Navigating the rental property market in a major city can be a patience testing experience, but Sion Sono turns the search for the right apartment into a sustained piece of existential dread with his minimalist black-and-white early feature The Room. If the prolific director’s recent work can be summarized as a cinema of excess, then this threadbare two-hander between an ageing criminal and a young property agent makes a considerable impression through sparse compositions and disquieting atmospherics. Aesthetic restraint aside, the director’s nihilistic tendencies are very much in evidence in this often overlooked entry in his canon, as signaled by an opening card that reads, “April is the cruelest month. Goodbye, Twentieth Century.”
The client is a world-weary hitman (Akaji Maro), first seen looking out to sea and wearing a rumpled raincoat that make him look like a leftover from a Nikkatsu yakuza ‘B’-movie special. He goes to a letting agency where he lists his rental requirements to a withdrawn agent (Yoriko Dogouchi), who is identified only by her employee number – 8499537. His needs are very specific – a room that goes will with an April breeze so he can smell the cherry blossoms, a view that is not obscured by a nearby tall building, and as quiet as possible – and she listens intently to his criteria. Traversing dilapidated areas of the metropolis via subway, she shows him various apartments that seem to be satisfactory, succinctly listing the prices and the benefits of the respective districts, but none are quite right. Taking a break for the evening, the client ruminates on a recent assignment in flashback and meets with an even older former associate, who laments that he has killed so many people that he now hears the dead whispering to him. The following day, the agent shows her client another option, before realising that the space he is searching for may not be one that most people would consider to be comfortably habitable.
This slight narrative is told with the bare minimum of camera set-ups, as if Sono has assigned himself the task of making a 90-minute feature with as few shots as possible (44 to be precise), but The Room has a hypnotic quality that makes it more than an stylistic exercise. It’s very much a ‘Tokyo story’, albeit a consciously alienating one, with the client and the agent crossing the city by public transport or a truck that the client acquires, maintaining a socially correct distance from one another when on the subway by sitting on opposite sides of the carriage. Tokyo here is a ghost city with the eerie wind of the opening credits sequence – which depicts a wasteland with the title of the film displayed on a rotting signpost – carried over to a city that does not appear to be that much more inhabited. Sono finds ways to inject a sense of urgency to the search without breaking the deliberate rhythm, such as the sound of a ticking clock when the client returns for another round of viewings and quickening of the agent’s footsteps as she resumes her task.
Although the two leads are given limited dialogue, a gradual bond, or at least mutual acknowledgment, develops between the client and the agent. The social positions of these two people (grizzled outsider with a dubious past and mid-level professional defined by plain uniform and work ID) mark them as being from different worlds, but the innate manner in which the agent appreciates her client’s needs reveals a shared sense of disillusionment and quiet desperation. The client speaks as if every sentence is being uttered with his dying breath, while the agent is a reserved professional, hushed and polite, only showing some personality in the final scene. En route to their final viewing, the client comments that the agent’s eyes are like the room that he is looking for, and Sono’s fixed frames allow the viewer to be similarly drawn to her downcast expression.
As with Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Sono has always had a flair for finding the strangeness in ordinary spaces, shooting mundane locations in a matter-of-fact manner that serves to accentuate their potential for isolation. Lately, he’s revelled in set design that borders on the garish, but it’s hopefully just a phase that he’ll eventually get out of considering that he makes more films in a few years than most contemporary directors manage in an entire career. Those who were drawn into Sono’s twisted world by such intense accounts of social dysfunction as Suicide Club (2001) and Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) but have become infuriated with the unwieldy nature of genre riffs like Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013) and Tokyo Tribe (2014) should track down a copy of The Room as it exhibits the unwavering focus on the human depths that he has recently forsaken in favor of unhinged chaos.