Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the New York Asian Film Festival.
The Japanese film Happiness is like a dark car driving by slowly in the shadows. As it moves closer, it hardly sheds any light. Then, a window rolls down, revealing a face, staring out at the audience. In a flash, the car is gone, leaving nothing behind but a fleeting impression.
Similarly, the film doesn’t explain much about its main character: a stoic, brooding man with an Elvis Presley hairdo. That’s a pity, because Happiness is strongest when it’s fleshing out its characters and building up a narrative of why the audience should care. A eerie silence pervades the film, lingering in every single scene save the climax, where ambient sounds echoes the protagonist’s emotional state. The film doesn’t need music, though. Silence lends the story a kind of realism, which is helpful in a story based in technological fantasy.
What’s the genre?
Indie mystery, featuring a gadget that’s a mix of science fiction and Eastern alternative medicine.
What’s it about?
Happiness revolves around a mysterious helmet. It’s an amalgamation of golden typewriter keys built in at different angles to create acupuncture stimulation to the noggin. It also looks like a particularly aggressive motorcyclist’s headgear. The helmet’s creator, Kanzaki (played by Masatoshi Nagase), attracts attention around a small Japanese town when he claims the helmet can make wearers happy by triggering forgotten memories of the past.
Although the locals initially regard Kanzaki and his helmet suspiciously, his helmet proves its ability to pull up nostalgic memories from the user’s past. A mother of an unruly teenage boy sees her child as a newborn baby, giggling in his cradle again. The film’s goofball, Ishida, sees himself scoring a home run in a baseball game, to the adoration of cheering fans. Kanzaki soon gains local hero status for revitalizing the town, but he still remains an inscrutable character, his past and personal life a mystery. But when he makes his way to treating Inoue (Hiroki Suzuki), a teenage convict who lives in isolation, and takes in the unkempt state of Inoue’s dress and his spa-style slippers, he asks for an extra hour alone with the kid. From there, the film begins to delve into Kanzaki’s personal life.
What’s it really about?
Kanzaki's motives for building the helmet aren't entirely altruistic. The film is concerned with how joy and pain overlap, and how people’s most painful memories could also be their most joyous ones. Happiness explores the extremities of human emotion, psychological trauma, a looming sense of mystery, helplessness (the Japanese belief in shouganai, literally “it can’t be helped”), young misfits, and belligerent angst.
Is it good?
Happiness is so close to being enjoyable, but because it throws viewers into scenes without explanation, and delays getting into characters’ backstories until the near end, there isn’t much opportunity to engage with and love these characters. Watching the film can feel like watching paint dry, but at other times, it’s more like reading Agatha Christie’s murder mystery And Then There Were None, or Natsuo Kirino’s Out, where middle-aged Japanese women bury a person they’ve helped kill. Those novels are packed with twist after blood-dripping twist, and in its best moments, Happiness is as well. It veers between enthralling and exhausting.
The flaws in the narrative crop up as early as the first scene, as Kanzaki strolls into a nearly abandoned shop and takes note of the sad old lady sitting in the corner. He returns moments later with the nostalgia helmet. Writer-director Sabu brings the helmet into the story in a such a quick, out-of-context, and contrived way, it’s as if it was dropped into the film from a bad science fiction novel. An aging woman who’s beyond depressed? Throw in the deus ex machina of a magical helmet, and she’s instantly crying and laughing again. It’s an artificial, awkward attention-grabber.
Sabu makes silence do the job of words. The camera lingers on Kanzaki’s face, attempting to convey his inner turmoil and the quick turns of his mind as he plots his next move. This works for some scenes, but not all of them. As the camera pauses on Kanzaki walking up multiple flights of stairs, or as tears slowly leak down his face while he’s on a bus, scenes seem to stretch out to eternity. Happiness is a short 91 minutes, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way.
The best content darts by: the flashbacks that explain the film’s core mystery, the climatic fight scene, and Kanzaki powerfully hacking and drilling his way into crafting the perfect happiness helmet. Granted, it is a low-budget film, which forces the action to be short and minimal, but the seams shouldn’t show through so easily.
What should it be rated?
It earns an R for gratuitous violence, but those scenes are so few and far between that the rest of this film could pass as G rated.
How can I actually watch it?
Happiness was released in Japan in 2016, and is showing in limited, sporadic theatrical screenings in the US.