Japanese Film - Starfish Hotel
by Richard Donovan, December 2006
Starfish Hotel is a film of alternate and alternative worlds, and as such it could be otherly titled Arisu in Darkland.
Yes, we have our Alice', Yuichi Arisu (Koichi Sato), a Tokyo businessman, and we have a man in a shabby rabbit suit, Mr Trickster (Akira Emoto), who leads him down into another realm, though as Arisu has been a lot naughtier than Lewis Carroll's version, his rabbit guide is commensurately violent and his journey more disturbing.
British director John Williams is conversant with Japanese literary and traditional symbolic allusions. If the idea of a rabbit leading a human astray is Carroll's contribution to Western pop culture, in Japan the fox has long been the one to inveigle the gullible into giving up their soul.
The vixen in this film reveals her animalistic tendencies only very briefly on screen, but the implication is clear. In Starfish, Williams is playing with the same juxtaposition of the mindlessly anodyne (contemporary Tokyo) and the dangerously primal (the Darkland) that writer Haruki Murakami favours to the point of obsession. Arisu's wife is presented as nice', that most quietly damning of epithets, while her rival, Kayoko, denizen of the Starfish Hotel, is by her own admission a fallen woman, tragic and hence unspeakably erotic. (Of course, having stunning looks helps with this, too.)
She instinctively knows that the two worlds the two women represent can never come together, because, like matter and antimatter, they will annihilate each other. When Arisu's wife prostitutes herself at a kinky club to get back at her cheating husband, she is crossing the line from one world to the other, with fatal repercussions. Her husband's affair is the catalyst, but it simply awakens in her what is, by implication, slumbering in all of us.
Another point of commonality with Murakami is the number of halfway houses that exist between the two worlds. The Starfish Hotel is Arisu's entry point into his lover's Darkland. It recalls the equally aquatic Dolphin Hotel in similarly snowy Sapporo: here Murakami's protagonist in Dance, Dance, Dance has an eerie encounter with the spirit of his dead lover.
In Starfish, Arisu follows his apparently deceased amour from the hotel into the abandoned mineshaft whose obscurity held such an attraction for her. This mineshaft is reminiscent of the well that features so prominently in Murakami's most searing novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
This too was a conduit between the two worlds. A third bridge between the prosaic and the primal is the bondage club that employs Arisu's wife. It can perhaps be seen as a mediator of transaction (the workaday) and desire (the realm of fantasy). Something similar is central to Shusaku Endo's novel Scandal about a novelist who has problems with his lewd doppelganger.
Williams pays explicit homage to mystery fiction by framing the action of the film within the literary world of fictional author Jo Kuroda, of whom Arisu is an obsessive fan, so that what is imagined and what is real remains always at one level of remove from the viewers' ability to discern.
This device of a narrative within a narrative is nothing new to film, of course. When Arisu begins reading the story of his ex-lover in the pages of the latest novel' Starfish Hotel, some viewers may consider the director too much of a trickster in his own right.
Even if some of its conceits are derivative, there is no denying that the film is an accomplished piece that successfully creates an atmosphere all its own. Mr Trickster is that rare combination of one-man comic act and vicious psychopath, largely thanks to a bravura performance by veteran Emoto and some excellent make-up. And while actor Kiki's portrayal of Kayoko at first looks a little mannered with all that head-tilting and line-lilting, it quickly forms into a hypnotic performance dripping with sexually charged ennui.
We know exactly why Arisu became involved with her, just as we can see why he should have resisted the temptation and instead concentrated on his devoted wife.
This identification with what is rationally unjustifiable yet ineluctable makes us morally complicit in Arisu's actions. (Or is it just me?!) The carefully modulated cinematography, with its contrast of lifeless whites and smouldering reds, incites this complicity, and is perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the film.
With Starfish Hotel, John Williams has come of age as a film director, and made his mark on Japanese film. It will be interesting to see down what rabbit hole he chooses to lead us next.
will have its nationwide release in cinemas across Japan in February 2007.