It might surprise to realise that the director/writer/producer of Starfish Hotel, starring the likes of Koichi Sato (Aegis, When the Last Sword is Drawn), Kiki (Vital) and Akira Emoto (Scrap Heaven), is a Brit. It’s certainly surprising considering the film seems to have a wholly Japanese aesthetic – gorgeous and exact, with the kind of subtle surrealism more at home in the sedate moments of a Miike film, or a Tsukamoto. Under the surprisingly deft hand of second-time filmmaker John Williams, whose British Japanese, Nagoya-based production company was responsible for the well regarded Firefly Dreams, Starfish Hotel is like a dream itself, or a hallucination, vaguely disturbing but never truly frightening, filled with an odd sort of logic that defies conscious reason and yet has meaning on a deeper level.
Part gumshoe detective thriller, part supernatural thriller, the film plots the domestic downfall of fairly ordinary salaryman Arisa (Sato), and it’s a fall that seems to descend into the underbelly of urban society with a kind of off-key sense of madness. The film starts with the release of a new book by popular horror novelist Kuroda (Kazuyoshi Kushida), but for Arisa, a fan of long standing, the story really begins as all Kuroda’s stories apparently do with the disappearance of a woman – Arisa’s wife.
Possibly Arisa lost his wife, with good reason, long before she actually disappears, but his first real clue to her whereabouts is a rabbit, one that handed him a flyer for Kuroda’s new book on a crowded transit concourse some days before. The rabbit, Akira Emoto in a suit more reminiscent of Donnie Darko than Harvey, is down and out and about a step away from homeless and it’s no coincidence that the club he leads Arisa to is called Wonderland. But this is no fairy tale, and the rabbit has another name – Mr. Trickster, an independent character that appears in each of Kuroda’s books, a signpost to the supposedly fictional realm, the Darkland.
This Darkland is never properly explained in the film, deliberately, so make of it what you will. In one sense it’s symbolic; the things that Arisa is hiding from himself, the guilt of a past affair, the realisations that his wife also has desires and does not merely exist as a part of his daily environment, populate this darkness that Arisa becomes driven to penetrate. Arisa, just like Alice, is following his self-appointed guide where-ever he will lead, down the rabbit hole or into madness.
In another sense however, its possible the Darkland is a kind of collective subconscious, where lives touch on levels that can’t quite be explained. The somnambulistic allure of this film is that in the end, you really never quite know. Time folds back on itself, events un-occur, without the expected cues of a shift in narrative time. Kuroda seems to be writing his book after it’s published, consulting with Arisa in his less than conscious moments, as if his actions dictate the outcome of something that has already happened.
This film is not a journey undertaken for its destination; forcing structure on something that slips like water through logic’s fingers will probably only frustrate. But set out to absorb and experience, without trying too hard to locate the stimulus in some kind of fixed and well-defined reality, and the rewards are there. Its visuals are rich and static, its soundtrack a decadent pleasure bordering on discordant, and like all good allegories, the picture it paints has meaning beyond the images used to depict it.