Never judge a book by its cover” is a saying we can easily apply to people. In Kei Ishikawa’s slow-burning, complex drama, A Man, not everything is as it seems.
When people meet for the first time, whether it’s for love or friendship, we always have a level of trust and try not to judge by face value. Over time, we grow to know these people better, and that trust can change. In Ishikawa’s film, a number of mysteries arise that will shake the fabric of everyone affected.
There is a painting called “Not To Be Reproduced” created by artist Rene Magritte in 1937 which is shown in the film. The surreal artwork shows a man with his back to the artist, who is also reflected in the mirror. Upon closer inspection, there is a book on the mantelpiece, Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” This is the only item in the painting that is shown correctly, as the man in the mirror can only see the back of his head. While one could say that the painting showcases the truth, it actually implies that there could be multiple “truths” at play here, exploring themes of obsession, identity, and awareness.
A Man (or “Aru Otoko” in Japanese), premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year. It is adapted from the 2018 novel “A Man,” written by Keiichiro Hirano. The story begins in a small rural town where Rie (played by Sakura Ando) runs a small family-owned stationary shop. She is a divorced single mother with a son named Yuto, and Daisuke (played by Masataka Kubota) regularly visits the store for art supplies. He is new to the area, very shy, and asks if he could be friends with Rie, to which she accepts.
Over time, Rie and Daisuke got closer and eventually got married. Four years later, life was looking great for them as Rie had a second chance at happiness and now had a daughter named Hana. However, tragedy struck once again when Daisuke died in an accident at work. At her husband’s funeral wake, Rie learned that Daisuke may not have been who he said he was. Who was he? To find out, Rie decided to hire the services of Akira Kido (played by Satoshi Tsumabuki) an empathetic lawyer who led the investigation.
A Man is a film with two distinct halves. It starts off as a gentle love story, a romantic drama, but then shifts into something closer to a procedural crime thriller. As you learn more about Rie’s tragic past, you become happy for her and Daisuke. However, when tragedy strikes and Daisuke dies in a work accident, you want Kido to get to the bottom of the truth and provide his client with closure. The question remains, can the love that Rie shared with Daisuke for four years overpower the deception that has been uncovered?
As Kido moves one step closer to the truth, he suddenly finds himself two steps behind. Kido’s story takes center stage, with Rie’s story becoming more like background noise. While he hunts for the truth, a parallel story unfolds with his own identity coming under question. Although Kido was born in Japan, he is also of Zainichi Korean descent, which highlights Japan’s discrimination towards the Zainichi community. When Rie appears in the latter stages of the film, the moments between them are tender, even heart-breaking.
While A Man is fundamentally a crime thriller, it is also about identity. Rie’s story serves as the backbone of the film, and the issue of identity for second, third, and even fourth-generation individuals resonates worldwide today. The film showcases Japan’s intolerance, which could be argued as being on trial in this engaging, slow-burning movie.
Drama, Thriller | Japan, 2021 | 15 | 2023 Glasgow Film Festival | The Match Factory | Dir. Kei Ishikawa | Sakura Ando, Satoshi Tsumabaki, Masataka Kubota