Masato’s worth – in an endearing twist of fate, his thinly populated service is filled with more genuine love than the simultaneous, more abundant memorial for a different Matsuda, packed with mourners whose attendance has been bought. Reliant on the powerful strength of our mourners’ performances and its ingenious sequencing of events, the film carries itself with an alluring sophistication whilst handling its subject matter with nothing but (newfound) respect.

Despite the recollections of their fathers’ friends Yoshiyuki and Koji’s own sour memories leave them unchanged. To them, this remembrance of a man who has been dead to them for thirteen years is nothing more than a formality. For us, Saitoh’s film is no mere formality: with charming, evocative, and brilliantly witty strokes of genius, it breathes fresh life into a cinema overpopulated with the absence of those we once believed would never desert us.

Blank 13 is showing on July 20 at JAPAN CUTS.