English Title: Starfish Hotel
Country of Origin: Japan
Studio: 100m Films
Director: John Williams
Screenplay: John Williams
Cinematographer: Benitio Strangio
Editor: Yousuke Yafune
Runtime: 98 minutes
Arisu is a bored salaryman who lives a humdrum existence, alternating between the bland surroundings of his corporate office and designer apartment. When his wife Chisato mysteriously disappears, her sudden vanishing act may be due to her discovery of his affair with Kayoko, an alluring younger woman who Arisu met at a hotel whilst out of town on business, or she may have fallen victim to something more sinister. Arisu enlists the help of the Tokyo police department, but also conducts his own investigation, coming into contact with Mr. Trickster, a volatile alcoholic who wanders the streets in a rabbit suit in order to promote the new novel by a popular mystery writer, and ventures into Wonderland, a new erotic nightclub in the downtown area of the city. Fact and fiction begin to blur, as Arisu’s experiences take on the form of a mystery story, and he recalls his affair with Kayoko at the Starfish Hotel.
The literary fiction of the celebrated Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami presents a strangely intoxicating world in which characters searching for something intangible that seems to be missing from their lives. These protagonists wander around the urban environments of major cities, and sometimes their outskirts, experiencing chance encounters and unusual events, whilst feeling adrift from the society to which they belong. Although his stories are vividly told and entirely contemporary, Murakami’s fiction has resisted the transition to the big screen, with Jun Ichikawa’s quietly haunting adaptation of his short story Tony Takitani (2004) being the only official cinematic realisation of his work to date. Starfish Hotel takes its inspiration from Murakmi’s fiction, often playing as a filmic tribute to his literary universe, most notably the companion pieces of A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance and also Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World, although the loose-limbed narrative assembled by writer-director John Williams explores his own thematic concerns as much as it takes its cues from Murakami's novels.
At times uneasily pitched between mystery thriller and character study, and ultimately too ambiguous for those viewers who prefer easy resolutions to accept, Starfish Hotel utilises its salaryman protagonist to take the audience on an excursion into the darker side of contemporary Tokyo. In his quest to find his missing wife, Arisu (Koichi Sato) visits a garishly designed erotic club called Wonderland, and comes into contact with Mr. Trickster (Akira Emoto), a middle-aged failure who has been deserted by his family and makes his living wandering around in a rabbit suit to promote the latest novel by a popular genre writer. In a parallel story-strand, Williams relocates to the outskirts of Tokyo, and the hotel of the title, which stands in a snow-covered town which may really exist, or be contained within the dreams of the beleaguered hero. Such transitions are occasionally jarring, but prevent the film from slipping into the over-used template of ‘modern noir' and add to the literary themes that Williams wishes to discuss. Arisu is an avid fan of the mystery novels of Jo Kuroda, whose latest best-seller is keeping Mr. Trickster in cheap liquor, and Arisu himself once wanted to be a writer, but failed to follow through on his ambitions due to a lack of imagination. These characters also stray from their conventional roles within genre, as Mr. Trickster displays a destructive temperament, yet is more of a darkly comic tragic figure than a violent antagonist, while Kayoko is certainly an enticing femme but more vulnerable than she is fatale.
Starfish Hotel was shot on digital video, which enabled Williams to complete a logistically complex film with relatively limited resources, and cinematographer Benito Strangio expertly alternates between the anonymous commercial sheen of Arisu’s office and apartment, and the sleazy grime of downtown Tokyo. The scenes outside the city, particularly Arisu’s encounters with Kayoko at the titular hotel and his climactic walk into an abandoned mine, have an otherworldly quality which is nicely complemented by an atmospheric score courtesy of Shoko Nagai and Satoshi Takeishi. Through interweaving the influence of Murakami with his own vision of mid-life crisis and sexual desire, Williams has created a multi-layered cinematic puzzle that unravels in a manner which is often as fascinating and it is unexpected.
Author of this review: John Berra
Peer reviewer: Johanna Pittam