Dir/scr: Ryosuke Hashiguchi. Japan. 2009. 140mins.
With an odd mix of humour and poignancy, All Around Us takes the viewer through the last painful Japanese recession (1993-2001) as experienced by one middle-class couple. Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s return to the screen after many years is bound to rally his fans, and the film should play widely in festivals. Lily Franky could also receive special recognition for his role as Kanao Sato, a shoemaker-turned-illustrator who weathers the ups and downs of the time. The film’s length, however, will discourage art house distributors in the US and Europe.
All Around Us is the story of Kanao, a poker-faced artist working as a cobbler, whose pretty wife Shoko (Kimura) restricts their sex together, even as she tries to become pregnant. Struggling to pay the bills, Kanao takes a job as an illustrator at court cases. Shoko’s brother, the well-groomed Masako (Terajima), is rich from real estate, with a pampered wife. When the economy collapses, all their fortunes change. The couple loses the baby that they finally conceive and Shoko never recovers, even as the economy revives.
In Hashiguchi’s eccentric storytelling, everyday humour takes the lead. Kanao’s sexual frustration is mocked, and every personal subject is fair game to his co-workers. In the courts where he works, proceedings unfold solemnly, although testimony from murder defendants whom the young man must draw is improbably and wickedly laughable. The ensemble of competitive back-stabbing illustrators racing to bring the face of a murderer to the outside world plays wonderfully with the appetite for gore in a society of such composure
While Hashiguchi’s script is not an overview of Japan during the 1990’s (nor is All Around Us a documentary), the family story is something of a history lesson, revealing the tensions that arose when the economy that sustained Japanese prosperity suddenly faltered.
The director has an eye and ear for how tensions reign in an enclosed space, when the once-wealthy Masako is forced to move with his wife and noisy children back into his disapproving mother’s small apartment.
Hashiguchi’s film tells its story gently. Lily Franky’s soft features and imperturbable demeanour make him perfect as the ordinary man swept back and forth by circumstances out of his control.
Tae Kimura, who plays the psychologically-scarred Shoko, has a face that wears pain quietly, until a random act triggers an outburst. Shogo Ueno’s camera lingers on her as All Around Us pivots from a comedy built on hardship within the society to a meditation on her turmoil and mental trauma.
Raucous in its comedy and painstaking in its exploration of economic and psychological loss, All Around Us is a film of rare sensitivity. Hashiguchi seems to be daring his audience to let the story take its own time in the telling.
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