Keisuke Yoshida's Himeanole [Himeanôru] isn't the type of film that draws a lot of attention to itself. I'd only seen one of Yoshida's films before (The Workhorse & the Bigmouth - good, but nothing too exceptional) and I did get wind of some minor hype surrounding Himeanole, but it would've gone under the radar were it not for a mention in Mark Schilling's book on contemporary Japanese cinema. I figured it deserved a fair shot, not expecting too much but keeping an open mind nonetheless. It's a good thing I did, as Yoshida's latest packs a couple of mean surprises I didn't see coming at all.
Yoshida has been directing films for a while now, but mostly in the softer genres. He dabbled in comedy and romance, sometimes with little light drama to balance things out. Himeanole announced itself as a crime/thriller, though that felt like a gross mislabeling at first. Mind you that the rest of the review will be a tad spoilery (though I'll try my best to keep things vague), so if you prefer a maiden experience I suggest you stop reading here. The start of the film at least feels like a straight comedy. Quite dry and definitely with a darker edge to it, but I actually chuckled a couple of times and was pleasantly surprised by its wit. All of that is just a guise.
I've seen the film being compared to Miike's Audition, and that analogy makes a lot of sense. Both films share a very similar setup, where the first parts lulls you to sleep, only to slap you awake halfway through and deliver something quite disturbing. Himeanole is definitely not a carbon copy of Miike's film, as it has more mood swings compared to Audition and the balance of genres is quite different (for one, this gets a lot meaner and darker than Audition, whose ending was still well within the boundaries of juicy genre cinema), but the effect both films pursue is quite similar.
Okada is a timid person. He's a soft-voiced, well-mannered man who never speaks up, lets others walk over him without ever putting up a fight and doesn't have any big personal aspirations. He lives forever in the shadows of others. Ando, his colleague, invites him along to go spy on a girl and Okada obliges. The girl proves pretty popular as Ando isn't the only one to stalk her, by chance the other stalker is an old acquaintance of Okada. Ando orders Okada to go and talk with the guy, which set a series of events in motion that will ruin all the parties involved.
Visually the film looks clean and polished, but somewhat understated. While I tend to prefer more overtly stylized films, it's obvious Yoshida made a conscious choice to tone down Himeanole's look, as a more explicitly stylized alternative would've taken away from the impact. The first half of the films looks nice, but very genre-appropriate, which comes with a clear set of expectations. It's all a setup though, as Yoshida tears those expectations apart when the second half of the film hits. The camera work gets a bit edgier, reminding me more of those turn of the century nihilistic dramas (think Toyoda's Pornostar). It's not a spectacular turnaround, but it's extremely effective.
The soundtrack is subtle, but its use is very deliberate and definitely notable. In the first 45 minutes of the film the score is completely absent. It's only when the opening credits pop up (about halfway through) that we're finally treated to some background tunes. It does pick up from there on out, though Yoshida keeps the soundtrack on a short leash. The music consists of mostly dark and ominous synth-based tracks, which create a strong impact whenever they are featured. It's a great showcase of how you can accomplish a lot with very little, then again Himeanole in its entirety is.
I'm not the biggest Gaku Hamada fan, but casting him was pure genius. His timid posture, blank looks and trademark squeaky, raspy voice make him the ideal target for some dark comedy. He's also known for appearing in very decent, harmless comedies and dramas, so with him present nobody was going to expect the big swing. Normally Hamada would be the sole star of the film, but Go Morita's performance is just as splendid. He may be somewhat of an inconspicuous, mousy-looking man, but he's one of the most relentless maniacs I've seen in a long time. Add a strong secondary cast with a great role for Tsuyoshi Muro and you have a wonderfully rounded cast that performs well beyond their expected range.
After the sudden change in tone, the films gets very mean and dark. In part this is due to the shock and contrast with the lighter first half, but even if it had started halfway through Himeanole still would've been pretty overwhelming. Not that there's a lot of onscreen violence or brutality, but there's a coldness to the actions of the characters that's quite gripping. Strong tonal shifts are hard enough to stomach as it is, but to go from a lovely chuckle to uncomfortable gasps in mere minutes is sure to scare off part of the audience. That said, Yoshida pulls it off with flair and its exactly what makes this film so special.
Himeanole is a film best experienced raw and Yoshida did his utmost best to cover up any signs of what is to come. From the smart casting to the predictable cinematography and the discrete score, Himeanole is a film that lulls you to sleep, only to start kicking you in the gut after the halfway mark. It's not the easiest film to recommend as the setup won't work for anyone, but Yoshida goes all in and when his little plan works it's certain to leave quite an impression. Himeanole was a welcome surprise, the kind I don't run into that often anymore, and for that alone it deserves heaps of praise.