In his three films to date, Hirobumi Watanabe has created a unique cinematic world. “And the Mud Ship Sails Away” (2013), “7 Days” (2015) and now “Poolsideman” (2016) were all shot in black-and-white in Watanabe’s native Tochigi Prefecture, with music by younger brother Yuji and cinematography by Woohyun Bang. All focus on socially marginalized men with lives that range from the aimless to the mundane. And all are tinged with black humor that keeps the proceedings from becoming too brain-numbingly minimalistic.
Echoes of other filmmakers can be heard, notably Jim Jarmusch and Bela Tarr, but Watanabe marches to his own drum, as Yuji’s soundtrack provides counterpoint with everything from classical war horses to sinister electronic noise, while becoming more intense — not intrusive — as the story progresses. Bang’s tightly composed images, at once gorgeous and stark, add another layer of commentary.
This sort of thing is not for everyone: “Poolsideman” won the Japanese Cinema Splash award at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, but divided critics and fans. I was one of its champions and not only because, like its hero and director, I put in my own time (two summers) as a pool lifeguard.
In its first half the film tests audience patience as a long-limbed, long-haired, long-faced guy named Yusuke Mizuhara (long-time Watanabe friend Gaku Imamura) goes about his rigid daily routine, beginning with a door-banging locker inspection at the pool and concluding after work with a meal at McDonald’s, a movie at a local theater and a session with his home PC, none of which we are allowed to see plain and clear. Mizuhara never utters a word to anyone, though he always has his car radio tuned to news about the latest ISIS terrorist outrage or Syrian war atrocity.
There is a truth to this sequence, repeated again and again, that films seldom explore — life for many consists of daily rounds as predictable as the sunrise. Watanabe turns his hero’s own round into spare visual poetry that illuminates his unquiet inner life.
But tedium has begun to set in when Watanabe himself makes an appearance as Mizuhara’s loquacious colleague Shirasaki, who hitches daily rides to work after they are both temporarily transferred to another pool. Sitting in the passenger’s seat, Shirasaki opines on the generational divide between “Dragon Ball” and “One Piece” fans, the trite chatter of his pool colleagues, his memorable teenage encounter with a punk in a game parlor, and anything else that pops into his head. These monologues, scripted by Watanabe himself, are funny enough to suggest a fallback career as a comic. They also reveal Shirasaki’s own disconnect from reality as he expatiates on the “friendship” between himself and the anti-social Mizuhara.
Meanwhile, we witness the bizarre result of Mizuhara’s obsession with news from the Middle East, as nightmarish montages of war, famine and overpopulation flash on the screen. And yet the film has no obvious message, save perhaps that the craziness of the world can now infect an isolated soul in a backwater where nothing happens. And that the solution is not more “communication,” since an overload of information has already pushed Mizuhara to the edge.
I suggest swimming laps to reduce the stress and work off the Big Macs. For the rest of us? Try the patience-testing, entertaining and disturbing “Poolsideman.”