I honestly had no expectations for this film. I didn’t browse through reviews or watch the trailer. All I knew about it was that Fumi Nikaido and Kyoko Koizumi were the two leads. I have fan-boyed over Nikaido for long enough, praising her versatility of roles like playing a human equivalent of a goldfish to a psychopathic terrorist, so I won’t go on about her again at length here. As for Koizumi, I’ve been an admirer of her work because she is such a quiet force of nature whose sheer presence will elicit a reaction from anyone. Her roles in the thrilling TV drama (later turned into feature-length) Penance (2012) to the under-seen darkly comic drama Before the Vigil (2013) are clear examples of her talent. So with two impeccably talented actresses in the leads, that alone got me excited. And to have the screenwriter of such great films as Isn’t Anyone Alive? (2012) and A Story of Yonosuke (2013) at the helm, this went close to the top of my must-see list. So can Kako: My Sullen Past live up to the talent involved or will it fizzle out with a light blow-up?
Nikaido stars as the titular character, Kako, a high school student who is trudging through the boring summer holidays, taking care of her niece at her family’s restaurant in Kitashinagawa. She has an affinity for past events, particularly ones that involve deaths and kidnapping (or in one case, crocodiles), and points out that she can see the future. And because of that so-called gift, she has incredibly low expectations of the future for herself, as well as others. But her life suddenly changes when her Aunt Mikiko (Koizumi) suddenly appears into her life. And this is a huge surprise for the whole family, not just because of a long absence, but she was assumed to have been dead for 18 years. But what made her come back into the family life? Where has she been? What has she been doing? Who is she? Rumours begin to spread that she may have been overseas, fighting the government. Making bombs, destroying Yakuza headquarters; sounds like things a typical Aunt would do.
The film’s narrative is as weird as if gets, but it sure doesn’t play out that way. Rather, it plays out in an understated manner, and considering the mileage that director Shiro Maeda gets out of this approach, he definitely made the right choice. The dialogue is drolly cynical yet surprisingly human and the unusual story is dealt with in a calm way. Its humour is more sly than explicit and the ridiculous elements peppered throughout the story all have a good payoff that lends weight and growth to the characters. A sub-plot involving crocodiles is a great example as it makes the ending very satisfying (a repeat viewing is recommended just to watch all the moments and to figure out what they mean, but that’s part of the fun).
There is also a healthy amount of offbeat humour that thankfully feels natural to the story, and is not just included for the sake of it. There’s a scene where Kako is staring intently towards the water to see if there are any crocodiles while other civilians are running towards two people angrily fighting each other in the background. People are telling Kako about it, but she pays no mind to them whatsoever, to the point where she claims that she’s seen it all. The scene stands out because it clearly focuses more on the character (the shot placement shows Kako in the foreground, and the fight in the background) with the contrast between her and the supposed main event being funny to witness. Other offbeat moments involve Kako babysitting her unnamed niece and she again stands in one spot and stares at her intently and there is a scene in the final act that involves the use of an umbrella that starts out dramatic but ends up being funny precisely because it starts off dramatic. And don’t get me started on the tip of that scene. When you watch the film, you will know what I mean when I say the word “tip”.
It may seem like I am making the film out to be a flat-out comedy, but it isn’t. Maeda creates distinct and compelling characters and his storytelling is complimentary to them in the best way. Kako is as world-weary as it gets, but she seems to have an unhealthy fixation with the past. The enigmatic Mikiko is a cool and collected woman, in a graceful way that only Koizumi can portray, but her attitude is unexpected when you consider the rumour that she could be a terrorist. And despite the hatred that Kako has towards Mikiko, she is again fixated towards someone elses’ past and she gradually realizes that they are more similar than she would care to admit. Both ample in storytelling as well as character growth, Maeda has a subtle, yet assured hand that makes it work.
But none of the characters would stand without the talented cast. The character of Kako could have been seen as annoying, but thankfully Nikaido sidesteps that pratfall with such a sardonic attitude that it comes off as witty. The first scene she has is with an aspiring rock-star (Yuki Yamada) and it sets her performance perfectly. Kyoko Koizumi is fantastic as Mikiko, showing the sense of grace that Koizumi always does but to apply it to a character that has a subtle fire in her, it gives the character a very sophisticated and surprisingly philosophical side that piques the audience’s interest as well as the character of Kako’s. The character is the catalyst of the story and that is when the film takes flight, thanks to Koizumi. It certainly helps that the chemistry between her and Nikaido works wonders as the crabbiness of the latter compliments the cool and impassive behaviour of the former. The rest of the cast are great like Kengo Kora as the stranger and Itsuji Itao as the father who may have a secret up his sleeve.
The story may be a bit too weird for some and the characters may not be inherently likable for mainstream interest. Some of the their actions may turn people off and, in this day of age, could be seen as downright irresponsible. Plus, for those who are expecting the film to be more overstated and insistent in either of its comedy or drama will definitely leave disappointed, as director Maeda’s approach to the story is more understated. His pacing could be a bit faster, but it complements the ennui that the characters experience throughout.
Kako: My Sullen Past is an offbeat family drama that stands out thanks to the performances of the two leads and Maeda’s script, which is a compelling mixture of surrealistic humour and the understated human drama.
Kano: My Sullen Past receives its North American premiere as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film on Sunday July 24 at 2:15pm at Japan Society.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.