Sleeping Man

(Nemuru Otoko)
(Japanese Drama color)

Montreal World Cinema Festival 1996–In Sleeping Man, a film of mesmerizing beauty and hypnotic quality, Oguri continues to examine traditional Japanese attitudes to nature, life and death, except that this time the focus is not on tension and opposition but on harmony and unity. Oguri's fourth work, which follows his accomplished Cannes Fest award-winning The Sting of Death, is a quiet, demanding film that deserves to be seen on the big screen in film festivals and select art houses as a sampler of the recent Japanese cinema.

With four features to his credit, Oguri has gained international acclaim, though only his debut, the Oscar-nominated Muddy River (l981) has been theatrically released in the U.S. A master of long takes, and even longer silences, Oguri constructs such spellbinding images that it's almost impossible to distinguish between contents and form in his work.

Set in Hitosuji, a fictitious village in rural Japan, Sleeping Man tells the story of a seemingly calm, uneventful place, surrounded by huge mountains, massive forests and wild rivers. Title refers to Takuji (Ahn Sung-ki), a man lying in bed unconscious, as a result of a mysteriously unspecified accident in South America. Pic's recurring motif is that of Takuji asleep in his bed and encircled by family and friends, a calm, intimate image placed against the grand, lush landscape outside his farmhouse.

Non-narrative (in the conventional sense of the word), Sleeping Man loosely interweaves the lives of half a dozen characters. Prominent among them is Kamimura (Koji Yakusho), Takuji's classmate, who comes to visit him and reminisce about their glorious childhood days in the forest. Tia (Christine Hakim), a beautiful Southeast Asian woman, whose son had drowned in a flood caused by deforestation in her own country, works in a local bar. She slowly befriends Kamimura and the other villagers, who are at first suspicious of her, being an outsider.

The seasons come and ago, affording director Oguri and talented lenser Osame Maruike to worship nature in its entire changing splendor. Takuji stays in bed until his mother notices a dust-devil, which prompts her to declare that his spirit had left his body. His family tries to call his spirit back, but to no avail; Takuji is dead.

Oguri's approach is elegiac rather than nostalgic toward the high price paid by rural Japan and its denizens for the impending process of technological modernization, celebrating the richness of a lifestyle that is all but lost. Yet realizing that technological evolution is an unstoppable and inevitable historical force, Sleeping Man is not an angry meditation, advocating in fact accord and consonance with nature as much as possible.

In the film's most lyrical sequence, which follows a performance of a Noh play, Kamimura and Tia wander separately in the mountains, until they converge in the same hut that Kamimura used to share with Takuji in their boyhood days.

As if to further the universality of his thematic concerns, Oguri's casting also transcends Japan's national boundaries: the sleeping man is played by a Korean actor, and Tia by an Indonesian actress endowed with gorgeous looks and strong personal charisma.

In an inventive, often poetic manner, Sleeping Man is narrated not by words, but by images, which punctuate the sparse, meager story, giving it its formal structure and distinctive aesthetics. By American standards, pacing is excessively slow, perhaps even dull, but Oguri's tempo most aptly matches a metaphysical, transcendental film that encourages viewers to reflect on their own relationship with the universe.


A Sleeping Man production. Produced by Munashi Masuzawa and Hiroshi Fujikura. Executive producer, Hiroyuki Kodera. Directed by Kohei Oguri. Screenplay, Oguri and Kiyoshi Kenmochi. Camera (color), Osame Maruike; lighting, Hideaki Yamakawa; editor, Nobuo Ogawa; music, Toshio Hosokawa; music performed by The Gunma Symphony Orchestra; art direction, Yoshinaga Yokoo; set decoration, Shoichi Yasuda; sound, Soichi Inoue; special effects, Art Durinsky. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (Competing), Aug. 28, l996.

Running time: 103 min.
Takuji……Ahn Sung-ki
Tia…..Christine Hakim
Kamimura…Koji Yakusho
Kiyoji…Masaso Imafuku
Fumi…….Akiko Nomura