At the age of 26, the Japanese actor and model Yusuke Iseya made his directorial debut: Kakuto (2002), produced by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, in whose films After Life (Wandafaru raifu, 1998) and Distance (2001) Iseya had previously been cast. He stars in Kakuto, and he also wrote the script together with Takamasa Kameishi. The title “kakuto” can be translated as “the awakening of a person” or “the awakening of a city”, and most of the film deals with the (mis)adventures of three young adult males – Ryo (Iseya), Makoto (Hassei Takano) and Naoshi (Atsushi Ito) – during the night before Ryo’s 22nd birthday.
The film starts with a series of animated drawings of a man running in the streets while Ryo’s voice from the off refers to a recurring dream he has had since childhood. The animation in this sequence anticipates a crucial scene in the film in which Ryo, in fear of his life, runs through city streets at night. It also creates an intertextual link with After Life, Iseya’s debut as an actor, in which the character he plays talks about a dream in which he just keeps on running.
This opening sequence is followed by a series of shots of flickering bluish shapes superimposed onto moving columns of numbers. These almost abstract shots are accompanied by the voices of various characters (including Ryo) talking on the phone. The fragments of telephone conversations give some clues about the storyline, but at first are as mysterious as the film’s main protagonist. In one of these early sequences, Ryo is called “a mystery”, and he remains one for a while. On his first appearance, he is filmed from behind and wearing a hoodie, and it. is only about 24 minutes into the film that his face is shown for the first time. In the meantime, he has been the topic of two dialogue sequences between some of his fellow students, who reveal that they admire him for his coolness and resourcefulness.
In the sequences before Ryo’s first appearance, the two other main characters are introduced: Makoto, one of Ryo’s friends, and Naoshi, Ryo’s childhood friend from a suburb of Tokyo. Two other characters, who emerge in a series of subplots and are only loosely connected with the film’s main protagonists, also appear for the first time: Shinji (Ryo Kase), a disturbed young man, and Nakamura (Teruyuki Kagawa), a kind-hearted police officer.
Ryo seems to be rather well-off, perhaps because of his connection with yakuza, for whom he provides photos of young women, apparently for the gangsters’ pornography business. During the tumultuous night that forms the central episode in Kakuto, he receives ecstasy hidden in a box of Lucky Strike cigarettes from Tezuka (Susumu Terajima), the crazy son of a yakuza boss. When he loses the drugs, Ryo and his two friends start desperately looking for them, well aware of the murderous revenge that the yakuza will exact if they find out about this blunder. Parallel to this main plot depicting Ryo’s frantic search for the drugs, Shinji steals a red sports car with a huge amount of drugs in its boot, while Nakamura and his fellow police officers keep the building in which Tezuka lives under observation.
The various characters meet accidentally or just appear at the same place by chance. Shinji steals the car from the car park outside a supermarket where Makoto and Naoshi are waiting for Ryo; Ryo and his friends run into Nakamura in their car when he suddenly appears in front of it; the policeman Nakamura discovers Shinji, who has collapsed in a telephone booth that he has vandalized, and he tries to reassure the deeply frustrated young man; Ryo is chased by Tezuka brandishing a katana (the long sword of the samurai), while Nakamura and other police officers are hard on the yakuza’s heels.
There are also minor characters with some dramatic function, for example Kyoko, Makoto’s former girlfriend, who has dumped him but for whom he still has tender feelings. When Makoto finds her picture in Ryo’s collection of photographs of young women, he is disgusted about his friend’s behaviour and questions him on his discovery. The two yakuza in the red sports car that Shinji steals are the film’s comic duo, contributing an element of slapstick-like humour. And Tezuka, with the large tattoo on his back and his fur coat, is portrayed as a parody of a yakuza.
Like the narrative, the mise en scène relies on fragmentation, which is achieved by means of extreme close-ups, strong light and shade contrasts, images distorted by special lenses, fast and slow motion, and by a very mobile camera that remains close to the human bodies, limiting the field of vision. All these techniques and their effects contribute to the film’s general ambience of instability.
Numerous narrative and formal aspects are reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (UK, 1996), including the episodic structure and the character of a psychopathic gangster. The sequence in which Ryo vomits – the unappetizing brownish liquid he has disgorged framed in close-up – recalls images of body liquids and excrement in Trainspotting.
However, Iseya’s film is an original work, and Ryo and the other young men in the film are rounded enough to interest the viewer. Perfectly in tune with the immature character he plays, Iseya’s very naturalistic performance of the extrovert Ryo expresses the nonchalance of youth but also the character’s vulnerability. His face a mask of fear and his body stiffened, he looks like a trapped animal when the yakuza Suzuki (Takamasa Kameishi) finds him alone in a car. Iseya is unabashed about showing himself in a humiliating situation – vomiting, and then being stripped to his underpants, and no longer Ryo’s carefree former self but a pitiful creature filled with feelings of guilt about the photographs of the young women but still pretending that he was unaware of their presumable fate. However, Iseya also reveals his character’s more sympathetic and even tender side when Ryo listens carefully to Naoshi’s childhood memories.
Kakuto addresses the desires and fears of these characters and in particular the lifestyle of young Japanese urbanites and suburbanites, which is no different from that of those in western countries. In long dialogue sequences filmed with a rather static camera and thus contrasting with the frenzied atmosphere of other shots during their nocturnal adventure, the three protagonists talk about everything under the sun. However, their objective in life is to have fun, and this is achieved, as the lost drugs reappear and they can enjoy life again, chatting happily until sunrise on the roof of the building where Ryo lives.
By adopting a light-hearted approach to the topic of drugs, Iseya, like Boyle, avoids a moral discourse, and Kakuto also gives emphasis to topics such as friendship and contains social criticism, alluding to crime, the exploitation of young woman by the sex industry and the alienation of young people as represented by the troubled Shinji with his penchant for violence and self-destruction. A reflection on the dilemma of environmental protection is given by the young woman in the shop selling exotic fish. She would like to set the fish free, but she and her family earn their living selling them. Interestingly, a few years after making his first film, Iseya launched the Rebirth Project, a multi-faceted business on sustainable development.
The final sequence presents a variation on episodes earlier in the film and before the night that turns into a nightmare. The settings are the same – a coffee shop, a car repair workshop, the street outside the shop selling aquarium fish that is next door to Ryo’s apartment. However, there are differences with regard to the characters and their attitudes. Ryo is now walking towards the camera and not away from it, and he greets the young woman from the shop politely and does not ignore her as he did in their first encounter. Makoto has joined the group of young men in the coffee shop shown in one sequence at the beginning of the film, and he tells them with obvious delight that he is dating the waitress. Naoshi no longer argues with his father, who does not approve of his son’s wish to become an actor, and he accepts a job as a mechanic in his family’s car repair business. This return to normality and the signs of a new beginning are also expressed by Shinji, now driving his own very small car along the coastline. Amazed by Nakamura’s kindness, his trust in mankind has been restored.
The return to normality indicates an acceptance of the responsibilities of adulthood, with Shinji’s monologue suggesting the necessity for individual responsibility. However, the last shot in the film showing Nakamura eating his lunch contentedly – a recurring motif in the film – also suggests that adulthood does not necessarily mean adventure but certainly implies daily routine.