Tagatameni, which translates from Japanese as ‘For Whom’s Sake’ or 'For Whom Do We Exist', is a revenge drama which is about as slow-burning as you could get. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but there’s a distinct lack of narrative drive which gives you time to admire the beautiful photography and excellent performances while wondering if the film is ever going to reach any kind of conclusion. The plot is familiar. A photographer called Tamio (Asano) falls in love with Ayako (Erika) and marries her. But when she is three months pregnant, she is irrationally murdered by a young man who, as a juvenile, is given a minimum sentence and released after a year. Ayako wants revenge but is discouraged both by his inner conflicts and his growing affection for an old friend, Mari (Ikewaki).
The influence of several other directors hangs heavy over this film, not surprisingly considering that it’s a debut feature. There’s an obsession with landscape and weather which is reminiscent of the work of Tarkovsky –particularly the notion that staring at an image for a significant time will render it profound. Many of the formal compositions recall Ozu, as does the stately pacing and lack of interest in narrative drive, and the general mood of melancholic resignation brings to mind Bresson. But one unexpected influence seems to be the work of Sean Penn – himself influenced by some of the filmmakers I’ve just named. You may recall that The Crossing Guard is largely a film about impotence and procrastination, questioning the morality and purpose of revenge and ending in a kind of muted sadness. Similarly, The Pledge saw Jack Nicholson’s hero get lost in his notions of heroism and justice. The pacing of Penn’s films is also similarly slow and meditative.
Indeed, it’s the pacing which may put people off Tagatameni and that would be a shame because although the film is slow, it possesses a cumulative power which demands that the viewer stick with it until the end to appreciate the final pay-off – which seems to me to be a direct reference to The Searchers. If you’re looking for a conventional revenge movie then this will disappoint. It’s more about the ethics of revenge and, like The Crossing Guard, it questions what revenge actually achieves and what it does to both parties. This is dramatised in a somewhat clunky and schematic argument between Tamio and Mari – he supporting revenge, she decrying it – but the issue is a potent one and throws up all sorts of moral quandaries which the film sadly ducks in an inconclusive climax, despite the potency of the final image. Presumably, the ending is meant to be ambivalent but it just looks as though Hyugaji and his screenwriter Masato Kato don’t quite know what to do with the various geniis they have unleashed.
Yet there is a good deal of emotional truth contained within the film and a good deal of that comes from the exceptional performance of Tadanobu Asano as Tamio. Asano is an actor who will probably be most familiar to Western viewers for his roles in Ichi The Killer, Gohatto and, particularly, Zatoichi and this seems like a change of pace for him since it’s a much more restrained and internalised performance. He seems to do very little but his eloquent face tells a whole story of grief and loss. Asking a charismatic and showy actor to hold themselves back is quite a challenge – both for performer and director – and the results are most impressive. There’s a particularly memorable scene where he simply has to sit by a river and the impression of pain is almost overwhelming. He’s very well supported by Erika as Ayako and Chizuru Ikewaki as Mari – the latter has a difficult role, beginning unsympathetically and coming round to being the most engaging character in the film. The most difficult role goes to Teppei Koike as the killer. Given little to do and obviously told to offer a minimum of expression, his blank face and dead eyes are genuinely chilling. When he says he doesn’t know why he killed Ayako, we believe him and that’s rather unsettling.
Tagatameni is a sad and thoughtful film, creating a tangible mood of emotional desolation, which avoids easy answers and that’s something for which one is inclined to forgive the somewhat evasive conclusion. Even if it doesn’t address all the questions it raises, it does at least raise them in an serious, adult way without sensationalism. Taro Hyugaji has taste and craftsmanship, enough to make you interested in what he’ll do next. Unfortunately, he also allows a certain mediocrity to edge its way in, nowhere more so than in the twee piano score by Akiko Yano and some crashingly obvious symbolism involving a photo of the young daughter of a suicide bomber and the famous headless statue of Nike which can be seen in the Louvre. But Hyugaji works so well with his actors and creates such a consistent mood that Tagatameni is well worth seeing and suggests that a successful career awaits.
The Japanese Region 2 label Emotion have released Tagatameni on a pretty good DVD. The film is presented in an anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 format. It’s a clear image with excellent, vivid colours. However, it’s also rather soft and this becomes particularly apparent in close-ups. The darker interior scenes also show signs of artifacting.
The Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 is excellent with the (irksome) piano score coming across very strongly. Surround activity is mostly limited to the music and some of the ambient effects.
The film is supported by English subtitles. However, the extra features are in Japanese without subtitles. Along with a trailer, the features include a twenty minute group interview with the actors prior to a screening and brief individual interviews with Asano, Erika and Koike.
Tagatameni - English title “Portrait of the Wind” – is an interesting and likeable film which should satisfy audiences who are willing to adjust to the slow pace. The DVD is generally acceptable although it’s a shame that the extras don’t have English subtitles.