Spotlight on Japan: An Obsession

Having enjoyed Wild Life I set my expectations higher for An Obsession, the next film in the Shinji Aoyama box. It sees Aoyama taking an entirely different path: genre is replaced with a more poetic and free-flowing approach, but it doesn’t come without its own set of overwhelming problems. A familiar face from Sion Sono’s Suicide Club and Takashi Miike’s Audition, Ryo Ishibashi plays a cop, Saga, who sacrifices his personal life for work. One day he’s helping with the arrest of a notorious cult leader when things go awry. The cult leader is murdered, Saga is wounded and the worst of all, he loses his own gun. The premise might remind one of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, but the similarities end right there – even if both films involve the main character looking for his lost gun to save face.

Aoyama opens the story up for a rather surprising thematical exploration. It is not about guilt. And unlike Stray Dog, it does not provide social criticism through the character that steals the gun. Instead it has a thing or two to say about obsession. The thief is obsessed with love. Saga is obsessed with work. He says he has no heart and laughs at the irony when his right lung is removed after the beginning. Now he literally is empty on the inside. This emptiness is constantly pointed at and it seems like the film is on its way to become genuinely interesting. However, at some point Aoyama loses his marbles. It’s hard to point out where it happens, but by the time it ends there’s an unavoidable void in the script that turns into a failure. Luckily for Aoyama, the first third of the film is enough to redeem it from being a disaster.

The problem is not only in the thematical handling of the story. The characters are mostly wasted potential. Saga and his cop buddy start out as good, interesting characters who end up being quite misused. The thief and his lover are ridiculously flat and lifeless. It’s hard to tell whether that was intentional or not, but it does not work. Even the storytelling is too tame and surprisingly conventional when compared to Wild Life. Maybe that was needed so that the barely explored themes would stay in the focus, but the problem is that this way the film is reduced of any sort of narrative tension that would keep the audience’s attention even after the first 30 minutes.

At least the form is consistent and solid throughout the film. However, I was a bit disappointed since it’s quite unremarkable for Aoyama. The (relatively) long take aesthetic is barely there and most of the shots are good but never beyond that. The lack of individuality in the cinematography is rare for the director, but luckily he never lets it fall flat. His vision is clear even when the writing fails. This time there’s no intrusive soundtrack, but that’s hardly a significant improvement. The cast is also quite damaging for the film’s impact. Ishibashi is lost with his character and others are just too stiff.

Shinji Aoyama’s An Obsession is disappointing. It proves that even Aoyama has failed at least once in his career. It’s more than the sum of its bad parts, but that doesn’t make it more than a mediocre film.

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About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (johlauri@hotmail.com), Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

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