EXPECTATIONS: A compelling dramatic mystery filled with grit. And also, YU AOI!!!!!!!!
REVIEW: Director Kazuya Shiraishi is a filmmaker that has gone of a bit a rise these past few years. Since his breakout hit with the 2013 crime drama The Devil’s Path, from 2016, he’s made five films and they have all revolved or worked alongside on one specific type of genre: the crime film.
Whether he makes a comedy like Twisted Justice, or an erotic drama like Dawn of the Felines, or in the case of this review, a romantic drama, Shiraishi is bound to add a certain amount of grit to make his work stand out.
And now we have Birds Without Names, a romantic drama that revolves around a murder mystery based on a novel by Mahokaru Numata, with a fantastic cast and actress extraordinaire Yu Aoi in the lead role. Will the film stand out and become another stellar entry into Shiraishi’s filmography?
Yu Aoi stars as the 33-year-old Towako, a woman who has been scrounging off room and board off her live-in-boyfriend, Jinji (Sadao Abe). Jinji is a timid 48-year-old construction worker who keeps Towako fed and clothed while basically not being the boyfriend of the year due to his lack of cleanliness and at one point in the film, his lack of finesse on how to use the toilet.
Towako doesn’t give really care about Jinji, to the point where she verbally abuses him repeatedly. Nevertheless, she needs him to survive. Jinji is submissive and endures the humiliation to keep Towako, while Towako still pines for her ex-lover Shunichi (Yutaka Takenouchi), who broke up with her 8 years ago in a monstrously ugly fashion.
Towako has a weakness for sophisticated looking men, and when Jinji is not around, she sneaks off to love hotels with her current lover, Makoto (Tori Matsuzaka), a married man, who is of course in a designer suit. All of these relationships will coalesce when it is reported to Towako that Shunichi has gone missing.
Does the film live up to Shiraishi’s stellar filmography? Not only does it accomplish that feat, it might actually be his best film yet. Birds Without Names is based on a novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata, the famous female author who specializes in crime stories that feature manipulative men, brutal women and complicated relationships; basically the dark side of human nature.
Which makes it the perfect source material for Shiraishi to adapt and expand his directorial range. To manage a story like this, a good director would apply an understated approach to the storytelling and thankfully, Shiraishi is up to the task. Learning from his mistakes with his heavy-handed storytelling in The Devil’s Path, he manages to tell the story at a measured pace which effectively brings out a gradual sense of tension; by ably showing reliance on visual storytelling (for the most part) that compels and most of all, being able to milk great performances out of the committed cast.
Yu Aoi gives one of the best performances of her career as Towako, a depressed and gradually unstable woman who has not moved on from her past boyfriend, who had treated her monstrously. She never tries to make her character sympathetic and delves into the poisonous flaws of her character with aplomb. There’s a point in the film where she really looks like she is about to burst with emotions and it’s a wonder to behold.
Sadao Abe is equally as good, playing a character who’s hangdog behaviour and naivety make him become the glue of the film that holds it together. He may be the most sympathetic character by default, but he also does irredeemable actions that make him flawed, just like Towako. The supporting cast are no slouches, with Yutaka Takenouchi lending credibility and nuance to an incredibly despicable character and Tori Matsuzaka who capably shows shades of his character being more than what his facade conveys.
As for the flaws, there is a through-line of casual misogyny that will definitely put off some viewers. Especially in the case of Towako’s behaviour, where she basically allows the bad behaviour of the male characters to happen and even gets in on it to harm other women i.e. Shunichi’s wife.
But there is the ending to consider, which is quite touching and compelling to the point where it will make audiences re-evaluate what they thought of the characters prior to the climax.
Overall, Birds Without Names is a great piece of work from Kazuya Shiraishi, that not only succeeds as a great romantic drama but as an actors showcase for all involved, especially Yu Aoi.
The cast all give fantastic performances, with a career-best from Yu Aoi
Measured, nuanced storytelling
Never shies away nor pulls any punches from the dark nature of the story
Moments of misogyny
Cast: Yu Aoi, Sadao Abe, Tori Matsuzaka, Yutaka Takenouchi, Eri Murakawa, Masaaki Akahori, Muck Akazawa, Shu Nakajima
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Screenwriters: Taeko Asano, based on the novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata