Seemingly isolated from the real world, sleepy Otawara lies some 100 miles north of Tokyo in Tochigi Prefecture. It is a purgatorial realm confining its inhabitants to a daily ritual of clockwork repetition, almost trapped in its silence and stark monotony. Cursed to toil their endless ordeal the people here break up their day with inane chatter unknowingly contributing to the droning in the background – their words serve no purpose other than to distract themselves from their plight. Life here is a series of fleeting moments bleeding into one another with no purpose than to merely exist. Well, such is the restrictive stillness of Yusuke Mizuhara’s (Gaku Imamura) world anyway: the mundane predictability of his existence is hypnotically captured by cinematographer Woohyun Bang in beautifully monochromatic fashion, a tone which has become a trademark for director Hirobumi Watanabe’s work. With his third and most challenging film, Watanabe unveils the desensitised nihilism bubbling beneath the expressionless exterior of Gaku Imamura’s intensely bored vessel.
An impressive feat of endurance, Poolsideman focuses on the repetitive daily life of Yusuke Mizuhara, a pool employee who spends his life alone, an empty shell whose free time is committed to trips to the cinema followed by meals at his local McDonald’s every single day. His day job is carried out with such mind-numbing precision one would be forgiven for believing that Mizuhara is living the same day over and over again in bleak Groundhog Day (1993) fashion, in a continuous hell; he stares into nothingness as he tunes out of his colleagues’ banal conversations about, admittedly, nothing. In the film’s disharmonious second half, Mizuhara’s routine is compromised when he and the unliked Koji Shirasaki (an uproariously comical performance from Watanabe himself) are tasked to provide cover for one of Otawara’s other pools.
There is a poeticism on the lackluster surface – an exhibition of the daily mundanity suffered by those trapped in a life they long to be removed from – but it is what boils underneath where the harrowing essence of Poolsideman truly lies. Infiltrating this safe cocoon are the continuous news reports of terror attacks in the Middle East and in Europe, places thousands of miles away from Japan. It is a violence Mizuhara subjects himself to as part of his daily routine from the moment he wakes yet, just like prolonged monologues of Shirasaki and all the other pointless chatter, this purely serves as more background noise: Mizuhara is isn’t phased by the emotionless words which filter into his ears; he just absorbs it. The more he absorbs the more intense the film’s experience becomes, and the closer to the edge he becomes. This is fuelled all the more by the foreboding terror in Yuji Watanabe’s disjointed score alluring to instability Mizuhara finds himself in. This non-diegetic music speaks volumes and is far more real than any of the film’s spoken words.
It is this disconnect which lies at the film’s core, the desensitisation of the world outside this little bubble where all efforts are concerted on getting through the day’s tedium, whether it’s the protagonist’s unhinged dislocation from the real or Shirasaki’s generational distaste for today’s youth, pop culture, or his own colleagues. What stops Poolsideman from being your average bleak critique on modern life, however, is its transcendental minimalism as well as the dry comedic pairing of Imamura and Watanabe: their own disconnect from each other in the form of an unreciprocated friendship is unapologetically witty yet simultaneously infuriating. Although Shirasaki’s prolonged and humorous monologues shatter the deafening silence they inadvertently disquiet the audience further to the point of distress: how can someone enjoy the sound of their voice so much and bombard their peers with a relentless vocal battery? As the film steamrolls towards its haunting climax, these sequences become more and more unsettling for both the audience and Mizuhara.
Whilst Bang’s exquisite camerawork mirrors the film’s mundane universe and Watanabe’s editing paces restricts our glimpse into it, it is the unflinchingly expressionless performance of Imamura which hurtles Poolsideman into a league all of its own. His replication of Mizuhara’s character and rituals is meticulous to say the least, and though his silence is beyond chilling the audience remains transfixed on his vacant stare. We sympathise with him as much as we fear him. Like something from Robert A. Heinlein’s novella The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathon Hoag, through the cracked windows spills a tempestuous concoction of meaninglessness and violence with irreparable consequences; Imamura’s translation of this is startling yet ingenious. With his perpetual decent into the irreal rapidly approaching it begs the question: is it better to remain blissfully ignorant of the world around us, or is there purpose to be found in a disconnected existence fuelled by an overload of information?
Whilst it remains a film that will try the patience of even the most ardent cinephile, Watanabe’s vision is a wholly rewarding experience, overwhelming in its simplicity yet inundating with the darkness under its surface. It is a rarity to pull off such a film yet, with a sophistication, which parallels the likes of Béla Tarr, Watanabe beguiles us across a deceptive two hours with a story of human numbness devoid of any hope for its post-credit outcome. What it lacks in emotion it more than makes up for in its delivery, its textural beauty, and its intensity. A unique cinematic experience which needs to be seen to be believed, Poolsideman is a natural enhancement of Watanabe’s previous work and a testament of this auteur-in-the-making’s brilliance.