Director Higashi's 1996 'Village of Dreams' is a delightful, episodic tale of childhood and nostalgia, sublimely subtle, and fully deserving the title 'masterpiece.' Unfortunately, Higahsi's deft touch is absent in this stuttering, under-realized tale of alcoholism's effect on an everyday family.
Tadanobu Asano plays the afflicted husband, well into the endgame with his addiction by the time we meet him. There is a beauty in the resigned air his coughing up blood and hospitalization engenders in his ex-wife and mother. The pleading and histrionics are past, there is only the banal awareness that death is a matter of time for this man. Asano keeps it all reigned in. His rage is only ever on show in the flashbacks to his nastiest moments on the bottle. Any remorse he feels for his actions is, for the most part, internalized. His long-suffering ex-spouse, played by Hiromi Nagasaku in a study of quixotic loyalty, can't decide if the thought of the death of her children's father makes her happy or sad.
The film is no Lost Weekend - Asano's binges are left mostly off-screen, and only one moment of physical and verbal brutality is displayed, like the tip of the iceberg, leaving the audience to imagine what else has gone on under the surface. When Asano does go to the 'dark side', it is done quite literally, in a piece of theatricality that audiences will either love or hate. I admired it as a brave choice, while not being entirely convinced.
Madness is hinted at in momentary Jekyll-and-Hyde episodes for the protagonist, but this theme is subsumed when Asano is put into a clinic and the film becomes a kind of Alcoholic, Interrupted. We then go off on tangents with the assorted alcoholics as thumbnails of their problems parade before Asano. At this point the impact of Asano's condition on his family gets, if not lost, at least diluted, and the narrative flags. Unfortunately, just when we are wondering if Asano really can stay on the wagon, the whole thing is then wrapped up with a clumsy piece of deus ex machina that punctures any hope of a cathartic pay-off. To add insult to injury, the narrative get-out-of-jail card is delivered in cringe-worthy talking-to-myself exposition, while Asano incongruously idles in a stream. This lazy use of monologue really needs to be expunged from any serious film.
Asano is never less than watchable, but he posts in a performance here. Nagasaku is much more impressive, and had the film explored the wife's story a little more, a more engaging story would have emerged. The two kids, depressingly, are just too good to be true.
Neither an exploration of the ravages alcohol can extol, nor a developed character-driven drama, Yoi ga Sametara is a disappointing outing from a director with the ability to achieve much, much more.
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