Weak Happiness: A “Solanin” Viewing Journal

I try to live life on the edge, and keep away from routine. Schedules and habit are not badass. I stay out of the house as much as possible, and do my best to talk myself into trips, try new restaurants, go to new places, etc. However, I do currently hold a job, which is fairly tiring and soul-stealing, and so struggle as I might, I often fall prey to the sweet temptation of familiarity and the guiles of routine. I don’t even like the word; it sounds vaguely French…but, in the spirit of honesty, I will be frank. I have lots of habits–very many. An old dude taking his mid-morning pill, reading his newspaper, and wearing his morning slippers, would look at how I live my life, and tell me to loosen up. As we have already established, habits are not badass, but they are more easily acquired than…well…not, and so I have very many.  Perhaps the most cherished assuetude in my repertoire (where is all this French coming from?), is Sunday movie night.

As a general rule, Sunday is my favorite day of the week. My love for the Christian Sabbath, not the Jewish one sorry, is completely unrelated to my religious orientation; I am not a church-going citizen. It also has little to do with football, since, tragically, that sport is wholly unavailable in Japan in its American variation. But folks, I like to relax. I enjoy not doing s♥♥ t, and not worrying about s♥♥ t, either. I want as little s♥♥ t in my day as possible, and so Sunday is the day for me. I love Saturdays, too, but on Saturdays I have to meet up with buds and/or gals and drink and/or f♥♥ k. Saturdays pack in a lot of action, and a lot of pressures. But Sunday? I can wake up whenever; I can do my laundry; I can go to a museum; I can grab a nice coffee out on the town; there’s no limit to the leisure and metropolitan decadence to which I can subject myself. And as a matter of course, every great Sunday is capped off with an illegally downloaded movie watched while eating cookies and milk.  The type of cookie varies form week to week. I typically enjoys Oreos (trademark, copyright), but some occasions call for white chocolate chip.

Returning to the topic of illegally downloaded movies viewed on Sundays, this past week I saw Solanin (ソラニン), which is a Japanese live-action film. It is based upon a comic of the same name, and it bombed at the box office.  Some of you may be wondering why I would bother writing about a commercially unsuccessful film nobody on god’s green earth has ever heard of. The answer is both simple and cripplingly embarrassing. I cried during the entire concluding 15 minutes of the movie, and then continued to whimper and sniffle like a little girl for another half hour after I had finished it (or possibly longer; in fact, I may or may not still at this moment be an emotional wreck). If a movie that elicits that kind of response doesn’t merit an Internet blog post, frankly my dear, I don’t know what does. Additionally, please keep in mind this is not a review, but more of a viewing log meant to describe my emotional response for the film. This post is not meant to be a detached technical critique of the movie; it will be rife with spoilers and wholly subjective blatherings, but the movie doesn’t currently exist in English form, and probably never will, so deal with it, baby doll. Oh, and this is going to get EMO, all caps. We will reach levels of ungrounded self-pity and bitchy whining that even skinny jeans, thick-rimmed glasses, a frappuccino (trademark, copyright), and a MacBook Air (trademark, copyright) can’t adequately visually represent. You’ve been warned.

The film concerns itself with the lives of Meiko (played by Aoi Miyazaki, no relation to Totoro) and her boyfriend Taneda (Kengo Kora). Both have been out of college for about 2 years, and both are dissatisfied with the current direction (or lack thereof) of their lives. Oh yea, we’re going there. Meiko is a low-level OL (Office Lady:  a female office worker who basically does menial secretarial work between serving tea and coffee to old dudes. They all wear the same colorless uniform and horrifically ugly rubber sandal contraptions) at a generic, nameless mid-sized company in Tokyo. She spends her work hours photocopying her middle finger, and getting yelled at by her boss for photocopying her middle finger. “This is isn’t a schoolyard,” he tells her. “When will you grow up?” He asks. She spends her breaks smoking cigarettes in a narrow alleyway, looking up at a sliver of blue sky, obscured by the cramped and towering buildings around her.  Taneda is a freeter(underemployed/freelance worker without a permanent position at a company), who spends his days at a web design shop clicking on computer images, and his nights doing who-knows-what, who-knows-where. Meiko is the relative breadwinner in the relationship. The film opens in the very early morning, as Taneda rides his scooter back home. The sky is perfect; it is a light blue lightly specked by thin clouds. As he arrives at the couple’s one room, shared apartment, Meiko is just waking up. He immediately passes out on the couch, and she tries to chide him awake, to no avail. We get the feeling this is the normal course of their mornings.

