Dawn of the Felines (Japan, 2016) (NYAFF 2017)
Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines is not a cat zombie film but a melancholic entry in the Roman porno reboot series that provides a look into the lives of three stranded women, whom we see go through their daily lives as Tokyo sex workers.
Whilst the other entries opted for either art-house or comedic approaches, Dawn of the Felines goes for realism, and with Shiraishi at the helm – he directed the somber crime drama The Devil’s Path (2013) and the darkly humorous police corruption saga Twisted Justice (2016) – we can be certain that this film will not shy away from its subject matter. But will it live up to the Roman Porno name as well as showing the director’s distinctive touch?
Dawn of the Felines follows the lives of three women in Tokyo and illustrates how they feel adrift due to the circumstances of life, with all three being led by the weaselly Nonaka (Takuma Otoo). Juri Ihata plays the homeless Masako, who develops an awkward romance with a reclusive client (Tomihiro Kaku) who hasn’t left his own building in 10 years. We also have Rie (Michie), who is unhappily married and finds solace in the company of an old man drowning in guilt over his wife’s recent death; and single mother Yui (Satsuki Maue), who casually leaves behind her abused son just so she can date an obnoxious comedian (Hideaki Murata).
The cast is uniformly good. Ihata, who is known primarily for being a voice actress, performs well in her first leading role as Masako, as she conveys the weariness, the laid-back attitude and especially the anger of her character very well. There is a scene where she confronts Kaku’s character on top of a building and she expresses her feelings, and it is clearly representative of her talents. Michie is fine as the sorrowful Rie, so much so that she makes her unbelievable subplot quite watchable. The interactions between her character and the old man are compelling and even shocking at times. The least of the three is Satsuki Maue as Yui. Although she plays the selfishness and impulsivity of her character well, she tends to overact at times, which can take audiences out of the film.
The supporting cast is also fine, with Tomohiro Kaku, best known as the boyfriend in Hana and Alice (2004), proving he can be both enigmatic and inhumane. Hideaki Murata is a pure scumbag as the supposedly funny comedian that Yui cavorts with and Ken Yoshizawa lends presence as the suffering senior who interacts with Rie. But the biggest standout is Otoo as Nonaka. Providing some much-needed humour to offset the downbeat story, he somehow makes his scoundrel likable as well as repulsive. The facial expressions he comes up with, especially during a scene where he is confronted with the police, are simply priceless.
As for the direction, Shiraishi focuses more on the characters than story. The sex scenes are executed in a matter-of-fact fashion, rather than aiming for prurience. And for the most part, they signal the stage where the characters are in their development or reveal more of who they are. Like in a scene where Yui sleeps with Murata’s character and she finally becomes intimate with him, leading to a confrontation. Although this emphasis on character pays off in the climax (particularly the subplot of Masako), the film could have used more social commentary since the story is ripe with potential for it, such as providing more concrete views on how the leads ended up in the situation in the first place. For example, Masako mentions that she is a university graduate but could not obtain a decent job, leading her to prostitution.
Overall, Dawn of the Felines is a largely compelling piece of work that has a much more humane story than one would expect. It may not be the best entry in the Roman porno reboot series so far, but with its strong performances, assured direction, and exploration of loneliness, it is still a worthwhile endeavour.
Dawn of the Felines was shown at the New York Asian Film Festival on July 4.