Judge Adam Arseneau feels that not nearly enough films these days have hoards of swarming, glowing jellyfish in them.
"The future in my dreams was always bright."
The newest generation of Japanese filmmakers seems to have a singular vision as of late, depicting the youth of Japan as nihilistic, despondent, and apathetic, lacking the singular drive and dedication that drove the previous generation to success. Bright Future is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's contribution to the movement, a departure from his normal canon of dense psychological thrillers. Instead, he offers a film that is symbolic, slow, and languid, but still offering the same creeping sense of disquiet pervasive in the fabric of everyday life, poisoning the youth of a generation.
Facts of the Case
Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano, Zatoichi, Taboo) and Yuji (Joe Odagiri, Azumi) have part-time jobs in a hand-towel factory in Tokyo and spend their evenings in the local arcade, whittling away the time. Neither seems to have too much ambition in his life, save for Mamoru's fixation on Dactylometra pacifica, a saltwater poisonous jellyfish found on the coast of Japan. Mamoru keeps one as a pet in an aquarium, and spends his evening slowly adding freshwater to the tank in an attempt to adapt the creature to a freshwater environment.
The foreman of the factory takes an interest in the boys, inviting them over to his house for dinner with his family, and to move the occasional piece of furniture. He even asks to borrow a CD of music from the boys, and comes over to watch television with them. The boys are nonplussed by his invasion into their lives, to say the least. Yuji finds himself wandering the streets with a lead pipe, swinging it angrily, and wanders over to the foreman's house. Walking into the front door, he encounters a grisly sight—the family laid bare on the floor, murdered.
Yuji is stunned to learn that earlier that night, Mamoru had visited the house in a similar mindset and killed the entire family. Sentenced to death, Mamoru sits in his jail cell, peculiarly calm about the whole affair. Yuji's emotions are a mess; he recognizes that had he visited the family first, things might have been very different, but Mamoru seems oddly complacent. He seems more concerned with his jellyfish, and convinces Yuji to take over its care.
When Mamoru's estranged father Shinichiro comes to town after hearing the news of his son, he and Yuji form a strange bond with one another; his actions bringing together two alienated people in a peculiar and strange fashion. They both begin to become obsessed with the jellyfish experiment; working together in a peculiar father-son dichotomy, but the results of their labors will surprise even them…
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) is without peer among North American directors. He simply makes films that nobody makes in this country, like equal parts the twisted irony of David Lynch and the surrealism of Luis Buñuel served with a slice of lemon. Bright Future is certainly the odd film out, with a complete lack of psychotic serial killers and evil trees (yes), but maintains the same hypnotic and mesmerizing attributes of his previous work. In the same way that Twin Peaks was David Lynch riffing on the soap opera genre, so does Kurosawa riff on the family drama in Bright Future.
The film's main character, ironically, is the jellyfish itself, locked up alongside the two protagonists inside its aquarium, floating aimlessly about. As the film progresses, the discontents and demons haunting the characters begin to surface; so does the jellyfish, the extent of which I am reluctant to ruin for you, since the final sequence of the film is splendid in its majesty and symbolism. It is difficult to discuss the imagery without ruining the surprise, but suffice it to say, the fate of the jellyfish is inexorably intertwined with the discontents of a generation of Japanese youth, yearning to break free from its apathetic confinements. Second to the jellyfish are a gang of Che Guevara-wearing teenage street thugs who wander the town aimlessly, kicking boxes, robbing office buildings and generally doing nothing at all of worth. These kids, the youngest people depicted in the film, are the bright future of Japan, one way or the other, and their destiny and fate is determined (at least metaphorically) by the actions of Mamoru, Yuji, and Shinichiro.
Yuji sees the future in his dreams when he sleeps, but whether the future he sees is the future in store for him seems to be a moot point. Stuck in a dead-end job, with no foreseeable goals or ambitions, both youths end up locked up in prison—one literally, the other imprisoned in the confines of his dreams and ambitions. By the end of the film, in their own ways, each has achieved a sense of freedom, though they take radically different approaches. It is arguable whether these are smart choices by the protagonists, but they are indeed choices, so that counts for something.
Whether or not this film works for you will boil down to your interpretation of the film's title—is it sarcastic or to be taken literally? The implications of each equate a radically different cinematic experience. If you take the title to be sarcastic and ironic, then the generations of Japanese youths have no future, doomed to descend into apathy and aimlessness, and the film becomes a rather bleak and cynical piece of filmmaking. If you take the title literally, the film becomes infinitely more complex, like a new style of family drama for the next generation. The first time I saw this film, a few years ago at a film festival, I found the film to be sarcastic and bleak, but watching the film for a second time, the possibility of a second alternative—the literal interpretation of the title—developed. The future for the adults might be bleak, but for the young generation, they make their own bright future.
Shot on digital film, Bright Future has that washed-out, sharp-yet-grainy look that moderately priced digital video cameras always seem to produce. I had the pleasure of attending a Q&A session with director Kiyoshi Kurosawa after seeing Bright Future at the Toronto Film Festival, and he commented that the decision to use digital cameras was based on two factors: portability and affordability. The hand-held cameras allowed the crew to set up fast, shoot fast, and take off with a minimum of financial fuss—a guerrilla style of filmmaking popular with young Japanese directors. Often times, the filmmakers do not even bother to gain permission to shoot in public areas and on private property; by the time anyone notices, the crew is long gone. The visual quality of the film is quite excellent, sharp and detailed with reasonable black levels. Certain sequences of low lighting come out grainy, but considering the digital film, this is unavoidable.
The audio, a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track, presents the dialogue with clarity and detail. This is really the only thing required of the track; there is a minimum of environmental noises, sound effects, or music. The excellent score, when present, is an ethereal and lilting affair, full of upright bass and tubular bells which fit the film like a glove. Bass response is minimal, but again, it isn't that kind of film. Overall, the technical presentation of Bright Future is tops.
Outside of the requisite trailers, there is only one extra feature on the DVD, and it is a doozy. "Ambivalent Future," a massive 75-minute "making of" documentary, is included on the disc. A short film in itself, released theatrically in Japan, the documentary takes us through the entire shooting process, almost in chronological order, with interviews from cast and crew, along with some revealing bits of information from writer-director Kurosawa about the intended tone and message of the film. As extra features go, how can you beat a documentary that is almost as long as the feature itself? It almost deserves its own review.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though this DVD does include a helluva documentary, other region releases of Bright Future contain a 5.1 surround track, noticeably absent from this release. Adding such a track would no doubt push the documentary to a second disc, which for numerous reasons is probably unrealistic given the relative obscurity of the title…but still, a man can dream, can't he?
Bright Future is a perplexing and challenging melody of melancholy and sweetness, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a leather vest. Its eccentric and esoteric elements will not appeal to everyone, especially to anyone expecting a Kiyoshi Kurosawa-style psychological thriller, but the film is certainly an experience and should not be discounted on these elements alone. Kurosawa has made a deeply compelling film, with fine performances from its actors—a film that sits on your brain and slowly convalesces into pleasurable feelings, though it takes a while to sink in. It reminds me of a sentence from a Douglas Adams book, which I will paraphrase—Bright Future seems to be composed of all the bad and worst things in life, but when briefly assembled in this fashion, you think to yourself, "Oh, well, that's all right, then."
Plus, jellyfish: lots and lots of them.
Bright Future is three things, in no particular order: complex, slow-moving, and a darn good film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Making-Of Documentary: "Ambivalent Future"
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