5 Million Dollar Life (Japan, 2019) [NYAFF 2019]

Originally from Hiroshima, after graduating from high school, Moon Sung-Ho studied filmmaking in South Korea and then returned to Japan to shoot commercials and short films. 5 Million Dollar Life is his debut feature from an original screenplay by veteran writer Naomi Hiruta. It has a weird energy thanks a dark story concerned with death and exploitation and a light delivery in terms of direction and the sunny daytime action.

The titular 5 million dollar life belongs to Mirai Takatsuki (Ayumu Mochizuki). When he was young he had a life threatening disease but he was saved thanks to his local community who donated five hundred million yen ($5 million) to pay for his open-heart surgery. This made him something of a celebrity especially with an annual television show broadcast about him tracking his life since that moment. As he has grown up, he has struggled to “repay” the life-saving act of generosity given to him by the public. As he tries to maintain an honourable and pleasant facade and appear as a do-gooder in public, he feels increasingly disaffected by his situation and has developed something of an inferiority complex as he doubts he can live up to his media image.

In reality, he is an alienated high school student, so alienated that he decides to commit suicide and writes down his intentions on SNS which is how he receives a message from a stranger which states, “if you want to die, you need to return the five hundred million yen first.” This message sets off changes. He decides to leave the comfort of his home and protection of his doting mother and take on different jobs with the intention of earning the money. Once that has happened, he’ll commit suicide. The only problem is that, at the age of 17, getting a job will be hard and he will have to start from scratch so accomplishing this challenge changes Mirai’s perspective on life. He gets a taste of reality and comes to understand that a person’s value is down to more than just money.

What initially sounds like a standard coming-of-age story quickly escalates into something that surprises as plenty of drama and dashes of comedy and even farcical situations mount up for our naive protagonist Mirai who tumbles from one situation to another and experiences the hardships of life lived by those at the bottom of society from exploited day-workers to yakuza and lonely office ladies. As the narrative progresses a number of issues affecting Japanese society are touched upon from homelessness to sex-work and more and it is done at a fair clip thanks to bouncy pacing so the film dips into darkness and moves on. Situations and people give Mirai lessons in life that are implemented later in the film as his diverse experiences build him up as a character.

Throughout his journey there is the sense that his series of misadventures is teaching him but there is the sneaking sense that he is actually really selfish as he puts others who genuinely care about him, his mother especially, through an emotional wringer with his absence and silence. What prevents the character from becoming unlikable is the lovely presence of the Mochizuki who is effervescent and bubbly so that even when he is excessively mopey and mean, such as when he talks directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, he is forgivable. His natural dramatic abilities and also a touch of comedic reactions work well to bolster the playfulness of the film as well as create a character who has depth and learns the extent of his personal value. As he struggles through dark times, he applies the Japanese qualities of gaman and gambarimasu and lets his natural disposition towards being good and his natural kindness shine through. His lesson (and the audience’s) is that the value of our life is determined by others as well as by ourselves.

This is a coming-of-age story married to a road-trip movie with a naive lead prone to falling for deceptions and getting into increasingly outrageous scrapes. It surprisingly turns into an astute examination of what is important in life: to value ourselves and the people and things around us.

5 Million Dollar Life was shown at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on July 11.

This review was first posted at Genkinahito.