Japanese films about socially isolated teenagers are hardly rare, though truly original takes on the subject are uncommon. In his debut feature, however, Asato Watanabe has hit on one: Instead of being a wacky coming-of-age comedy or a weighty drama, “A Dobugawa Dream” seems to unfold in a dreamscape, where the border between reality and fantasy, the dead and the living, becomes permeable.

Scripted by Watanabe and shot on a near-zero budget, the film veers between the strenuously antic and the turgidly bleak, but a vitality and sympathetic vision power it through to its cathartic conclusion. Watanabe has said the film is based on his own experiences, and the film does have the feeling of a personal testament, though I hope its director didn’t live out all of his protagonist’s turmoil.

Similar to the early work of Takeshi Kitano, the story is full of visual gags, edited to elide the action and cut to a shot of a perpetrator or victim frozen in a ridiculous pose, with a bumbling cop frequently cast in the latter role.

A Dobugawa Dream (Dobugawa Bangaichi)
Run Time 82 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens July 10

But it begins in earnest, with the protagonist, Tatsumi (Yuwa Kitagaki), storming out of a career counseling session with a hectoring teacher. Glimpses follow of Tatsumi being bullied by classmates and standing on a junk-strewn dock, next to a fellow student hanging from a rusty beam, an apparent suicide. Then, after a long plunge into depression and isolation, Tatsumi bursts out of his room one night and starts running.

He ends up, bearded and barefoot, at a footbridge over a river. Crossing over, he passes a forlorn woman in a white dress and, soon after, hears her leap into the pitch-dark water. He shrugs and keeps walking.

Tatsumi is roused out of his funk following a chance encounter with the honoree at a funeral being celebrated by raucous drunks in a park. Rising out of his coffin, the “dead man,” Shiro (Takahiro Fujita), startles Tatsumi but finally invites him to stay in his trash bin of an apartment.

What happens next might be described as a bonding sequence, though the irascible, alcoholic Shiro — a lost soul who was once a champion shogi player — is hardly a role model. Nonetheless, he and his crew of misfits, who congregate nightly in a pub run by an infinitely tolerant proprietress (the single-named Mayumi) and staffed by a silent former dancer known only as Nancy (Yukika Kira), pry open Tatsumi’s shell and welcome him into their world. But, with issues still to resolve in his former life, he is not ready to call it home.

One comparison is with the similarly theatrical and picaresque “Dodes’ka-den,” Akira Kurosawa’s 1970 film set in the depths of the lower classes, but where the older film reflected the actualities of postwar poverty and dislocation, “A Dobugawa Dream” unfolds in a fantasyland, where the jobless Shiro and his shiftless pals can miraculously afford their bar bills, and authority is represented by the above-mentioned cop, whose attempts at arrests are comically foiled.

Just as the pranks, revelries and chases start to become tiresome, the film takes a sudden turn to the serious, as death intervenes for real. Tatsumi makes a decision — and the film moves toward a climax that has the force of an awakening. But the dream, somewhere, remains.

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.

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