The couple still hangs out with a small group of intimate friends from back in the U. Taneda and the guys were in a 3-piece rock band during their school daze, and the trio was famous for playing a particularly inspired concert at a small club a few years ago. The drummer, Jiro (Kenta Kiritani) now works in his father’s pharmacy. He stands at the counter, staring into space across the empty shop. Every day an old man tries to insert a letter into the pharmacy mascot’s mouth, thinking it a post box. Every day Jiro corrects him. The bass-player, Kenichi (Yoichi Kondo), is in his 6th year at college, still unable to secure a job and graduate. Kenichi’s girlfriend, Ai (Ayumi Ito), is also part of the group. They meet up a few times a month, reminisce about their rocking days, and drink to the point of throwing up on sidewalks. None of them seem particularly happy with their current lot in life, but they do seem accept the current situation. Interestingly, we only see perfect, blue skies in the film, which seem to contrast the dissatisfaction undermining the characters’ lives. Though they perhaps haven’t reached lofty life goals, Taneda and Meiko seem somewhat content with what they currently have. They seem to have accepted their frail, flawed happiness.

However, things change when Meiko’s boss tries to hit on her, and she unceremoniously quits her job in protest. The creepy-old-man straw finally broke the camel’s back. She was basically supporting the couple, so her unemployment presents a crisis of sorts. Meiko figures out she and Taneda have 2 months left before their current funds run out, and she needs to find another job. As they discuss possibilities, Meiko decides to push the envelope even further, and suggests Taneda leave his jobs as well, and reform the band to devote himself fully to making it big. It is at this very point that Taneda changes; without knowing it, Meiko has just shoved him off a ledge. He had previously resigned himself to looking at music as a hobby, not a lifestyle. Had Meiko never quit her job, it seems likely Taneda would have been fine with continuing life in this fashion. Upon hearing Meiko’s suggestion though, something changes in his expression. Before long, he has decided to pursue his dream, and the band, called Rotti, is brought back together to record a demo tape. The project breathes new life into the circle of friends. Jiro starts smiling. Kenichi and Ai seem to be on better terms. It is now mid-summer. After a certain practice session, they all go out and launch fireworks by the riverbank. The girls wear kimonos, and everyone seems, not is, happy. However, we have noticed that Taneda doesn’t smile anymore. He doesn’t joke around anymore. The easy-going freeter we had met earlier is gone, replaced by a man with a mission. He writes a new song, entitled Solanin, and the band sends out recordings of it to label they can think of. We have not heard the tune yet. We’ve seen Taneda agonize over the lyrics in his journal. We’ve seen the band close themselves up in the studio, and play the song through the sound-proof glass. Meiko and Ai smile and cry as they listen to the tape through headphones. They get one callback.

The record executive sitting across the table from Taneda and Meiko is wearing an expensive suit. Taneda is wearing a t-shirt and jeans. He looks to be around the same age as the couple, and we soon find out he went to the same university. In fact, his band had apparently inspired a younger Taneda to form a group of his own. The record executive seems to have put his rocking days behind him. He compliments the band, Rotti, on the demo tape. They’ve got a real different sound, he assures them, and he would like to sign them as a backup group to a young pop idol on the upswing. He thinks their raw sound would lend her some rock cred. The man in the suit, who is no longer in a rock band, explains that, as currently composed, Rotti has no chance to hit it big, so to speak. He does think they could work well together with the 16-year-old singer. Taneda stares across the table, shocked. Before he can answer, Meiko self-righteously declines the offer. Taneda confronts the record executive in the men’s room. He asks him about his dreams, and the man in the suit laughs. “This isn’t school,” he says. “When will you grow up?” he asks. As Meiko and Taneda leave the building, a picture-perfect blue sky looks down on them.

