Wow wow wow wow wow! Whoever wrote the New York Asian Film Festival sell copy that got me to Sophie's Revenge is forgiven, because the same bunch just steered me to Golden Slumber at Japan Society, and it was one of the best movies I've seen all year. An unpretentious chase film with a Hitchcockian premise, this beautifully constructed story never failed to enthrall or entertain me for one of its 139 minutes. It's a fast-paced, funny whodunit that feels close to profound.
Our hero, Aoyagi, is a sweet-natured deliveryman who's been set up to go down, framed for the assassination of Japan's prime minister ("like Oswald," says the friend who informs him of the plot). At first, Masato Sakai plays Aoyagi as so sunny and trusting that you wonder if the character is mentally challenged. Forget irony or cynicism: This guy doesn't have an ounce of plain old skepticism or horse sense; he doesn't even think to change clothes or turn off his cell phone's GPS function when he goes on the run. He gradually wises up as he comes to terms with the fact that he's been framed by corrupt cops and government officials (one is played, with stony-faced malice, by Teruyiki Kagawa), but he never loses his essential sweetness or his trust in other people. Sakai's moving performance anchors a constant swirl of intrigue and evasion as men with big guns hunt Aoyagi down, the media gins up false evidence the real killers have created to make him look bad, and a couple of old friends and a couple of new ones plan his way out.
Director Yoshihiro Nakamura's entry in the NYAFF last year, Fish Story, was about a band that creates a song that saves the world. Music isn't quite that central to this story, but it's still very important. Not only does a silver iPod save Aoyagi's life, but a Beatles song gives the movie its name and coats it with a light dusting of nostalgia for the simpler problems and more intense friendships of youth.
"I see this is a well-made scenario," one of Aoyagi's new friends remarks. He's talking about the frame that's been hung on Aoyagi, but he might as well be talking about Kotaro Isaka's screenplay, which he based on his own novel. Isaka and Nakamura ping-pong deftly from comedy to suspense to pathos. At the same time, they unobtrusively flesh out the relationships between Aoyagi and his three college best friends, developing them through present-day interactions and gently comic flashbacks. Things introduced in the first part of the movie keep popping up in the second, paying off in thoroughly satisfying ways. The filmmakers also get in a few digs at deserving targets like the witch-hunting media ("You reporters can ruin a man's life. Do you take responsibility for that?" his father says to one pack of newshounds), the candy-colored inducements to "Buy! Buy! Buy!" that crowd the background almost everywhere Aoyagi goes, our addiction to plastic surgery, and our inane obsession with the rich and famous. There are even some fireworks, just in time for the Fourth of July, and the whole thing is wrapped up in beautifully crafted bookends, the opening scene replayed from a different point of view at the end.
The plot twists had me guessing right up to the last scene and the unconventional and likable minor characters—including a serial killer with a heart of gold and an unobnoxiously precocious little girl—helped keep things interesting. I laughed out loud more than once and I teared up at the end. And I floated up the stairs at the Japan Society when it was all over, high on the joy of a perfectly calibrated tribute to friendship and faith.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.