One Night (Japan, 2019) [NYAFF 2020]
In his career so far, director Kazuya Shiraishi has chronicled the darker aspects of Japan with true-crime stories featuring outlaws like The Devil’s Path (2013) and Twisted Justice (2016) or by depicting damaged everyday people on the outermost fringes of society in Dawn of the Felines (2017) and Birds Without Names (2018). For One Night, his first family drama, he adapts a stage play by Yuko Kuwabara but leans too far into crime territory late in the proceedings for the ending to be particularly satisfying.
The film opens on a stormy night at the Inamoto Taxi company which is located in a nondescript town. Koharu Inamoto (Yuko Tanaka) runs over her abusive husband in a taxi in an act to free herself and her three children from his merciless violence. After confessing what happened to her kids, all of whom bear the bruises of a beating, Koharu tells them, “Nobody will ever beat you again. You can live however you want.” Just before departing into the rain to give herself up to the police, she promises she will meet them again in the future.
Cut to 15 years later and we see that Koharu’s selfless act that was supposed to set her family free to pursue their dreams has instead trapped them in a vicious circle of shame and self-loathing. Koharu discovers this bitter disappointment as she keeps her promise and returns to her children and the family business. Her presence forces everyone to confront the scars from their traumatic background, how the kids have inherited the sins of the mother by living in shame, and how this has all warped their personalities in various ways. These differences lead to multiple angles of conflict between characters we sympathize with due to their shared history and that provides ample drama which is excellently delivered by the cast.
Displaying various degrees of emotional damage and toxic masculinity are Koharu’s boys. Eldest son Daiki (Ryohei Suzuki) is a nebbish-looking guy who is struggling badly with a failing marriage and meeting masculine norms. The slicker younger son Yuji (Takeru Satoh) is a cynical journalist for a sleazy tabloid who senses he can turn his tragic past into a brighter future through writing about it, even if this betrays his family. Screen heartthrob Satoh plays the showier character of Yuji with provoking sneers and condescension fit for his character. More conventional but really harrowing is the plight faced by Daiki. Suzuki is very sympathetic playing the bespectacled guy unable to process what happened. He is all huddled and quiet with a downcast gaze and stutter due to a lack of confidence and a lot of shame. His constant avoidance of conflict leads to a shock later in the story as he he slips into violence in a way that reminds one that children learn from their parents.
More welcoming is Koharu’s daughter Sonoko (Mayu Matsuoka), a much-needed ray of sunshine whose bright personality and hard-knock smile lights up the dark narrative. Having been forced to give up her ambitions to be a hairstylist, she works at a snack bar where she belts out karaoke tunes with glee and has a cynical view of men that she is unafraid to show. This motivates her to push back against her brother’s wayward feelings towards their mother.
Veteran actress Tanaka plays Koharu as a woman with mighty resolve and a humane nature who is resigned to enduring whatever hardship she faces for the good of her children. There is the expectation that she will right whatever wrongs are going on, from saving Daiki’s marriage to coming to peace with with Yuji. Except it doesn’t quite work out so simply and seeing the family members navigate their sense of betrayal and try to overcome their traumas provides gripping material. Throw in an examination of how society ostracizes those connected to crime plus other characters struggling with issues like senile parents and wayward children and there is enough material here for a fine drama that depicts the problems faced by modern families.
While the pieces are all there, the story loses its thread in the final third as if screenwriter Izumi Takahashi lacked an interest in realistically evolving the story and bringing the characters to a natural catharsis. Instead, a subplot involving Michio Doushita (Kuranosuke Sasaki), a taxi driver whose criminal past catches up with him, serves to drive the action. While his plight makes an interesting parallel to Koharu’s, his story hijacks the film and takes away any agency from the mother. This leads to a contrived ending which foists an unbelievable connection between himself and the children, whom we never really see interact with him, just for the sake of a resolution.
One Night really starts off as a deep, dark, and very difficult performance-driven drama with the cast delivering realistic portrayals that show the ways domestic violence can affect people. With a better ending, the emotional rewards of sticking it out would have been greater.
One Night is streaming as part of the New York Asian Film Festival which runs from August 28 to September 12.