Western fairy tale meets Eastern repression in John Williams‘s compelling, albeit derivative, noir-ish exploration of the human soul’s murky depths. Taking its cue from Alice in Wonderland means that some of the journey might be familiar but the non-linear approach leads down some intriguing rabbit holes. Yes, it rips off Donnie Darko‘s macabre bunny Frank amongst other things, but it effectively uses film conventions to blur the boundary between the real world and the fantasy of fiction.
Office drone Arisu (Sato) trudges through the rat race in Tokyo with his marriage to Chisato (Kimura) merely part of the routine. His only distractions are the horror novels by Jo Kuroda that give him nightmares but tell of a tempting other-world known as Darkland. As Kuroda is about to release a new book, Arisu’s wife disappears and so a mystery begins. Clues from a creepy man in a rabbit costume (Emoto) lead him to seedy brothels and puzzling private detectives, as well as back through his own memories of an affair with the sensual Kayoko (Kiki) at the remote Starfish Hotel.
The story seems simple but Williams frequently jumbles things up, throwing in Kuroda almost as a narrator and often questioning whether certain events are real or just part of Arisu’s imagination. As Arisu is a Kuroda fan, is he fantasising about cheating on his wife or merely constructing his own story to fulfil his dream of being a writer? While the plot strand about the missing Chisato is neatly concluded – though one criticism is that there are a few too many endings – Williams keeps his final shot ambiguous, hinting at another level of interpretation, and, as a result, the film knocks around the viewer’s subconscious for days afterwards.
As you may have guessed, Williams is not native to Japan – in fact he’s a Welshman – but having lived there for a number of years he has developed a deep understanding of Tokyo. # Where many filmmakers would simply fill the screen with bright neon lights and the familiar skyline, Williams is far more interested in what lies at the heart of day-to-day life in the metropolis and he’s not afraid to delve into its dank alleyways. The director cites cult writer Haruki Murakami as a major influence – Murakami’s novel Dance Dance Dance also features a squalid hotel of sin – and Williams’s Tokyo is one of cold isolation and disillusionment with a repetitive office job, sharing Murakami’s criticisms of modern society.
Arisu’s journey into his darker, more primal desires could be considered a tamer Eyes Wide Shut but Williams is Lynchian in style; the slow, deliberate pace is similar to the woozy Mulholland Drive although Starfish Hotel is much more accessible. Despite a lack of originality the film is both an intriguing mystery, complete with a desperately unknowable femme fatale, and a compelling study of how we can live out dreams, or become other characters entirely, when engaged with works of fiction, making this not just a typically ‘Eastern’ film but a wholly universal one.