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Before Sunrise – Review

by Olivia Saperstein

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By chance, Watabe meets subordinate worker Nakanishi at a batting center. A friendship occurs which leads to a heated love affair. Watabe then learns that Nakanishi is the prime suspect of a murder case that occurred 15 years – the murder of her father’s ex-lover.

There have been countless films about affairs, as adultery is a human fascination, a subject of moral contemplation, and on film, a source of voyeuristic pleasure. In March, Complex magazine posted a list entitled “The 10 Hottest Extramarital Affairs in Movies,” including Closer, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Unfaithful. Japan Academy winner Setsuro Wakamatsu clearly provides us with a similar jouaissance in his recent film Before Sunrise, which is slightly less sex and slightly more sexual discourse.

Kazuya Watanabe, or Watabe for short (Goro Kishitani), is a middle aged working professional, who has come to accept his hum-drum “boring old man” life. That is, until he meets Akiba Nakanishi (Kyoko Fukada), an independent beauty who works for the same company, and the two begin a heated affair. Watabe learns that Akiba is the major suspect in the murder of her father’s ex-mistress, and as their romance progresses, they circle nearer and nearer towards the expiration date of the murder case’s statute of limitations.

It’s clear here that Wakamatsu has looked to Hollywood as a heavy influence, using fast cuts, snarky dialogue reminiscent of The Hangover (2009) and Animal House (1978), and a typical narrative structure with catchpenny musical cues. In one of the first scenes, Watabe is drinking with his buddy Shintani (Ken Ishiguro), who says, “There are three things I hate in this world: avocado, mayonnaise, and drunk broads.” Later in the office, Watabe’s boss scolds a worker for his typos, asking, “How did you turn ‘annual meeting,’ into ‘anal meeting’?” Such caprice is only slightly clever, and feels forced as a ritualistic insertion of virile humor.

Still, most actors performances are convincing, especially that of the supporting Ken Ishiguro, whose presence charms the viewer, despite his hubristic demeanor. His strength is in his attempt to blur the lines between baneful and benevolent. In a later scene he tries to convince Watabe to return to his wife, fists clenched, commanding dominance–not only over Watabe, but the audience as well. It is impossible to decipher whether he is jealous, or merely looking out for his friend, and such ambiguity is a testament to veritable acting.

Tae Kimura plays Watabe’s wife, Yumiko, with such subtlety we can’t help but question the extent of her knowledge regarding the infidelity. This gives us insight into Watabe’s perspective, but I couldn’t help feel that the failure to develop her character more acutely limited the pathos of the story. As Watabe narrates, we are constantly reminded of how depraved he feels for committing such a dishonest act, yet there are only a few brief moments where we catch Yumiko revealing any trace of emotion. In one of the best shots of the film, Yumiko stands alone one her porch hanging laundry. The previous night she had slept with her husband, and a gleam of natural light shines on her sublimely as she smiles– hope arising with the sun.

There are a variety of instances where light is captured to perfection, and not just to create a spectacle. Watanabe and Akiba are parked under a bridge, and Abika spots a rainbow. There is an awe-inspiring moment as the two characters look up from under the majestic piece of glistening architecture, as the rainbow cascades over everything, breaking tension as a deus ex machina. There are also various shots of Watabe in doorways, their bright light contrasting with the darkness of surrounding rooms. This seems to suggests he is lost, and inside battling between two poles.

The use of moving-shots is constant, as if the camera is circling the characters like a vulture, trying to see what’s underneath, and ready to devour them at any moment. This creates an effective sense of pressure, and a reminder that time is not infinite in their case.

Despite such technical prowess, the narrative slackens in its ability to hold our interest in the murder case. So much time is spent with Watabe and his conscience, we are more concerned about his wife finding out than we our about the Akiba’s potential status as a murderer. We know we can’t trust her, but clearly Watabe has drifted so far off into delusion that we are forced to walk with him. While the case is in the back of our minds, the film provides no sense of urgency; the only haste that is made is to another lovers’ rendezvous.

Rather than become enamored in the theatrics of the affair, however, it is important to ask ourselves if this film says anything new about cheating. In Japanese culture, there is a history of mothers sleeping with their children in the early years after bearing them, which may encourage the husband to seek sexual gratification elsewhere. While today this is no longer necessarily the case, there is still a strong emphasis placed on the child. Just like in Western culture, though, men and women alike seem to consume the myth that married life can be dull and sexless. For Watabe and Shintani, it’s a matter of respect. They believe that men of their position are no longer taken seriously. We can’t help, then, but seek out a social admonition in this film, and not just a moral one.

Without a spoiler, it is safe to say that the role of Akiba is rather revolutionary in her ability to take control. Rather than drowning in passivity, she not only takes Watabe for an emotional ride, but asserts her inner independence in doing so, and I’m not just talking career.

Regardless of its hints of cliche and abounding weaknesses, Before Sunrise rides on emotional and social implications, pointing to the ever-changing nature of the times. While there are certain aspects of love that will forever be unanswered, there are always ways in which the progression of society can change and shape human perspective.

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Author: Olivia Saperstein

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Comments

  • Miguel Douglas

    I’ve been meaning to watch Setsuro Wakamatsu’s Unbroken, but it’s interesting to see him tackle material such as this after the above mentioned film.

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but it would seem that Wakamatsu is exploring something new for him here, easing his way into topics that appeal to the more broader viewership without sacrificing too much in terms of narrative.