Japan Cuts 2016: Bitter Honey (Gakuryu Ishii)

by Jason Suzuki

The relationship between artist and muse and the relationship between artist and his characters is the focus of Gakuryu Ishii's latest film. Gone is the punk aesthetic of the majority of his work but what remains is a film with inventive flourish and mood swings to match those of the goldfish turned nubile nymphet Akako (Fumi Nikaido) and the aging writer (Ren Osugi) she is in love with. The appearance of the ghost of one of the writer's many women in his past (Yoko Maki) throws a wrench into the proceedings of their relationship. This is Ruby Sparks and Stranger than Fiction except about a guy who knew Akutagawa and just as much about the act of creation and how constantly it flips between selfish and selfless, especially over time towards the twilight of a life.

Told in chapters, the film's opening chapter establishes the relationship between Akako and the writer. It is that between goldfish and human, woman and man, young girl and older man, and muse and artist. Akako twirls around in a flowing, rippling red orange dress meant to represent the underwater fins of a goldfish. Being a goldfish she is surprisingly aware of the way the writer stares at her, but surprisingly she longs after him as well. When it gets physical her ability to switch forms comes in handy to swim inside him (a foreshadowing of the creator/creation aspects to the film).

Fumi Nikaido, in what is sure to become one of her standout roles in a career already full of them despite how new she still is, juggles between being the heart of the film, a dynamic character as well as a fetish object, and she does so superbly. Her performance is so strong that the film must match her as opposed to the other way around. The film, in large debt to its leads, delves deeper into the the synopsis friendly surface: Akako is more than a lust object/creation and the writer treats his work much more seriously, on a personal level, than even his lectures allow a peek at.

This idea of film form chasing to catch up to a specific performance, or allowing the performer almost dictate the energy of the film, is nothing new. Many films have been built off of the concept of allowing the performers to play, the long takes of the films of Chaplin immediately come to mind, but watching Nikaido skip around and dance without the sounds of water slashing would be more off putting than it already is for these aquatic sounds to appear on land. One of the true joys of the film is its playfulness interacting with Nikaido's playfulness.

The shift to arc fulfillment in the third act might seem jarring to those still entranced by the whimsy of the majority of the film but it is necessary and welcoming. Ren Osugi gives a performance that can be held up to his turn in Kitano's Hana-bi, still the best role given to him in which he knocks it out of the park. The self-reflection of the writer in these moments reveal much more than a virile, poor man's Akutagawa. Fumi Nikaido on the other hand is irresistible and Ishii knows this. It instills an uncomfortablility that is perversely pleasurable. A fantastic example of a character taking over the artist and his art in both the story level as well as the formal level.

Bitter Honey plays Friday, July 15th at Japan Cuts 2016.

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.