A Drowning Man

Original title
Oboreru Hito
Japanese title
  • 溺れる人
Running time
83 minutes
2 April 2003
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At once down-to-earth and surreal, Naoki Ichio's debut A Drowning Man is a film of deceptive simplicity. Made with modest means, it takes the relationship between a man and a woman as its premise, telling its story with little in the way of camera movement and on a single set. An exercise in minimalism, however, this is not. Much like Makoto Shinozaki's Okaeri, the outward simplicity hides a wealth of significance. After all, what is more important in our lives than being with the one we love?

The comparison with Okaeri is valid in terms of plot too. Both films portray a young marriage from the point of view of the man, whose tendency to take his wife for granted catches up with him when a sudden dramatic event changes the relationship forever. In A Drowning Man that event borders on the fantastical, but the message the film delivers is no less valid.

Tokio (Shinya Tsukamoto) is a young salaryman who is uncomfortably confronted with his own ineptness when he finds his wife Kumiko drowned in the bathtub one night. He picks up the phone to call an ambulance, but puts it down again before dialling the number. Instead he distractedly makes himself coffee before deciding to drain the bath and bring Kumiko to the living room couch. With her dead body beside him, the panic finally breaks through the daze, and he starts drinking to numb it. Awakening from an alcohol-induced sleep the following morning, he finds himself in his own bed. Even greater is the surprise when Kumiko walks into the room to ask how he's doing.

The film's premise could have come straight from a Twilight Zone episode, but its significance goes beyond mere gimmickry. Essentially a divorce parable (inspired by the director's own separation from his wife), the film deals with Tokio's realisation of how incompetent he is when left to his own devices, an incompetence towards both his wife and himself. After she has miraculously come back to life, he becomes obsessed with the improbability of her apparent resurrection and fails to realise what tragedy he has been spared. Instead of embracing his wife and counting his lucky stars, his obsessions gradually push her away.

Though shot on a single set, A Drowning Man never comes across as theatrical. The camera never ventures further outside the apartment than the balcony, and even then it shows nothing of the world beyond those few square meters of concrete. This claustrophobic setting is a suitable choice for portraying the protagonist's obsessions, just as the no-frills 16 mm photography serves as a suitable reflection of Tokio's colourless personality.

Nagoya-based director Naoki Ichio is a former playwright who worked in theatre and radio before making his first short films. Even though A Drowning Man is only his first feature, much of it coming together thanks to the support of Nagoya Visual Arts College, which supplied much of the facilities and material, the director managed to attract quite the powerhouse leading couple in Tsukamoto and Kataoka.

The film is another notch on Tsukamoto's ever-expanding actor résumé, his productivity as an actor remaining a stark contrast with his sparse directorial output. His recent appearances include Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive 2 and Ichi the Killer, Kentaro Otani's A Woman's Work (Travail), Teruo Ishii's quite insane Rampo hotchpotch Blind Beast vs. Dwarf (Moju tai Issunboshi) and a guest spot on the Alex Cox-directed episode of the Mike Hama TV series.

Reiko Kataoka meanwhile shows again, as if proof were still needed, that she is one of Japan's most gifted actresses. Debuting in Ryosuke Hashiguchi's A Touch of Fever, she initially wound up in V-cinema yakuza films for several years. Rarely used to her full ability, she nevertheless was given the opportunity to shine in Masato Harada's Kamikaze Taxi (1995) and Rokuro Mochizuki's Onibi: The Fire Within (1997). It was with more recent films like Hashiguchi's Hush! that she came to full bloom, although, soon after, a serious illness forced her to take a leave of absence from acting.

Despite being more earnest than earth shattering, A Drowning Man is one of those debut films that makes you realise the future of Japanese cinema is in safe hands.