Almost every year at the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) at least one film by a new Japanese director gets talked up by visiting programmers, journalists and critics as a find.

Last year one such buzz film was Seiji Tanaka’s debut feature, “Melancholic.” I was among its fans, telling all and sundry that it was the most original film I had seen at the festival. The jury of the Japanese Cinema Splash section, where the film had its world premiere, validated this assessment by awarding Tanaka its best director prize.

Based on his original script, the film had a budget of ¥3 million that Tanaka and his producer and star Yoji Minagawa had scraped together. It had to be shot over the course of several weekends, since Tanaka was working a full-time job at the time.

Melancholic (Merankorikku)
Run Time 114 mins.
Opens Aug. 3

Given this provenance, “Melancholic” should have been a patchy affair, like so many zero-budget indie films before and since. Instead it is extraordinarily well made, with every performance spot on and every scene taut, without a single wasted moment.

“Melancholic” begins as yet another of the many local films about a lonely misfit guy drifting on the social margins. Instead of the usual exercise in quirky minimalism, however, it becomes a mashup of action, comedy, romance and family drama. Given its family-unfriendly subject matter, this exercise in genre-crossing could have been off-putting with the risk of a walkout, but Tanaka and his cast of accomplished unknowns bring it off engagingly and credibly.

As the story begins, our hero, Kazuhiko (Minagawa), is a recent graduate of the University of Tokyo — Japan’s answer to Harvard — but is unemployed and living at home with his (unusual for a Japanese film) supportive parents. Smart, but unworldly and socially awkward, Kazuhiko looks and acts like a typical nerd, right down to his big-framed glasses.

Rather than wander the nerdy mecca of Akihabara, Kazuhiko finds work at a local bathhouse scrubbing the tiles and taking tickets from customers.

By chance, he learns that after hours the bathhouse is used for yakuza-ordered executions and that a hard-faced, shaggy-haired co-worker is the executioner. Outed as a witness to these murders by the co-worker and the cagey bathhouse owner, Kazuhiko is ordered to become the night janitor, with body disposal part of his duties.

Instead of making tracks to the nearest police station, Kazuhiko is drawn into the orbit of those involved in this grim business, including the owner, who is deeply in debt to the yakuza; the hitman, who takes pride in his deadly work; and a friendly, blonde-haired fellow employee (Yoshitomo Isozaki) who is about Kazuhiko’s age — and has a past he is not eager to disclose.

Meanwhile, Kazuhiko starts dating Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida), a bubbly former high school classmate who is a bathhouse regular but knows nothing of its deadly sideline.

This story may sound creepy, but “Melancholic” makes it darkly funny, viscerally thrilling and improbably heartwarming, all without departing far from the stark immediacy of its opening scenes. How it accomplishes this alchemy is something of a mystery. One essential ingredient: characters who are baseline likable, even when doing the dirtiest of dirty work. Not that I’d ever be tempted to take up Kazuhiko’s broom.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.