Shinji Aoyama makes films about extreme emotional dysfunction and dislocation, whose central characters include victims and perpetrators of desperate acts and terrible crimes — sometimes within the same person.
A deeply knowledgeable film scholar, whose tastes run the gamut from Robert Bresson to Toei yakuza pics, Aoyama injects genre elements into his films while rejecting genre cliches and taking a distanced stance.
There is something Kubrickian in this approach — think "Clockwork Orange" comes to Japan — but where Kubrick strove for an immediately identifiable directorial signature, Aoyama varies his style from film to film to reflect the emotional landscapes of his often opaque characters.
The jagged editing rhythms and shot-on-the-fly feel of "Helpless" (1996), a film about a wild-at-heart biker that was Aoyama's first feature, gave way to the long, meditative cuts and stately black-and-white compositions of "Eureka" (2000), an austere drama about the victims of a bus-jacking that won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Aoyama's latest film, "Sad Vacation," is closer to the impressionistic "Helpless" on the stylistic spectrum, while being related thematically to both films. In fact, it grew out of them, in a decade-long development process that also produced an Aoyama novel on which "Sad Vacation" is based.
The three films form a trilogy, what the "Sad Vacation" program notes label a "Kita Kyushu saga," for their common location. They all center on characters, such as Tadanobu Asano's biker in "Helpless" and his driver in "Sad Vacation," who are wrestling with past traumas, while making an outward show of control.
This proves to be an unstable, even lethal mix, especially when they are brought face-to-face with the agents of those traumas. But after the explosion comes a certain calm and understanding. Aoyama is supremely nonjudgmental about these developments, though he tends to sympathize with his outsider heroes (which Kubrick mostly didn't).
The heroes of his trilogy adhere to no socially sanctioned code, be it of the warrior or the gangster. Instead, they stand apart from traditional frameworks, searching for their own solutions with a sincerity that borders on the absolute, if not fanatic. That they also happen to be mostly young, beautiful and cool (if severely disturbed) lends a certain stylishness to their actions, criminal ones included.
In "Sad Vacation," Asano plays Kenji, who as the film begins is assisting a smuggler of illegal Chinese workers in Kita Kyushu. When one of them turns up dead on board ship, Kenji takes the victim's young son under his wing. The reason: he himself had been abandoned by his mother at age 5 and then by his mentally unstable father, who committed suicide. Since then Kenji has borne a grudge against his mother, while extending sympathy to others among the emotionally walking wounded. In addition to the boy, he lives chastely with Yuri (Kaori Tsuji), the mentally disturbed, if definitely pretty, daughter of a dead yakuza pal.
Also taking an interest in society's damaged goods is kindly old Mamiya (Katsuo Nakamura), who runs a trucking company together with his zaftig, much younger wife (Eri Ishida). Among their employees are Kozue (Aoi Miyazaki), the traumatized victim of a bus-jacking (a role Miyazaki also played in "Eureka"), and Goro (Joe Odagiri), the frightened prey of voracious debt collectors. They all live together in a sort of commune/halfway-house, apart from the dangers of the surrounding society, while keeping their distance from each other.
One day, Kenji, now working as a driver after a falling-out with a dangerous Chinese gangster, spots Mamiya's wife on the company grounds — and realizes that she is his long-lost mother, Chiyoko. When he confronts her, she is all welcoming smiles and let-bygones-be-bygones talk. This is not just a pose: An Earth mother type, Chiyoko expresses little guilt for her past deeds, and little urge to judge others. For Kenji, however, it's not so easy to forget or forgive. He becomes part of the extended Mamiya family, but still wants payback from Mom — a desire that her calls for love and reconciliation only intensify.
Meanwhile, he becomes the lover of one of his clients, the slinky, perky club hostess Saeko (Yuka Itaya), and the enemy of his punk half-brother, Yusuke (Kengo Kora). The former is pulling him toward the semblance of a normal life, the latter toward his blacker impulses, including the one for revenge.
Aoyama tamps down this story's melodramatic side, while delving deep into the murky emotions of his main characters, beginning with Kenji. What becomes clear, however, is that the film really belongs to its women, including Chiyoko, who ride out all the storms, however violent.
This celebration of the feminine principle has its flip side, however. Chiyoko may be a nurturing, forgiving pillar of strength, but her attitude toward her children resembles Nature itself: What's one death, with another birth coming along? Why mourn, when there is new life to celebrate? So she keeps smiling — which is chilling, not sad. Kubrick, that master of the steady stare into the void — would have approved.