Akai is nothing like the shape-shifters you will find in most paperback paranormal
romances. She is young and saucy and ever so fascinated with seventy-something
novelist Ojisama. In their world, she is his creation, but she has a mind of
her own. Not surprisingly, they both sprung from the mind and pen of Saisei
Muro, another novelist in his seventh decade. Their age difference might look
problematic, but the whole human-goldfish thing really makes their relationship
complicated in Gakuryû Ishii’s Bitter
which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film inNew York.
Ojisama has a bed-ridden wife, but he rarely sees her and we never do. Instead,
he prefers to ambiguously flirt and play with Akai, a goldfish he bought for
three hundred Yen, who can take human form for prolonged periods of time. He is
content keeping things slightly naughty but ultimately chaste. However, Akai
decides she wants to take matters to the next level when she meets Yuriko, the
ghost of Ojisama’s spurned lover. Even though she and Yuriko’s spirit, a classic
Japanese specter in the Kwaidan tradition
become fast friends, the dead woman’s history stimulates feelings of jealousy.
Those feelings increase exponentially when she discovers Ojisama is also seeing
a pretty school teacher on the side.
Bitter Honey heralds a mini-boomlet
of darkly obsessive shape-shiftery romances, together with Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s
The Lure and Károly Ujj Mészáros’s Liza, the Foxy Fair. Glad we are to have
them all. Ishii is known for wilder fare, but he and screenwriter Takehito
Minato adapt Muro’s novel with lyrical sensitivity. There are echoes of the
oldster obsessions of Stealing Beauty and
Venus, but Ishii takes those themes
deeper, while evoking the look and vibe of post-war Japan with fatalistic
paper, Ojisama probably sounds as creepy as Humbert Humbert, but Ren Osugi
keenly humanizes all his insecurities and regrets. Fumi Nikaido performance as
Akai is charming and energetic, but also deeply sad in a way that is quite wonderful.
Yoko Maki is also literally and figuratively haunting as Yuriko, while Masatoshi
Nagase adds an intriguing dash of mystery as Tatsuo, the fish-monger.
Despite its outrageous premise and frequent
surreal sequences, Bitter Honey is a
thoughtful and mature film. It also looks terrific, thanks in large measure to cinematographer
Norimichi Kasamatsu’s rich, crimson color palate and costume designer Kazuhiro
Sawataishi’s flowing goldfish-like sashes. Highly recommended for discerning
adults, Bitter Honey screens this
Friday (7/15) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts 2016.
Labels: Fumi Nikaido, Japan Cuts '16, Japanese Cinema, Shape-shifters