Many foreigners, from visitors to longtime expats, have made films in Japan, but nearly all of them have ended up distinctly non-Japanese. That’s not to say they were bad: Josef von Sternberg’s erotic fable “Anatahan” (1953) was unlike anything Japan’s film industry was making at the time, but it still has a strange, dreamlike power.

John Williams, however, makes films that do not exoticize Japan. His first feature, “Firefly Dreams” (2001), had an Ozu-esque flavor of themes implied rather than stated, of drama unfolding naturally. I would have guessed the director to be a 50-ish Japanese veteran, not a 30-something Welshman.

Now Williams is back with “Starfish Hotel,” an essay in erotic noir very different in treatment and style. If Williams is channeling any director this time, it’s David Lynch. The surrealistic fiction of Haruki Murakami also comes to mind, though Williams’ script is an original. The first time I saw the film, more than a year ago, I didn’t catch its many transitions from reality to dream and back again. On a second viewing, I was still baffled, but I was more understanding of Williams’ vision. He blurs the divides between not only waking and dreaming but past and present, human and inhuman, colorless office spaces of corporate Japan and old buildings that look haunted even in broad daylight.

Starfish Hotel
Director John Williams
Run Time 98 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Feb. 3, 2007

This vision has a certain darkness — depressives be warned — but it is also thoroughly realized, with few concessions to the mass audience, which likes its contemporary noir hard, ironic and light. Instead it’s like a dream or memory that you half want to shake, half want to revisit, knowing that it can open doors you’d rather keep closed.

Williams’ hero is Arisu (Koichi Sato), a salaryman at a construction company, who wanted to be a writer and is a fan of best-selling mystery author Jo Kuroda, whose new erotic novel “Starfish Hotel” haunts Arisu’s dreams. In one of them, he finds himself in a wood at night. A light leads him to a hotel — or perhaps antechamber to the netherworld — where his very existence is ignored.

In the so-called waking world, his wife, Chisato (Tae Kimura) disappears. Did she run away? Was she abducted? Arisu’s inquiries lead to a seedy private investigator his wife once hired to follow him. The PI seems to know more than he is telling.

He encounters a dodgy character in a rabbit suit (Akira Emoto) handing out flyers for Kuroda’s novel. He also has a clue to Chisato’s whereabouts — a private sex club called “Wonderland.”

Meanwhile, Arisu keeps returning to the memory of an affair with Kayoko (Kiki), a slinky young woman he met and romanced at the title hotel. When Arisu reads Kuroda’s new novel, he finds uncanny resemblances in it to his own experiences. Is this part of his imagination or is it really happening?

The film is reluctant to supply a clear-cut answer. It is also more than the sum of its mysterioso atmospherics. Williams is after bigger game, just as “Alice in Wonderland,” one of his inspirations, is not only a tale for children, but also an adult meditation on the strangeness and madness of the world.

Sato plays Arisu as an introverted, melancholic type, but with deep reserves of male power and charisma: believable when he deals with underworld goons — and when he beds a younger woman. Sato pulls the emotional shades down low, though, until it’s hard to see inside. That’s not always the best strategy in a film already in the murky borderland between the known and the unknown.

Playing the aforementioned younger woman, model-turned-actress Kiki oozes femme fatale glamour. She’s a fox in the American slang sense — as well as in the Japanese sense of being unreliable, down to her very identity. What would von Sternberg, Svengali to the greatest fox of them all, Marlene Dietrich, make of her? The Blue Angel is long gone — but we still have the Starfish Hotel.

See related link:
John Williams interview — Tokyo’s dark side

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