Kazuya Shiraishi is one of the rising stars of Japanese cinema, but you're forgiven for not having heard of his name before. For those who don't speak Japanese, getting to his films can prove quite a challenge. Luckily things seem to be improving with each new project he puts out. Birds Without Names [Kanojo ga Sono Na wo Shiranai Toritachi] is not his latest feature, but it's a film worth catching up on. It's also not the most accessible Japanese drama out there, but seasoned fans will find lots to love here.
I'm not claiming to be an expert on Shiraishi's work, that would be quite inappropriate after seeing only two of his films (for reference, the other one is Dawn of the Felines). Even so, they share a very clear signature, which at least gives me the impression Shiraishi is well aware of what he's doing and where he's going. There's a dark, modern edge to his dramas, executed with confidence while slyly venturing into uncomfortable territory. It's no doubt a trait that's going to divide audiences, at the same time it's nice to see a director who doesn't mind nudging people outside of their comfort zones.
Birds Without Names is a strong mix of drama and thriller elements, a film that is set up like a traditional Japanese drama, but has the narrative intruige of a core thriller. Definitely not the most obvious marriage of genres, but it's a strong fit for Shiraishi's qualities. The key to appreciating the film will probably lie with the characters, which are somewhat impenetrable and quite hard to read. Then again that's one of the key appeals and compared to some of the more hardcore entries in this niche, Shiraishi does reveal quite a few motivations later on.
The film revolves around Towako, a young girl who lives together with Jinya, a slightly older man. The two are in a relationship, though the love is rather one-sided. Towako seems disgusted with her current partner as she pines for a lost lover. When she finds out that her ex went missing five years earlier, she starts to suspect that Jinya might be behind the disappearance. Unable to let it go, she vows to uncover what happend five years ago, but the truth may be darker than what she bargained for.
Even though the film borrows quite a few visual cues from other Japanese dramas (most notably the intrusive and somewhat restless camera work), Shiraishi also incorporates more stylized scenes, with strong use of color, smart lighting and solid camera work. It's these moments that reinforce the thriller elements, though in such a way that they don't directly interfere with the impact of the drama. Shiraishi finds a very nice visual balance between the two, making for a stark and appealing looking film.
Like Dawn of the Felines though, it's the music that has the biggest impact on the overall atmosphere. The music itself is actually quite restrained and introverted, but it is applied just perfectly. It doesn't need to be loud and in your face to demand attention, instead it comes forward in key scenes and guides the audience to move between the drama and thriller parts of the film. Shiraishi seems to know what he wants from his soundtracks and the way he incorporates them is exemplary.
The acting too is top notch. Yu Aoi has been a personal favorite for years and even though she looks fragile and demure, she demonstrates that she can move between different attitudes and moods in the blink of an eye. Her character is actually quite cold and self-centered, but she pulls it off effortlessly. Sadao Abe's performance is less layered, but it works within the context of the film and he provides the perfect counter balance to Aoi's character. The rest of the cast is decent too, but it's really all about this central duo.
Birds Without Names is a pretty dark and relentless film. It's definitely not without its poetic moments, but they don't provide much in the way of tranquillity or lightness. The added thriller elements only darken the mood further, coupled with the introvert characters it could be a bit much for some. Because of that it's definitely not the best film to wind down after a tough day at work, but if you're looking for a film with body and gravity, then Shiraishi has you covered and there's plenty to love here.
Shiraishi's work may not be the best introduction into the Japanese drama niche, but hardened genre fans can do little wrong with this one. A powerhouse performance by Yu Aoi, some rather stylish visuals and a highly atmospheric soundtrack make this a standout entry that highlights Shiraishi's talents. If you're new to all this, it's probably better to start with some lighter films, if not this comes warmly recommended. So much so that Shiraishi's next films will be prioritized from now one.