No more calls come in, and Taneda recedes into himself. Meiko tells him she’s going to start looking for a job, and the guys thank him for the fun they’ve had the past 2 months. The dream is over. As quick as the snap of a finger, everyone is back to accept-your-lot-in-life mode, except Taneda. We can tell something has broken inside of him, but he and Meiko go on with their life ignoring the unspoken tension. He cannot function normally anymore. Taneda wears the expression of someone with something urgent to say, but no means by which to convey his message. He wanders through the days in a confused shuffle, and even tries, unsuccessfully, to break up the relationship. Meiko gets home late one evening, as Taneda is going out. He tells her he’s going out for some fresh air, and will be right back.  He doesn’t come back.

Days pass, and no one has heard from Taneda. He won’t answer his phone. Meiko hits a Marianas-Trench-deep depression, and won’t leave the apartment.  On a particularly beautiful day, with the sun shining brightly in a field of pure blue, Jiro, Kenichi, and Ai decide to go over to Meiko’s place and cheer he up. They drag her out of bed, slap some sense and food into her, and somehow get her to cheer up. Meiko seems alert; it looks like she’s getting better. She even smiles at her friends’ hijinks. The house phone rings.  Meiko falls on the phone with all the force of gravity; it is Taneda. She yells at him for making her worry, and he apologizes. He explains he needed time alone to think, but that he has learned to reconcile Rotti’s failure with his current life. He tells Meiko he doesn’t need to change the world through music. Rock stardom doesn’t matter to him anymore; all that matters is his friends. Through friendship is the only way to find a real happiness. Meiko tells him to hurry home, and he acquiesces, but before that, he needs to tell her something. His cell phone battery dies.

Taneda shrugs, and decides to get back home to Meiko. He will just have to tell her in person. He puts on his helmet, turns his scooter on, and merges onto a crowded street. Back at the apartment, Meiko is now jumping around with boundless energy. She opens the blinds, and sunshine pours into the room. Everyone else seems happy too, and they even joke about her quick change of attitude. Taneda is driving, and thinking to himself; we can hear his inner monologue. He reaffirms what he had told Meiko over the phone. Friends are enough; she is enough. He doesn’t need the music. The screen turns black, and a single word appears on screen. “Really?” He looks shaken, and confused. However, he continues with his current line of thought. Changing the world through music is a myth. The only people we can change are those we meet. Friends are enough. Meiko is enough. “Really?” Taneda starts crying. We can’t hear his thoughts anymore, but his tears keep coming, and eventually he is outright sobbing as he speeds down the road. A quick cut shows a traffic light turning red, and another quick cut shows his hand turning the handle of his scooter, accelerating. Meiko throws the window open, and looks up to the sky; it is perfect. The camera falls back from the cloudless, blue sky, and turns back down to face a crowded intersection, where traffic has ground to a halt. We see Taneda’s face staring up at the same sky Meiko was just admiring. He is smiling, but no longer breathing. The camera zooms out, and slowly his unnaturally twisted body comes into view, as does the blood.  Another quick quit shows us the sunny sky again. We do not see the sun again for a long time.

An indefinite amount of time has passed. Meiko is back in bed, and she seems sicker than before. The apartment is dark, and we can hear rain pouring outside. I paused the movie, and ambled over to the kitchen. I had decided now was the time for some milk and cookies. As I opened the white chocolate chip cookie pack, I thought about the film. Taneda’s death bothered me. It’s not often I see a movie where the protagonist dies at the halfway point, so that alone was a bit disarming. His struggles with reconciling his dreams with his reality hit a little close to home, as well. How many countless hours have I spent, during the past couple of years, wondering and hoping that I was somehow heading elsewhere? That I would become something more? I realize mine is certainly far from a unique struggle; enough people must feel that way that an entire movie was based upon the theme of dissatisfaction. That’s really all this is: dissatisfaction.  Taneda’s life wasn’t so bad. He had a home; he had food. He even hung out with friends and smiled plenty. He certainly didn’t inhabit a Shakespearean level of tragedy. But it still wasn’t enough for him. I realize Taneda was a musician, so he had the added drive of an artist; the need to be heard, but I think his dissatisfaction resonates pretty strongly with a generation of maturing early-to-mid twenty somethings who grew up with everything. When you go through life with all the best possible opportunities, never wanting for anything essential, how is a 9 to 5 office job enough? How does one reconcile his perfectly ordinary adulthood, with the limitless potentials of his recently abandoned youth? I carried the milk and cookies back to the TV room, and pressed play.

