Yuji and Mamoru work in a hand-towel factory, a futureless job that seems perfectly suited to two such futureless people. Yuji (Jō Odagiri) is impulsive and confused: he needs someone to guide him in life, and Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), his calculating and somehow sinister buddy, has taken that role. Mamoru’s one big hobby outside of work is keeping a live a pet jellyfish, slowly acclimating it to fresh water so that it might survive somewhere other than the ocean. Yuji has no such hobbies or interests, and bounds from one distraction to the other. Then Mamoru engineers a tragedy that almost ensnares Yuji as well, gets sent to prison, and entrusts the other man with his “project.”
This is the setup for Bright Future, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s most recent film [as of 2005], and after having seen several of his movies I think I am beginning to find a pattern in his work. His movies all concern themselves with somewhat antisocial characters, all trying to undertake an ambitious project of some kind which usually ends in disaster either for all concerned (or the world as a whole).
This set of conceits was chilling as all get-out in Cure, fascinating in Charisma, curiously unedifying in Kairo, bemusing in Doppelganger, and now with Bright Future it’s become almost wistful and sad. Each time Kurosawa runs another set of changes on this particular conceit, he finds himself drifting that much closer to humanity, and in some ways making a better film as a result. A good deal of what happens in Bright Future depends on plot details which might work best if they are not described ahead of time, so I will step lightly. If the above description intrigued you, go see the movie first, then come back here.
The first half of the movie concerns itself most strongly with the relationship between the two men. At one point Mamoru devises a set of hand gestures to modulate Yuji’s actions—“Wait” and “Go ”—as if Yuji were little more than a puppet. In a way, he is: when he inherits the jellyfish and begins to care for it, its care and feeding dominate his thought processes so totally that he throws near-tantrums if he’s prevented from caring for it properly. Is he retarded, or socially maladjusted, or what? The movie never says outright (much as in Cure we never learned what was wrong with the protagonist’s wife, either), and in a way it’s not as important as what comes because of it. Kurosawa is fascinated by the ways people are shaped and changed by circumstance—he wants to know what they’re going through, not where they came from.
Where they came from does in fact turn out to be important in Bright Future. Yuji encounters Mamoru’s father (Tatsuya Fuji, of In the Realm of the Senses), an electronics repairman. Mamoru and his father were estranged from each other for years, and the older man had no idea what was going through his son’s head. He sees in Yuji all that is left of his son (and sometimes Kurosawa reinforces this by showing us Mamoru instead of Yuji in certain shots), and helps him with the jellyfish project as a way of attempting to recapture all that’s left of him. But it does not work—at least, not in the way intended, because Yuji is not Mamoru, and in a way the fact that they are unalike (certainly in terms of motives) becomes their saving grace.
The movie does not unfold in a predictable way, and if you’ve seen any of Kurosawa’s earlier films this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it can be frustrating for people weaned on more conventional stories. Things just sort of happen, and we often do not see incidents themselves but their immediate aftermaths, and we are asked as an audience to process what we see on more than one level. I like movies like this, because we’re being asked to participate actively in things instead of simply absorb what is going on. Kurosawa trusts his audience’s intelligence.
The movie seems to be suggesting—as do many of Kurosawa’s movies—that human nature is not a matter of personal choice but heavily dictated by environment and circumstance. You can get used to anything, much as the jellyfish is acclimated to living in fresh water after a time. What it will cost you is another story entirely, and the latter half of the movie suggests that the stresses caused by attempting to engineer changes in yourself (or another, or your world) will always come back to haunt you somehow. But Kurosawa doesn’t rule out the possibility of redemption, and the ending scenes are both sad and lovely as we see a kind of redemption being offered and accepted.
Another key concept in Bright Future seems to be the idea that circumstance will dictate not just behavior but insight. The repairman is fed up and disillusioned with his work, as much as the boys in the hand-towel factory are (and the repairman’s job is arguably a lot more interesting), but it takes the right set of circumstances for him to admit that. Yuji, on the other hand, hardly seems to have an idea or a personality of his own, just an inchoate set of longings, and the jellyfish project is like an assignment given to him to keep him from exploding.
I’ve probably made this film seem immensely sterile and detached, and in a way it is—most of Kurosawa’s movies play more like recordings of experiments in progress on live human subjects rather than dramatic stories. But it’s not without human feeling and emotion, and it turns out to be surprisingly moving and sad. We feel for Yuji, even if we don’t quite know why he is the way he is, and we feel for Mamoru’s father, reaching to make a connection that may not be there to begin with. In the end I’m not even entirely sure I can say definitively what Bright Future is supposed to be about, but it engaged my attention all the way through, and there are some heart-stopping moments of beauty that make it all feel more than just some kind of screwy experiment.
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