Oku Otoko

Was in the mood for some Sato Takeru recently, and finally decided to watch Oku Otoko. Two of my favourite Japanese actors in one movie? Bring it on.

Kazuo (Sato Takeru) is down on his luck, working two jobs to pay off his brother’s debt so he can live with his wife Masako (Kuroki Haru) and their daughter again. One day, he strikes lottery to the tune of 300 million yen, and goes to his friend Tsukumo (Takahashi Issei) for advice on how best to use the sudden windfall. After a wild party to celebrate, both Tsukumo and the money disappear…

It’s been a while since I’ve watched a Japanese film, so the prospect of seeing two of my favourite Japanese actors sharing the same screen was enough to stir me into action and I thought it’d be a good curtain raiser for their “reunion” in the final two films of the Rurouni Kenshin franchise.

We first see our protagonist Kazuo at an outrageous party, a scene of heady, flashy celebration that was actually rather off-putting for me. Kazuo, initially ill at ease being in such a place, ends up throwing himself into the fun with wild abandon, while Tsukumo slowly edges away and makes off with the money. Kazuo finds himself grasping at straws trying to track down Tsukumo again as he seeks to regain his money. In coming into contact with the people in Tsukumo’s life, Kazuo learns the nature of money and how it has changed him and the people around him.

The film tries to go for the message about how money has changed people and how one should examine the importance of it in one’s life. It cycles through the various characters Kazuo encounters – namely Tsukumo’s former business partners – and how they have changed in the time since they sold the business that brought them fame and fortune. Through it all, via a series of flashbacks back and forth examining the events of then and now, and a throwback to an important trip to Morocco with Tsukumo, Kazuo realises the true nature of his friend and how his experiences have changed him even though he had not thought he did.

I think it’s fair to say Tsukumo had good intentions doing what he did, though his claim that he never changed since their university days is a little hard to swallow. Perhaps that’s the cynic in me, but the approach is a little too idealistic, with Tsukumo seemingly untouched despite the sale of his precious company (we’re told it devastated him, but nothing much beyond). Kazuo has changed not only because of the unexpected windfall – and it can even be argued the win was just too sudden for it to have any kind of meaningful impact – but also the toll society’s expectations have taken on him. Life is what we make of it, but life also throws lemons that we sometimes can do nothing about and have to suck it up and move on, not knowing how best to do so and paying the price for that lack of knowledge that we aren’t always privileged to possess. The film does not touch on that and it is a missed opportunity to scrutinise just how money has encroached on all aspects of life – not only because of some warped value humans have of it, but because without it, the very basics of survival are at stake.

It is interesting that rakugo was used as a backdrop and a “moral of the story” foreshadowing. Both Kazuo and Tsukumo were part of the rakugo club at school, with the latter a more talented performer. One of the stories Tsukumo liked performing was the shibahama, which echoed the theme of how it is all imaginary, money is fleeting and the value we ascribe to it should not be something that cripples our lives. So the “twist” towards the end was not particularly surprising, though the setting – in a crowded train compartment – might be. I’m not sure about performing rakugo in the middle of the desert though!

Acting was fine on the whole. I appreciated the grounded feel of Sato Takeru’s portrayal as the down-and-out Kazuo, who tried his best to remain trusting and kind despite what had happened. I felt for him as he struggled with trying to absorb all the changes, and rooted for him to reunite with his wife and daughter. I loved his few scenes with Kuroki Haru – in a reunion after Tenno no Ryoriban – especially the brief flashbacks to their dating days and early sweet family time with their baby girl. Kuroki looked so pretty and classy throughout and I really hope she and Sato get to co-star again. The ending scene offered some hope for Kazuo, though I think it might have worked better had the film gone a little more into how he gets to actually deal with the aftermath of the winnings after what he’s experienced, given that he didn’t really have a chance to properly process being in possession of such a large amount of money.

Takahashi Issei had very little to do as Tsukumo, which I thought was a pity as I had imagined Tsukumo to be a more charismatic character and knew Takahashi could bring on the charm. That said, I enjoyed his few rakugo performances and liked his scenes with Sato. I think I would have appreciated Tsukumo’s character more had there been more layers to it, more shades of grey and complexity, more of an internal struggle with doing the “right” thing. The kanji of both their names 一男 (Kazuo) and 九十九 (Tsukumo) contain the characters 1 and 9 – during their rakugo days, Kazuo was often referred to as the missing 1% that complemented Tsukumo’s 99% – so just as Kazuo learnt to better appreciate the nature of money with Tsukumo’s help, the latter too needed his friend to fill in the final piece of the puzzle.

Kitamura Kazuki was very entertaining as Momose, one of Tsukumo’s former partners, though I could barely recognise him under that weird styling and high-pitched, whiny voice. The whole segment at the races was pretty funny though, in a tragicomedic way.  Fujiwara Tatsuya hammed it up as the scammer of “motivational” speeches whose most memorable line must arguably be “Paper is God” while waving a wad of cash, but neither Sawajiri Erika nor Ikeda Elaiza made much of an impression.

Overall, it was an interesting film about the value of money, but could have benefited from a deeper, more nuanced examination of the topic rather than a somewhat one-sided view of the negative impact of it. While it doesn’t bring anything new to the table, watching Sato and Takahashi share the same screen was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

junny@19.19pm

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