It is still raining outside Meiko’s apartment. We can’t really see her, only a jumble of covers and hair buried into a corner of the apartment. An old man is sitting behind the counter of a pharmacy. We hear intense banging noises emanating from the background. An angry customer tells him off and leaves the store because of the racket. Jiro is upstairs in his room. He has stacked old magazines up into three towers, and is banging away at them with his drumsticks, while sweating profusely. His father leaves the counter, and walks to the stairwell. He doesn’t say a word, but goes back to where he was, and sighs. Kenichi and Ai talk at a restaurant. Kenichi is wearing a cheap suit, and exhibits hair grossly slicked back with some kind of slime that might be hair gel.  He is job hunting, desperately trying to secure employment so he can graduate. During the course of the meal he and AI share some disagreements, and break up. No one seems to have yet adjusted to Taneda’s death.  More time passes, and more rain falls. We no longer see the flawless skies that littered the first half of the movie. Ai tries to spend as much time as possible with her friend to cheer her up. Meiko sees the teen-idol Rotti was supposed to play backup for on TV, and destroys the TV set. Her mood does not seem to improve. Out of all her friends and family, Jiro is the one who finally breaks through to Meiko. He doesn’t tell her to cheer up or move on, but instead shares his own pain, and the two seem to reach an unspoken agreement to support each other. We get a glimpse of the romance that could have been, but cannot be, due to Taneda’s yet considerable shadow. Meiko leaves the house, and gets a part time job.

An old man approaches Meiko’s apartment through the pouring rain. He looks like he’s traveled far. He rings the doorbell, but no one answers. He knocks forcefully, and shouts through the doorway that he is Taneda’s father, here to collect his belongings. He and Meiko pack away clothes and small items while reminiscing about the recently departed. She stumbles upon his diary, and asks to keep it. Finally, once all is packed away, Taneda’s father leans down to pick up his son’s guitar, but Meiko dives on it, gripping it close to her. She asks to keep that, as well. He doesn’t deny her, and leaves after saying his goodbyes. Alone in the apartment, she reads Taneda’s journal until she chances upon the page upon which he wrote the lyrics to Solanin. She looks back at his guitar, and wipes the tears away from newly determined eyes. Outside her small apartment, shallow rain puddles reflect a blue sky.

Meiko gathers Jiro and Kenichi, and asks them to teach her how to play guitar. They ask her why, and she responds by telling them that Rotti is going to play a set at the upcoming graduation concert for their ex-University. It will be held at the same venue as the band’s famed senior-year show. She’s going to learn the guitar, and they will play Solanin live in 2 months. Jiro and Kenichi take little to no convincing, and they agree to the new goal. They are going to play one last show for Taneda’s memory, one last show before they put away the band forever. They practice incessantly, but with a different focus than when they were recording the demo tape. Taneda’s autocratic success drive is no longer pushing the trio. They aren’t chasing vague, unattainable dreams of stardom. They do not need to impress anyone, or any record label, with their sound. The three band mates are fully united in the single goal of rocking the stage one last time. As they practice, and the day of the concert approaches, we are shown for the first time flashbacks of the group’s time in college and the days when Meiko and Taneda first met. In these flashbacks we see the friends as never before. We see them truly happy. Taneda’s smiles aren’t thin and distant, but full and endearing. AI and Kenichi look at each other with genuine, unstrained affection. And Jiro approaches everything with the naïve intensity of a middle-schooler. Back in the present, we don’t hear the music the band is practicing, but we get a pretty good feeling of what they are playing, what they are conveying through their music. Though Taneda has died, he is still as large a part of the group as ever.

