VIFF 2019: Melancholic

Melancholic is your average romantic-comedy action-thriller crime-drama satire. It’s like Parasite on a microbudget. It’s a movie that’ll surprise you even if you see it with this description in mind 

Kazuhiko, a recent graduate of the prestigious Tokyo University, is a staple millennial character: unemployed, painfully shy, living with his parents, and aimlessly waiting for the life that his education was supposed to promise. When he runs into former classmate Yuri at a local bathhouse, she gushes about his intellect while he stands stiffly at an angle to her, face hidden behind giant glasses, pride hidden under a painful slouch. It’s not hard to see why he can’t hold a job—he can barely hold a conversation.

But Yuri doesn’t care. She reminds him their class reunion is soon, and Kazuhiko agrees to come. She suggests he get a job at the bathhouse, and he does that, too. Really, she was just saying that she wanted to see more of him, but she’ll take it. So Kazuhiko goes about his day cleaning the bathhouse tiles, and occasionally enjoys a brief run-in with Yuri.

Until another run-in, when Kazuhiko accidentally finds out that the bathhouse is a long-standing murder site and body disposal operation.

Here’s where the movie plays some of its best tricks. Kazuhiko is brought into the fold with a new position as “night janitor”—it’s clean up the murders, or die. The joke is that Kazuhiko takes the same pride in this as he would in any promotion. He’s making better money, has more responsibility, and can afford to ask Yuri out to the kind of restaurant where you might see other Tokyo University graduates. This sounds like straightforward black comedy, but it’s not, because revelations about Kazuhiko’s coworkers, and his boss, and the company, will slowly paint a picture of socioeconomic pressures that are entirely familiar. It’s a workplace comedy in an unusual line of work.

The film never hides its intentions. Its opening sequence is starkly violent and establishes a world in which brutality is matter-of-fact and murder is just another annoying task. As the story begins to coalesce into a heartwarming comedy about an ersatz family of sorts, it never for a moment shies away from the business that’s putting food on the table. Director Seiji Tanaka is walking a tightrope. But his cast is so committed, his storytelling so precise, and his thematic concerns so clearly expressed that by the end, you just might leave this tale of gangsters, murder, and mayhem with a smile on your face.