Japan Cuts Review: Dreams For Sale (2012)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for JAPAN CUTS: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema which runs from July 11-21. For more information of this film series visit www.japansociety.org and follow Japan Society Film on Twitter at @js_film_nyc.
When the Ichizawas’ restaurant burns down and married couple Satoko (Matsu Takako) and Kanya (Abe Sadao) must contend with the reality of having to scrape back all of the money they had built up and now lost in the fire, one thinks that the film will be about the test of their marriage, their love for each other stretched but as a result all the more invincible in the end, during the humble journey of working and saving up again to open a new restaurant. In short, a heartwarming tale of hard work, love, and commitment, to each other and their shared culinary dream. Filmmaker Nishikawa Miwa is a sly one, for this heartwarming premise actually pulls the spectator into a tale of a quiet, self-imploding marriage when the couple hits on the scheme of Kanya putting to use his ability to charm and endear himself to women and get money from them. A perverse, distinct, and strange examination of two people who unite for a dream that becomes a moral and physical nightmare.
In short, a heartwarming tale of hard work, love, and commitment, to each other and their shared culinary dream.
Through low-level positions at various restaurants, Satoko manages the scheme while Kanya performs his given role of seductive suitor with his perennially boyish looks with some of the select female clientele that they encounter in the restaurants. A very odd brew of situations arise as Kanya, ever sensitive to each woman’s desires both professional and romantic, fulfills his role of boyfriend and suitor all too well and as Satoko experiences pangs of jealousy, loneliness, a power trip, and regrets. In the process, the unraveling seams of their relationships begin to show ever more with each new victim. Among these victims are a thirty-something woman who still lives with her parents and does not hear the end of it from her parents and sister; a prostitute who has run away from her husband with violent tendencies; a professional weightlifter and aspiring Olympian, who proves to be one of the more moving characters and segments; and the civil servant who had helped Satoko and Kanya find restaurant jobs early on in the film.
At some point, as the couple becomes mired in lies through an increasing number of victims and their schemes take an emotional toll, one begins to wonder why they just do not separate. Why they do not do so admittedly makes the film toe the line between curiosity and exasperation. They begin to dislike not only each other but also themselves for what they are doing. Yet the narrative makes it seem that all of the above is a small price to pay for the long-term goal of a brand new restaurant and a brand new life. Or at least that is what the couple tries to continue to believe. Although the dream becomes less and less worthwhile, given how emotionally empty and spent they become (towards each other). Further drawing them apart is the fact that they pose as brother and sister to the outside world, including the women whom they bilk. But it is as if they can survive only as they torment each other in pursuit of said dream: acting like a regular pair of lovers by bickering over the kind of perfect restaurant they want to build at one moment and then sleeping in each other’s arms at another moment because they are so fatigued from scheming and prepping and calling out each other’s selfish motives, especially Satoko.
Given such an unusual premise, characters, and relationship dynamic, Matsu and Abe’s effortless performances make the film’s location between curiosity and exasperation tip more towards the former instead of the latter.
What about the puzzling Satoko, indeed? Is she simply propelled by the ambition to have a new restaurant? Or is she driven by revenge because Kanya had a one-night stand with one of their restaurant colleagues between the fire at the restaurant and the beginning of their schemes? Or is she contemptuous of women like the ones they cheat because they reflect back her less-than-stellar life with a moping husband? Or all of the above? Nishikawa is smart in never clarifying this point and finds in Matsu a great actress who can suggest all of these questions in a startling and subtle way; as Satoko, Matsu makes it difficult to just demonise her or limit her behaviour to one motive. As for the more transparent Kanya, why does he not leave Satoko as she becomes increasingly controlling and bitter, all the more highlighted when compared to the sweet-natured women whom he meets? Nishikawa does not reduce his behaviour to one motive either, and through Abe as Kanya manages to make him rise above a merely pitiable state to convey a man who is in the process of being emotionally and ethically torn by his contrasting desires.
Given such an unusual premise, characters, and relationship dynamic, Matsu and Abe’s effortless performances make the film’s location between curiosity and exasperation tip more towards the former instead of the latter. In fact, Matsu and Abe together are truly a wonder to watch. Both dig deep inside themselves to make plausible, complex, and remain interesting characters that are on the surface both antipathetic and pitiful.