The night of the concert has arrived, and the house is packed. Several bands are scheduled to play, and Rotti is unceremoniously shoved into the lineup somewhere in the middle of the pack, an unglamorous position. Ai is in the crowd, the hall is packed, and the band walks out on stage. Everything goes dark, and then bright stage lights shine on Meiko. She walks up to the mic, and promptly freezes. She looks visibly nervous, and Kenichi shifts in place, unsure of what to say. We can feel the crowd get impatient. Meiko’s expression has morphed from nervous to downright terrified, but before she can break, Jiro whispers to her. “Relax. We’re not here for them. Just play.” She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and –

A man in a black suit walks into the club. The hallway is barren, and the faint sound of rock music can be heard coming from the main hall. He walks up to the counter and asks for one ticket. The camera pans around to show us his face; it is the record executive, whom Taneda had looked up to in his college rocker days. He asks the ticket girl when Rotti is scheduled to play, and she says they’re playing now, and are on the last song. Confused, he asks her if the band has a female singer. She shrugs, and shoots him a glance that seems to insinuate both “How the hell should I know?” and “go die somewhere far away from me.” He steps into the hall, as the band onstage is finishing the current song. He weaves through the crowd, whose worried expressions seem more appropriate for a funeral. It seems they’ve all somehow caught the unconscious flow of the music emanating from the band. The record executive finds a good vantage point near the back, and leans against the pillar; the song ends.

Meiko, Jiro, and Kenichi are drenched in sweat. They look like they’ve just run twelve marathons in the jungle. The three look at each other, and then Meiko steps back up the mic. She strums a chord, which is familiar because we’ve heard countless times as the group recorded with Taneda, and then practiced with Meiko. Jiro and Kenichi join in with the drum and bass, and Rotti starts playing Solanin. At this point, I started sniffling a little. The actual music and lyrics were written by J-Rock relative mainstays Asian Kung-Fu Generation, and the words differ slightly from the manga. (here’s a link to a translation of the lyrics. It’s pretty flawed, but I’m far too lazy to do it myself. You’ll get the main idea). We are shown a flashback to Meiko and taneda’s first date. As Meiko sings the song, pouring all of her energy into the performance, we are tempted to view it as an homage to Taneda’s life, a touching tribute from his friends. However, it is important not to forget that, within the context of the plot, Taneda wrote the song himself. We are not listening to a poetic eulogy, but to more of a suicide note. Though we are seeing Meiko say goodbye to the man she loved, we are actually hearing his last message to her, and understanding the dynamic engendered by his having written the song before his death, radically changes our perception of past events. For the first time in the entire film, we are given access to Taneda’s true feelings, which had until now been hidden behind sound studios and locked journals.

Regardless of how Taneda felt towards the world, his 3 best friends are now playing his swan song before a live audience. As the song dies down, the lights dim, until all we see is the band surrounded by the glow of stage lights. The song is over, and all 3 are standing silently on stage, panting and shaking after the performance. By now, my sniffles had turned into awkwardly-trying-to-hold back sobs. I didn’t have tissues handy, since I don’t make a habit of wailing like Sophie after she makes her choices, so nothing was standing between my couch and the full onslaught of salty tears and snot. It was not a pretty sight. We don’t hear any clapping yet. Jiro leaves his drums and lifts Meiko and Kenichi’s arms, and screams. We hear clapping and cheering.  But they don’t need the recognition. They didn’t get up on stage to wow a crowd. They played their set because it was the end. Everyone on stage understands that tomorrow Jiro will go back to work at his dad’s pharmacy, Kenichi will continue to job hunt around stuffy offices, and Meiko will never be with the man she loves. They put everything they had into the performance because they knew they weren’t going to go anywhere, because the most important person of their lives had killed himself and left them behind. They were screaming out to him. And so they gave everything they had for one final performance. We do not care that the audience clapped. The reaction is unimportant. Meiko, Jiro, and Kenichi are infants screaming at the world simply because they can, not caring who or what understands them. The scene ends there, with the 3 members of Rotti, standing triumphant but alone, and irreparably broken, as their band’s name implies (“Rotti” means “broken ones”).

