In the latest from Japanese cult actor/director Sabu, a stranger named Kanzaki (Masatoshi Nagase, perhaps most familiar to American audiences from Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train) arrives in a morose village with a device he calls a “happiness helmet,” which allows the wearer to instantly recall their happiest memory. Public demonstrations quickly win over the townspeople, provoking everything from joyful tears to spontaneous dancing, but Kanzaki has less than altruistic motives. Nagase is a master of understatement; his reserved lead performance doesn’t betray an iota of Kanzaki’s true agenda until the film reveals it via a lengthy and horrifically violent flashback sequence. From there, Happiness takes a flying leap into grim revenge-thriller territory, leaving the gently eccentric tone of the opening scenes a distant memory.
Insights abound concerning the destructive malaise afflicting Japanese society, most pointedly with regard to the older generation’s fear and envy of the young: a “youth counselor” slaps three young men across the face for attempting to steal Kanzaki’s happiness device yet most of the happy memories that revive the older villagers originate in childhood. “People here are spiritless,” a local official says to the mayor. Sabu evokes this mundanity with a drab palette that recalls Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s similarly elusive Creepy. Though his ideas about the symbiotic relationship between joy and suffering are made explicit late in the film, his lingering on graphic violence detracts from their resonance, and they’re never expressed more clearly than in an early montage of the villagers experiencing the effects of the device, tears streaming down their cheeks, faces frozen somewhere between ecstasy and unspeakable pain. The power of Happiness lies in Sabu’s suggestion that as vivid as a memory can be, recalling it inevitably becomes a reminder of its distance from the present.
Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2017 | Dispatch 3.