Japanese indie directors who made their reputations in the 1970s and ’80s often have big gaps in their feature-film resumes. Sogo Ishii didn’t make a feature for 10 years following 1984′s “Gyakufunsha Kazoku (Crazy Family),”a groundbreaking black comedy. Mitsuo Yanagimachi, who burst onto the scene in 1976 with the legendary biker pic “Godspeed You! Black Emperor,” took a 13-year break after “Ai ni Tsuite Tokyo (All About Love, Tokyo)” in 1992, a gritty drama about Chinese students in Japan.
The record for the longest such hiatus must belong to Yoshihiko Matsui, who worked as an assistant director for Ishii before directing three indie films that were released between 1981 and 1988. The last, “Tsuito no Zawameki (Noisy Requiem),” made in 1986 but released two years later, was a black-and-white film set in Osaka’s down-and-out Shinseikai district. About a mad serial killer who disembowels his victims and stuffs their insides into a female mannequin, it became a love-it-or-hate-it underground sensation. Then Matsui, himself, went underground for 22 years.
His re-emergence with “Doko ni Iku no? (Where Are We Going?),” his first feature since “Tsuito,” is a cause for celebration. The film, however, is not another cinematic outrage, but rather an unusual love story, with an unusual power that comes from Matsui’s absolute sincerity. Despite what sounds like a gimmicky premise — a gay shophand falls in love with a “new-half” (Japanese English for transsexual) bar hostess — the film contains not a single ironic wink. Instead it views the world through the eyes of its outsider pair and allows us to directly experience their isolation and rage, as well as their all-too-brief moments of release and joy. Matsui is not merely sympathetic to these characters — he artistically inhabits their skins.
Much of the authenticity comes from the casting of Anzu, a real new-half Matsui found working as a hostess at a Shinjuku club. She is not required to act so much as play herself (even her character name is Anzu). She is believably feminine, but somehow apart from the run of humanity, as though she lives in a separate universe from the “normals” around her. Her character is wise in the ways of the world, but also quiet, sensitive and, once she has her mind set on something, almost scarily focused. The opposite, in other words, of the flamboyant, self-dramatizing trannie stereotype.
Matsui’s hero, however, is the passive-aggressive Akira (Shuji Kashiwabara), who lost his parents as a child, was sent to a orphanage and now works in a machine shop whose owner (Genjitsu Shu) is enamored by him in a creepy, obsessed way. He has been sexually harassing Akira for years, but Akira, lacking the will or any alternatives, can’t break free from the owner’s clutches. His only escape is his motorbike so, with the goal of buying a bigger one, he fellates Fukuda (Kazuhiro Sano), a grizzled, cynical police detective, for cash. Fukuda is also infatuated, but Akira treats him like a human ATM. He feels, in fact, little for anyone.
Then one day, riding his bike too fast, he clips a woman walking on the side of the road. She tumbles to the pavement and he takes her to his apartment to recover. Though bruised and battered, she is strangely silent and calm — and Akira finds himself attracted. Several days later, she returns for her bag, which she had forgotten — and the jealous Fukuda, who has been watching Akira’s apartment, rushes to head off what he thinks is his new rival. But he doesn’t stand a chance — Akira is already in love and so, soon, is Anzu.
What follows includes a lyrical romantic interlude and a murder, both of which feel natural and the latter, in Akira’s case, fated. As we watch Akira and Anzu methodically, pitilessly dispose of the body, we realize that they are not just bonding but expressing their outcast anger at a world that uses them, mocks them and has never really cared for them. But they care for each other — and that’s all that matters, for the moment.
“Doko ni Iku no?” has something of a time-capsule feel, as though Matsui picked up where he left off in 1986. Made for a tiny budget, it also has a few technical rough spots, such as a shot of a burning body that is too obviously a dummy. But it has two decades of stored up passion behind it, the sort of passion conspicuous by its absence in the Japanese film world today. Matsui-san, welcome back and, this time, stick around.