The Blessing Bell
- Original title
- Kofuku no Kane
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 87 minutes
- 17 February 2003
by Jasper Sharp
Over the past decade Sabu has proven himself to be one of the most popular and dependable directors working in Japanese cinema, gaining legions of fans both at home and perhaps to an even greater extent abroad, by developing and refining a trademark style of quirky action-comedies propelled by characters who hurtle headlong though squirming narratives steered more by the forces of incidence and coincidence than the actions of the protagonists themselves.
To those taken with the approach, Sabu's films just keep getting better and better, but to his detractors there's still an anticipation that the director might someday be capable of deviating from the template to deliver something a little more substantial, and at first glance, The Blessing Bell would appear to be such a film. Having progressed from on-foot chases, with his 1996 debut DANGAN Runner, through bicycles chases in Postman Blues, and culminating in the four-wheel pursuits of his last film Drive as if they all represented the various rungs on the evolutionary ladder, perhaps, with the limitations of Japanese movie budgets as they are, the director's automotive obsessions have reached their pinnacle. Given this, for those awaiting something different from the director, the opening lengthy static shot of a rusting, empty train track filling the frame accompanied by the strains of a howling wind seems rather encouraging. However, it soon becomes clear that Sabu's ostensible stab at an art film is not so much a departure as a change of pace, more of a quiet "stroll" than the fast and furious "Drive" of its predecessor.
The Blessing Bell follows the slow, head-down, trudge of its blue-collar protagonist, Igarashi, through the twenty-four hours succeeding the moment he is laid off from his factory after it announces it has ceased operations. After fruitlessly scouring the local job ads, Igarashi pauses to sit and ponder his fate by the banks of a river. Here, his silent musings are interrupted by the mumbled confessions of a penitent yakuza, seated a couple of meters in front of him, seemingly in the midst of a religious conversion. After finishing his speech, the yakuza slumps forward and rolls down the slope, collapsing in a heap at the bottom to reveal a large knife jarred between his ribs. A passing policeman rides into the frame on his bicycle, and Igarashi is promptly ushered off to jail.
In prison, a confession from his murderous cellmate opens up a new sense of purpose for the newly redundant worker. Upon his release a few hours later, his innocence proven, a visit to the Chance Bar, where the killer's deceased wife used to work as a hostess, sets in motion a chain of events that takes in an encounter with a ghostly Seijun Suzuki and a lucky stumble across a winning lottery ticket.
Susumu Terajima as Igarashi, here replacing Sabu's regular leading man Shinichi Tsutsumi for the first time, makes for a wonderful audience identification figure, plodding through the film as if carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Bemused brow furrowed in concentration as he peers frettingly into the beyond, our hapless agent is shuffled by the caprices of fate through a series of vignettes in which he stumbles into the daily lives of a host of unrelated characters, from a suicidal salaryman to a terminally depressed single mother.
With no dialogue for the first 20 minutes, The Blessing Bell is both slower and more lyrical than Sabu's usual fare, but no less enjoyable because of it. Melding a host of subtle visual gags in an episodic structure marked out by humorous about-turns in both tone and trajectory, perhaps an apt description would have the gloomy melancholy of Mike Leigh's Naked rubbing shoulders with an absurdist escalating chain reaction narrative akin to Kitano's Getting Any?.
For all that though, The Blessing Bell still ends up back in exactly the same place where it started, and those expecting any radical change of tack from the director might find themselves disappointed. At the risk of damning it with faint praise, Sabu's latest still makes for steady and compelling viewing, and even if it doesn't quite satisfy the lofty expectations it initially engenders, there's still plenty to enjoy here for both fans and casual viewers alike.