Playwright and director Kenji Yamauchi premiered his third feature At the Terrace at the 2016 edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival where it garnered positive buzz from critics for its mix of sensuous and caustic comedy. Adapting his play Trois Grotesques, Yamauchi refuses to cleave too far away from his source and keeps things simple with a single location and a cast of seven actors, all of whom were players in the preceding play. Perhaps because of their familiarity with the material, the director and his cast bring about a film that proves to be a painfully funny comedy of manners that explores the pulse-pounding sexual passions, bitter feelings and bad behaviour bubbling away beneath the polite Japanese exteriors of a group of acquaintances.
The film opens at a lavish house somewhere in the suburbs of Tokyo. The house is owned by Mr. Soejima (Kenji Iwaya), the director of a company, and his wife Kazumi (Kei Ishibashi), both of whom are hosting a night-time party which is concluding on a happy note if the happy shouts and cheers of the guests who are going home slightly inebriated are anything to go by.
They are at the front of the house.
The action actually takes place entirely on the titular terrace at the back of the house. The first character (human character, at least) we meet is Haruko Saito (Kami Hiraiwa), a beautiful young lady who has wandered onto the terrace to check her phone in private. She attracts the attention of Tanoura (Hiroaki Morooka), a timid and sensitive engineer from the Toyota car firm. It seems he has fallen in love with Haruko, not realising that she is married to a client of the Soejima’s, the graphic designer Taro (Ryuta Furuta), a confident looking man sporting a flashy purple suit and a bit of a beard that frames an occasional devilish grin.
Despite heavy sighs and longing glances aimed at Haruko, Tanoura doesn’t stand a chance. When Kazumi, the big-bosomed bespectacled beauty, who is playing host tonight, catches his performance, she toys with his feelings especially when her leery and lascivious husband joins the conversation with Taro, who takes offense at the Tanoura’s interest in his wife. Kazumi enjoys bullying the easily upset man and teases out Tanoura’s attraction to Haruko, whom she loathes and envies because of her beauty. She singles out a comment about Haruko’s white arms which becomes the subject of raucous talk between the men and women when discussion turns from debates on aesthete novels to the sexual attraction that people at the party may or may not feel towards Haruko and Kazumi.
A twisted competition full of embarrassment threatens to unfold except for the presence of Masato Saito (Takashi Okabe), a skinny lugubrious man who is a mutual acquaintance of both Tanoura and Taro. He has recently lost a lot of weight because of an operation and is recovering from surgery, but nontheless looks peaky. His illness provides relief from conversations that flare up between the men and women since he faints just as they become a little too stormy. Any sense that calm will be medically maintained by appropriately-timed fainting is torpedoed when Teruo Soejima (Atsushi Hashimoto), the handsome university student son of the hosts joins the party; he starts revealing a few secrets of his parents and Haruko, who he knows personally, and gets the pulses racing as sexual tensions bubble over.
What occurs for the rest of the film is a swift unveiling of the characters as the alcohol flows and their social masks are removed in real time. Over the course of 90 minutes, we witness the lust, jealousies, and rivalries that everybody feels for each other.
In this awkward situation, social positions, which are very important to know in Japan (just study the language of Keigo), breakdown as bosses become familiar with subordinates, wives speak their minds, and sensitive lonely men under the influence of alcohol burst into tears because of broken hearts. Audiences will surely find the awkward squirming of characters amusing as they desperately try to talk about everyday things like business and culture but are led back to their barely repressed base instincts as they are humiliated by each other. The degrees of anger, bitterness, and lust are revealed in a series of shock dramtaic peaks and verbal sparring before lulls intervene and the group gets its collective composure back. Rest assured that the lulls only set up further peaks since the passions too much to contain when striving to maintain a very Japanese sort of group harmony and social decorum.
If anyone is worried that At the Terrace will be a static experience because of its stage play origins, then you can rest assured that it is far from stiff. Despite being restricted to a single set, Yamauchi keeps things breezy with pacy editing and various camera angles, consistent cuts to different views of the terrace and the characters on it. These link with extreme close-ups of faces to catch the subtle character interactions – the darting smiles aimed between characters lusting after one-another and the leery and venomous gazes of rivals. The single set helps immensely since props on the terrace are kept simple – a few tables, chairs and sedans that provide somewhere for wine glasses to sit and for characters to constantly switch seats as power games are played out. Things get really energetic during the later stages as all social positions and gender responsibilities go flying out the window (and on to a balcony above the terrace) as sexual attractions come out.
The main players alternate between familiar politeness and bland blather to full on yelling as they try to dominate each other whilst maintaining expected social roles. There is much amusement from seeing cocksure men brought low and the scheming of the women exposed. The frustrated venality and lechery of these characters seems to know no bounds and thanks to the alcohol, they defy the typical expectations placed on a person’s behaviour in Japan. It all works because of the committed performances of the seven players, especially the women who provide the sexual attraction and bite backs to the sexism they face.
Audiences will surely be wowed by the barnstorming performances from the women. Ishibashi plays Kazumi as a harsh woman dripping with resentment and malevolence and her poisonous gaze drifts between characters she alternately flatters and destroys. As Haruko, Hiraiwa reveals that behind the beautiful exterior is another tough lady who will flatten anyone who threatens her sense of self whether it is the lecherous men she rebuffs or her female rival. This sparks a defiant battle of individuality which gives some positive spin to events that are the very definition of the bathos generated by these seemingly respectable but all too human characters. At the Terrace is not original in any way and develops as one may expect (with a surprise or two), but their battle for dominance gives the proceedings its drive while providing the audience with ample reason to watch the grisly human spectacle of people releasing themselves from Japanese social strictures.