#Manhole - Kuzuyoshi Kumakiri
Credit: Gaga Corporation / J Storm
by Oliver Parker Featured Film

#Manhole — Kazuyoshi Kumakiri [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 22, 2023

There is little build-up to the opening of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s latest thriller, #Manhole. Within the first five minutes, unfortunate salesman Shunsuke Kawamura (Yûto Nakajima) awakes at the bottom of a decrepit manhole, after a night of celebration on the eve of his wedding. Not only is Shunsuke’s leg bleeding profusely from a deep wound caused by the fall, but the ladder up to the exit is rusted and partially collapsed. At first, Shunsuke believes that he drunkenly slipped and fell down the hole, but over the course of #Manhole it’s slowly revealed that something else might be at play. While the concept of a man simply being stuck down a manhole might seem threadbare for a 100-minute film, in execution, Kamakiri presents a surprisingly riveting and economic thriller that manages to inject a pleasant level of satire into its absurdist conceit.

Despite #Manhole’s single location, the plot is packed full of drama and tension — after all, if phone booths and coffins will do, why can’t a manhole? Unlike the remarkably straight walls of the manhole Kawamura is stuck in, this film’s narrative is an altogether more jagged affair. There are a suitable amount of plot twists, which range from the tepid to outrageously left-field, with the latter being far more successful in ratcheting the stakes by leaning into schlock. While the first half of the film feels like a farcical comedy exploring the ineptitude of police bureaucracy, plus reconnecting with an ex under less than desirable circumstances, the latter half is steeped in paranoia as it becomes clear that somebody Kawamura might have upset could be behind his seemingly hopeless situation. To that end, both Kumakiri’s claustrophobic direction and Nakajima’s fantastic, shifting performance allow Kawamura’s slow descent into madness to feel like a natural, earned character evolution.

But it’s #Manhole’s visual design that proves its greatest strength. Thanks to the film’s (mostly) single location, Kumakiri is able to craft an incredibly detailed and highly textured environment that feels palpably disgusting — montage sequences highlight creeping insects, spewing liquids, and the metal spikes that seem to protrude with genuine malice. Dimly lit walls are made to seem like they are gradually shrinking in on our confined protagonist. And as the film progresses, an ominous viscous liquid (alluded to being the remains of dead animals) pours into the hole, slowly filling up the empty space around Kawamura. Watching Kawamura move around in this putrid juice or shriek in anger as he lumbers around the space is effectively wince-inducing, and the pit’s griminess is tangible — plenty of viewers are likely to be convinced they can even smell it.

Much of #Manhole‘s story is propelled by interactions on social media. Kawamura sets up an account on Pecker (essentially Twitter) and eventually finds his posts — in which he seeks help from people online — going viral, leading him to interact with a myriad of odd, eccentric, and sometimes deeply creepy anonymous accounts that follow his situation with a strange intensity. The saturation of unseen people tuning in to another’s crisis feels nightmarish, but when imagined as a real life scenario, the film’s depiction of a social media circus seems eerily accurate. An example: a man comes to rescue Kawamura, but there is a caveat — the man is a streamer and broadcasts his attempted rescue live in front of hundreds of people. Kumakiri makes use of a split screen, with one half showing Kawamura drowning from rising water in the manhole and the other showing us the live streamer fumbling around an abandoned factory attempting to rescue him. It’s a sequence that nicely reflects the film’s dark humor, which frequently pokes fun at the current state of modern Internet culture, though without ever skewing too abrasively cynical. 

Ultimately, #Manhole isn’t pushing any cinematic boundaries in the thriller genre, instead simply transposing a new setting onto the single-location thriller template. But where it does excel is in its aesthetic and tonal precision, relying on a goopy visual design to distinguish its particular character. And while it starts to feel stretched a bit thin at its current length, it remains a nominally lean thriller punctuated by a multitude of wild twists which, providing you are dialed-in to the film’s frequency and can suspend disbelief at their ludicrousness, add up to a compelling and playful watch.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 7.5.