Above: Asano Tadanobu and Odagiri Jô scan a Japanese landscape made from Hawaiian coral—one of Sad Vacation's many examples of drifting elements coming together to form a disparate and unstable whole.
More often than not, a film's makers struggle mightily to make sure that the movement of a film from one shot to another is a natural chain of action, thought, purpose, and coherency. What Aoyama Shinji's film Sad Vacation does is readily admit to the disruption and deviance of cinema's editing, and show us that with each new scene, and sometimes even with each new shot, a new film can be born.
Picking up threads of parent-less, wayward characters from past movies (1996's Helpless and 2000's Eureka), Aoyama's drifters define the form of the film through the form of their lives: unsure, varied, disparate, resolute, calmed, hysteric—and so on. Gradually the main characters, centered around Asano Tadanobu's ex-criminal, ex-illegal human transporter, descend onto a Tokyo trucking company run by a family including the Asano's runaway mother, and form a kind of ragtag band of miscreants of ambiguous origin, uncertain purpose, and vague character.
By this point a strange, existential hybrid of Hawks and Imamura, the film is not nearly as exciting as its unstable first third, wherein Asano picks up illegal Chinese workers, adopts a Chinese orphan, gets threatened and beat by the yakuza, takes care of a childhood friend (involved in the unfortunate events of Helpless) now psych-case, travels to Tokyo and starts dating a prostitute. Aoyama here is pure cinema, a mad mixture of handheld camera and jum-pcuts, gorgeous helicopter coverage of a seaport city, long uncut dialog scenes, momentary fast-forward edits, and several other kinds of visual and aural experimentation (with a score by Nagashima Hiroyuki, who worked on the director's experimental sound film, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?). Each change in style is as much a change in narrative, and possibly in character, and Aoyama seems to birth a new film at every moment—and it is a thrilling sensation.
That the film settles is somewhat is a disappointment (though to be fair, the director is adapting his own novel, and it seems unlikely Sad Vacation could keep up such unbridled freedom). Yet as the story turns towards clarifying its focus on the conflicting feelings of magnetism and repulsion towards parenthood and adoption, the values of Asano's character—the center of the drama—are as unclear as ever. Aoyama prefers to leave almost all characters undeveloped to degrees that range from amusing—such as the bantering male duo from Eureka—to undeveloped—the young girl from Eureka, now a young woman and working at the trucking company—to maddeningly fascinating, as in the case of the unfazed calm clearly bordering psychosis of Asano's mother.
Asano Tadanobu's character is essentially the nexus of these misfits, sketched thick (a very few) and thin (the majority of the crew), perhaps a prism into which their ails and situations are channeled, violence and threats and dismay and confusion and desire all existing simultaneously in the same body. Which is why Sad Vacation, at its start, is so fresh—it takes this later narrative development, which is a kind of aggregation of all that is in the film's people into its central character, and expresses it through a manic, but contemplative variety of film form. To make some of the film's radicalness understandable, Aoyama must eventually turn away from experimentation so as to explain it—or perhaps expand it (perhaps even to curtail its free excess)–and while considerably less exciting, Sad Vacation's evolution into a kind of classical family melodrama is no less expressive, nor unusual. It admits to nothing except the uncertain difficulty of living in groups, be they made up of parents and children, couples, siblings, friendships, or co-workers, and to the certain truth that these people—all people—and the film itself, are not only far from flawless wholes but most definitely the unstable result of the unexpected combinations of life.