It’s fair to say that the world is a difficult place in which to find your position and how you fit in. It would also be fair to say that Asato Watanabe’s debut feature film – also his student thesis – is a difficult film in which to place yourself; unsure as to where exactly “A Dobugawa Dream” is going. But, as with life, while there may be some failures along the way, you need to stick with it, and eventually things might start to fall into place.
Something of a semiautobiographical character, Tatsumi (Yuwa Kitagaki) is on the verge of leaving high school. But, when meeting to discuss his career options, he is far from focused; his mind out the window. It is clear there is something troubling him, so much so that he becomes a shut-in in his bedroom, endlessly watching VHS copies of TV shows. Fully-bearded, he begins to fear the attempts of his parents to bring him out.
Escaping via the window, he flees to a rundown neighbourhood, populated by the unemployed, poor and alcoholic. After a run-in with a policeman, he comes across an unusual celebration of revellers, carting a body to its funeral. He follows and discovers the body is not a corpse, but ageing alcoholic Tsuchiro (Takahiro Fujita), who declares himself not dead, yet again, and knocks Tatsumi out cold.
Tatsumi wakes to Tsuchiro carting him to his house, seemingly adopting him as his son. He takes him to his rundown shack and Tatsumi is eventually brought into the elder’s world of alcohol and erratic behaviour. Warned, but not listening, Tatsumi drops deeper into the maze of backstreets and alleyways, seemingly to become like father, like son.
Much like Tatsumi’s life stage, the earlier parts of the film feel confused, odd and unsure where they’re going. Random editing leads to a string of shots with little dialogue or direction, and a penchant for quirkily-timed humour. This is the want of a student director with a leaning towards the experimental, but can be understandable that some, as in the screening I attended, would give up on such an opening.
I myself, was a little unsure as to how “A Dobugawa Dream” was going to leave me feeling the morning after. But luckily, it builds as the story emerges. What starts off as a “Destruction Babies” like romp into alcoholism (rather than violence), ends up a character piece, with both the elder and the younger of the pair escaping a past, more specifically the death of a dear friend (or indeed foe).
Tsuchiro was left with an unfinished existence after the death of his shogi rival, whom he never beat, and so drifted into the maze of back streets and alcohol. Tatsumi failed to recover from a friend’s suicide, though his response is more abstract. Shots and editing reminiscent of Sadako’s video in “Ring” fill his memories, which feature throughout, but become clearer as he makes his escape; the image now much lucid to him when sober. Watanabe’s work certainly gets you in this lost frame of mind. And perhaps explains Tatsumi’s watching of redundant VHS.
Indeed, a Nineties influence is apparent throughout: the sequences of Tatsumi running and an endless maze of streets without direction recall Sabu’s “Dangan Ranna”, while a sense of twilight at an unexplained death harks to Kore-eda Hirokazu’s “Maborosi”. You also get a feel for his “Shoplifters” with the modern family of strangers living below the line and out of sight. Watanabe is clearly a student of film.
He is also well versed in the part of Osaka where is was filmed. Spending time in the rundown area, frequented by society’s forgotten underclass. Locals fill the background as unwitting extras and impacted on the shoot. This is something of a love letter to the area and its people, which clearly fascinated Watanabe.
Not the longest running film, it is also one that you need to give time. But all becomes clear by the end and Tatsumi’s journey reflects our own. As with a young life ending school days, it can go in a number of directions, with cinematic influence and experimentation running throughout. Watanabe’s career can probably go in many directions, and I won’t be guessing as to which.