Yoshihiro Nakamura’s “Golden Slumber” – NYAFF 2010/Japan Cuts Review

Yoshihiro Nakamura’s latest film “Golden Slumber” teaches us, if nothing else, that sometimes they really are out to get you.  The truth of this statement is very quickly learned by deliveryman Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) who finds himself framed, “North by Northwest”-style, for the assassination of Japan’s prime minister.

Lured for what he thinks is an innocuous fishing outing with his friend Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka), Aoyagi narrowly escapes a car bomb and spends the rest of the film on the run from the “Authorities,” with an Orwellian capital ‘A.’  “They’ll make you into a Lee Harvey Oswald,” Morita tells Aoyagi before the car bombing.  One favorite tenet of conspiracy theorists is that Oswald was not the true killer of John F. Kennedy, but was framed by elements in the government that wished to eliminate the president.  In “Golden Slumber,” the Japanese prime minister ruffled feathers by speaking out against American influence and Cabinet establishment; as it turns out, some in the government would benefit from the prime minister’s death.

Aoyagi becomes an unwitting cog in this scheme.  He is doggedly pursued by Inspector Sasaki (Teriyuki Kagawa), who may be a part of the vast conspiracy enveloping him, which also happens to involve a book depository warehouse, just like JFK’s assassination.  Aoyagi is not without allies, however; he is helped along the way by sympathetic old friends, as well as an oldster (Akira Emoto) in a retirement home.  Aoyagi, in the film’s wackiest subplot, finds a most unlikely ally in a notorious serial killer known as “Kill-O” (Gaku Hamada).

“Golden Slumber,” like Nakamura’s last film “Fish Story” (both based on novels by Kotaro Isaka), is named after a song that becomes a recurring talisman in the narrative.  A Japanese cover version of The Beatles song “Golden Slumbers,” sung in English, is repeated throughout, and exists on an iPod that plays a crucial role late in the film.  The song, which expresses Aoyagi’s and his friends’ wish for things to be as they were, plays over flashback scenes, and reinforces the theme of the power of memory and nostalgia.

Like “Fish Story,” the present and the past are very tightly intertwined in “Golden Slumber,” as Aoyagi’s memories, and those of his friends, exert a great pull on present narrative events.  Unfortunately, the stylistic elements that felt so innovative and fresh in “Fish Story” feel rather attenuated and nearly tedious.  The problem is the slack pacing, along with a few too many digressions and subplots, which renders these elements diffuse and far less impactful than in the earlier film.  It’s as if Nakamura felt the need to shove all of the novel’s incidents into his film; while this works fine in a novel, for cinema this approach becomes a bit more problematic.  This is a real shame, because all the ingredients for a fine, diverting romp are here: a bewildered protagonist on the run for reasons he struggles to figure out; a cast of colorful characters; and an elaborate plot concocted by a mysterious shadow government.  However, the exact nature of this conspiracy and its reasons for being remain vague to the very end, and alas, proves to be a rather pointless exercise.  There is potentially a great film hidden in here somewhere, but sluggish pacing and an excess of narrative flab mostly prevents us from seeing it.

“Golden Slumber” screens at Japan Society on July 2 at 6:15 p.m. as part of the Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema.  Tickets will be on sale soon; check the Japan Society website for updates.