Director/comedians are quite common in Japan. Some of Japan's most lauded filmmakers (think Takeshi Kitano and Hitoshi Matsumoto) fit this description, but there are others, somewhat more eclipsed by the cultural barriers that separate our entertainment world from theirs. Suzuki Matsuo is one of them and while his first few feature films come a long way in explaining his relative obscurity, Welcome To The Quiet Room is a big step up from his previous efforts.
I first encountered Matsuo while watching In The Pool. His appearance and comic timing is near perfect so when I learned of his directorial work I was immediately sold. Still, his first couple of films lacked coherence and punch and while they're still quite fun to watch they never really reached the potential his comedic talent seemed to suggest. But Matsuo worked hard to improve his skills and it definitely shows when watching his latest film.
Welcome To The Quiet Room is a straight comedy but with a continuous dramatic undercurrent. The subject matter can get rather heavy at times, though the overall tone of the film keeps the atmosphere light-hearted, only occasionally switching to full-blown drama. The film opens following the hectic life of Asuka, a young and rising reporter living with a promising scriptwriter. But suddenly the film glitches and Asuka wakes up in a hospital, firmly tied down to the bed.
Little by little we learn Asuka's hectic life led to an alcohol/sleeping pills overdose, sending her into a short coma. The biggest problem is that people suspect her of trying to commit suicide and the circumstantial evidence isn't really helping her case. All she can do in convince the people around her she's fine to leave the hospital, but this proves to be a bigger challenge than initially expected. Trying to remain calm amongst the peculiar people and nursing personnel inhabiting the psychiatric ward is not the easiest of missions.
Visually Matsuo takes on a very consistent style. He limits his color palette to an overdose of white and matching pale colors, enhancing the clean and clinical feel of Asuka's surroundings. There are only a few scenes (all of them outside the confines of the ward) that feature more vibrant colors. The framing is strong, camera work precise and there are a good few shots that catch the eye. There is still a little room for improvement but overall it's a visually pleasant experience.
Sadly the soundtrack is a little underdeveloped. Not bad or awful by any means but it's ultimately forgettable and it does little to further strengthen the atmosphere of the film. It's a missed opportunity to give the film a little extra shine. Luckily the acting is strong and diverse, with a couple of solid lead roles (both Uchida and Aoi shine) and a few awesome cameos. See if you can spot Hideaki Anno (of Evangelion fame) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo). Both have had prior acting experience but it's still cool to see them pop up in this film.
Slowly the facts around Asuka's evening activities are being revealed, twisting the film into a new direction every time a new snippet of information in unleashed. As the ending nears the story becomes more bitter but the lighthearted tone never disappears from the film. It's a delicate balance but Matsuo holds to it with surprising ease. A commendable feat that deserves some praise.
The comedy is typical Japanese stuff though, so if you're not a fan it's probably best to avoid this film altogether. The film has others perks but none strong enough to forget about the humor present. Even then, the darker dramatic edges might push people away as they stand in stark contrast with the humorous stretches. Personally I found the mix fresh and original but I'm sure not everyone will see it this way.
Matsuo is growing as a director. Welcome To The Quiet Room is in improvement on his previous films in every respect. The comedy pack more punch, there's more visual consistency, the actors put in better performances and the film feels more consistent. It will not be to everyone's liking, I'm sure this film won't bring Matsuo a big international breakthrough, but fans will rejoice when they discover this little gem and they might treasure it as something they can keep for themselves.
Here's a short (unsubbed) trailer for the adventurous types.