Melancholic (Japan, 2018)

Melancholic follows Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa), a young man who graduated from the prestigious Tokyo University, but who has been content with just getting by. Still living with his parents, Kazuhiko takes a part time job at a public bathhouse, where he begins dating Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida), an old high school classmate. While passing by the bathhouse late one night, he sneaks in to see why the lights are still on and sees something that terrifies him. A hitman for the yakuza is using the business to commit murder and dispose of the bodies. Kazuhiko promises his boss Azuma (Makoto Hada) and the hitman that he will keep quiet and ultimately takes the job as overnight janitor to help clean up the mess. Matsumoto (Yoshitomo Isozaki), who is another hitman, also works the overnight shift with Kazuhiko, and the two men develop an uneasy friendship.

When one hitman is killed on a job, Tanaka (Masanobu Yata), the yakuza boss, visits the bathhouse and tells Azuma that Kazuhiko must now become a hitman, or he must be killed because he knows too much. Matsumoto and Kazuhiko hatch a plan to take out Tanaka in order to protect Kazuhiko and get Azuma out from under Tanaka’s thumb. Their plan, however, takes a startling turn, which ultimately brings out the best of Kazuhiko.

Kazuhiko can definitely be described as a misfit. While most of his peers strive for prestige, he is content to take what he can get. He is socially awkward and rather immature, though his parents don’t seem to try to push him out of the nest, so to speak. Kazuhiko begins to come out of his shell in his relationships with Yuri and Matsumoto, caring for both and vowing to protect them. Kazuhiko’s relationship with Matsumoto is a particularly strange one, as the latter is a hitman for the yakuza and as a result, he maintains the status of loner. The two men spend time together and get to know each other, and they both seem to value their friendship. Writer/director Seiji Tanaka has done a fantastic job firmly establishing a real and grounding link between the two worlds of respectability and crime with the character of Kazuhiko and Minagawa proves to have been a brilliant casting choice.

Melancholic deals with a number of cultural and societal issues in Japan, including the drive for respectability among the middle class, the desire to follow one’s own path, the open way the crime world functions in society, and bridging the gap between the old way of thinking and the new. Kazuhiko doesn’t look down on Azuma or Matsumoto because of what they do; he sees them as equals and doesn’t hold their criminal activity against them. He is accepting of his new friends and is able to come out of his shell and help when his friends are in need. The crime boss is old-school, as in a way, is Azuma, and the younger Kazuhiko and Matsumoto realize it’s time for a changing of the guard. Matsumoto also sees himself as ready to leave a life of crime and establish himself in a normal world, with people he cares about. While some of the usual tropes of crime drama exist, Tanaka has shifted some of those tropes to something new. Hope is alive and well in many of the characters in Melancholic and that is one of the main themes—there is always hope for a better and brighter future.

While a bit light on the comedy, Melancholic is a very promising debut for Seiji Tanaka. The story is engaging and all of the characters are relatable in some way as well as being empathetic. It’s definitely worth viewing.