Reminiscent of a Shinya Tsukimoto film, where reality is not always quite as stable as one would like, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Real similarly deals with the delineations between reality and fantasy, and subsequently life and death. Mildly creepy, this somnambulistic thriller packs a few small punches but for the most part fails to get its heart rate above resting.
Koichi (Takeru Satô, Rurouni Kenshin) is a young man with a girlfriend in a coma. All Smiths song references aside, he’s fortunate enough to have access to a certain technology that allows him to enter his comatose girlfriend Atsumi’s (Haruka Ayase) mind and converse with her, for the purposes of convincing her to come back to the land of the living. There’s just one hitch. Okay, there’s just two hitches. One, Atsumi committed suicide and doesn’t really want to come back, and two, there’s the small- okay, moderate. Uh, okay, highly likely? – chance that whatever Koichi experiences in the virtual world may just end up following him back out. Considering Atsumi is a manga artist with a pechant for the macabre this is, as I’m sure you will realise, is a recipe for creepy.
Predictably, nasty things do start bleed out into Koichi’s reality, and there are a couple of really nice frights provided here, but there’s just a few things wrong with this picture other than the obvious. Using some absolutely superb visual cues and amazing subtle sound and music effects (at one point I was honestly not sure whether the faint groaning wind I could hear was coming from the movie or outside the theatre) all framed in some spectacular production design by Takeshi Shimizu, Kurosawa starts to clue us in on the fact that not everything is as it appears. Seemingly unrelated to the visuals of Atsumi’s drawings, Koichi is increasingly haunted by the image of a drowned boy, one that eventually holds the key to what’s really going on.
I won’t spoil anything for you, although I dare say if you’ve seen other films with a similar premise or in a similar genre, you’ll probably spot this twist with plenty of lead time, and no offence but that’s likely due more to this film’s failings than your ability to read plot devices. Real is sadly not Kurosawa at his best, and this film could have served from a brutal cut down from it’s just over two hour running time into the tightly framed psychological thriller it so clearly could have been.
Fortunately, there’s enough going on that you’ll still enjoy the overall low-key creepiness, and may even find yourself moderately invested in the resolution of Koichi’s wet kid mystery and the hunt for the plesiosaur (don’t ask, it’s better just to see some things for yourself) as the lovers travel through misty byways from their slightly claustrophobic apartment to the home of their youth on the island of Hikone. Sato perhaps has the most substance to work with along this journey, and although he and Ayase have decent on-screen chemistry, it seems like an oversight that she doesn’t get nearly as much to do. The rest of the cast, like the imaginary people that populate Atsumi’s comatose world, are arguably non-entities. One can only assume Joe Odagiri appeared as a favour to the director, or to maybe update his wardrobe, because he really doesn’t have anything to do to truly warrant his time.
The end, when it eventually comes, will probably feel somewhat overdue, but at least you can find yourself grateful that this film didn’t also come with an Ambiguous Ending. That might have just been asking a little too much. A shorter, tighter film could have pulled off a few unanswered questions but Real lingers on and becomes weaker for it, and the big revelation doesn’t have the impact it probably should have had.
Real is screening as part of the 17th Japanese Film Festival until December 8. Please check the website for screening times in your city.