Director: Takumi Saitoh
Notable Cast: Issei Takahashi, Mayu Matsuoka, Takumi Saitoh, Lily Franky
When starting a massive marathon of films for any kind of reason, particularly when it comes to similarly themed ones for a film festival, it’s always nice to start off with a strong film and that’s exactly what Blank 13 was for me. With no real expectations of the film going into it, outside of the brief description on the Japan Cuts 2018 website, my own blank slate was filled by a film that plays things in a crafty way to tell what might have been a casual, if not rather boring, familial dark and slightly comedic drama. Blank 13, directed by Takumi Saitoh who is more known for his modeling and acting career and sports his first feature length film here, is a rather fascinating ball of threaded stories meant to create a blurry flurry of feelings rather than a more straightforward narrative. Yet through the impressive execution, the sly tonal shifts make Blank 13 a film that strips and audiences and leaves its mark, even if the basic plotting comes off as par for the course.
For a film that features a dysfunctional family having to relive through the worst of times in the wake of a funeral and confronted with the strangely positive portrayal of a man who left them high and dry, perhaps the strongest key feature of the film is its ability to be heartfelt without leaning too far into any one emotional beat - sad, angry, mad, or apathetic. The film starts off somber and with a darker tone, with written words assessing the idea and science around cremation, but it quickly shows its wit with how the funeral setting is introduced and how many patrons mistake it for the wrong funeral. This weirdly dark humor is prevalent throughout the film, adding in an odd warmth to the humanity of its characters as they interact despite the heaviness of the actual plot, which has two confronting sides of a person hammered out by family on one side and friends on the other. The plot itself is not all that original, playing into the torn family confronted with their issues in the wake of a tragedy through line, but Blank 13’s ability to navigate the potential pitfalls of generic and forced drama is impressive and the emotional lines that it shifts across from scene to scene and moment to moment make it worth the journey for an audience.
For a film that only runs a very efficient 70 some minutes, Blank 13 unfolds in a dynamic manner and the leaping narrative which jumps back and forth through the timeline, uses its fluidity and execution of subtlety to a lasting effect. The performances are layered and complex, particularly from most of the main cast, although certainly much of the secondary cast does an admirable job in delivering the set ups for these emotional moments. In particular, director Takumi Saitoh handles the balance of the film with brilliant finesse, allowing moments to linger or pulling to the next sequence at just the right time to allow the story and its character elements to unfold naturally in an unnatural timeline. For a film that’s almost completely about memories and storytelling, Blank 13 handles the narrative push with ease and delivers it in a way that is impressively artistic.
With little in the way of expectations, knowing that this was going to be the first review for an extensive run in artistic Japanese films as we run coverage, Blank 13 starts things on a very high note. It’s a film that goes above and beyond what it should have been as a familial drama, mostly thanks to its impressive use of fluid narrative and layered performances that justify its thematic weight. It’s a heavy film, overall, and it leaves the audience feeling uneasy about the complexities of the human condition, but for those willing to take the journey it’s very much worth the trip.
Written By Matt Reifschneider