The film ends on a deceptively chipper note. The sun is shining again, and Meiko is moving out of the old apartment, and into a new place, with her new boyfriend, who is basically a Taneda clone. I guess the filmmakers felt the audience needed some sort of pick-me-up after the emotional blunt trauma they just experienced.  As the loaded van drives away, the scene cuts to an apartment completely devoid of all furnishings, except for one guitar. That is the last image we see. I had taken the time to run to the bathroom and bring back a roll of toilet paper because I was still crying like a little girl. Let’s go ahead and fast forward real life 30 minutes to when I stopped weeping. The film perplexed me. Obviously, it had struck a chord, but honestly, as a film, it was nothing special. The acting is sub par. Miyazaki, who is known for her innocent, virginal image was a bad choice to play Meiko, who is cynical, drinks, smokes, and curses. She just doesn’t really pull the roll off. The actor who plays Taneda is bland, and displays the emotional range of a robot not programmed to act. Everyone else is similarly meh. The film also has severe pacing issues. In short, objectively it shouldn’t be a good movie. And yet, I still found myself very much moved after the viewing.

The film does feature strong scene composition overall, and Taneda’s death sequence, and the concert at the end, are cut exquisitely. The soundtrack is also tres awesome. It’s jam packed with obscure, and not so obscure, Japanese indie rock bands like Asian King-Fu Generation, Chatmonchy, Nakamura Kazuyoshi, Suneohair, Supercar, Tacica, Fuji Fabric, and Going Underground—and there’s the secret. Try as I might to be a well-rounded critic, I give less than half a shit about film plots. I care only about how a movie looks and sounds (see my TRON LEGACY review). Story is important, and can be very moving, but it is a film’s sensory qualities that really evoke emotion, in my humble opinion. I hadn’t cried because of the actors’ performances, or a particularly tragic twist in the plot. What drew my tears was Meiko’s guitar, the words of a song that express two lovers saying goodbye. I cried because I was watching three people play their futures and their past away for the chance to be heard for one single moment.

And I cried because I understood, because I know what it’s like to be 2 years removed from college and print copies in a stuffy office. I know what it is to close the buttons on your suit jacket, jailing your heart behind pin-stripe bars. I, like many people my age, understand what it is to turn away from a dream, and face the life for which you have settled. And at 25 years old, with a lifetime ahead, it is not easy. I watched Meiko and Rotti play their hearts out on stage, and I got emotional. Why are we given so much, if our fate is to do so little? Why give us dreams, and the ability to sing them, if all we’re destined to do is cold call clients at an office? Why must we be burdened with the disappointment? Today, and unprecedented number of people all over the world go to college; it’s expected now. We all have internet; we all know everything. So how do we reconcile all that we possess, with our ordinary existence? Like I said, the film does not deal with tragedy on a classical scale. I don’t cry during Shakespeare or Aeschylus because I don’t know what it’s like to have my uncle kill my dad and steal the throne. I don’t know what it’s like to marry my mother and then gouge my eyes out. That stuff doesn’t affect me emotionally. This film did though. Solanin portrays an understated tragedy, but one most people in my generation have to deal with. It is the tragedy of needing to find happiness within an ordinary life.

One final note, addressed to those of you wondering about the title. Though written in Katakana, which is a syllabary usually used to delineate a word’s foreign origin, the popular interpretation of the title is to read it as 空人 in kanji, which means “sky people.” I guess this alludes to reaching for the sky, your dreams, etc. I am a literal person, and so eschew the sugary sweet figurative interpretation, and simply read it as the borrowed word ソラニン, which is the Japanese term for solanine, the poison found in nightshade plants. I guess your takes on the title and the film depend on whether you prefer your glasses half full or half empty.

Later days,

Sagramore

2 thoughts on “Weak Happiness: A “Solanin” Viewing Journal”

  1. I agree with you, many of us were moved by the movie maybe because we felt the same or we experienced similar things in life. The conveyed messages in the film still haunts me until now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *