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[Our thanks to Christopher Bourne for the following review.]

One of the best selections this year of both the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival is Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s All Around Us, a beautifully observed film that examines the vicissitudes of the relationship between a married couple – Kanao (Lily Franky), a courtroom sketch artist, and Shoko (Tae Kimura), an editor at a publishing house – against the backdrop of the larger Japanese society from 1993 to 2001. At the film’s outset, the tone is lightly comic, as Shoko puts Kanao on a strict schedule of sex three times a week, and also a curfew, because of her suspicions that he is cheating on her – which are probably not unfounded, as evidenced by early scenes in which Kanao openly flirts with women at his shoe-repair shop. Kanao is a somewhat isolated person, estranged from his own family and saddled with in-laws who don’t show him much respect. During a family dinner, Shoko’s mother (Mitsuko Baisho) leans toward her daughter and whispers, “You can do better.” Shoko resists her family’s opposition, perhaps sensing that Kanao’s easygoing nature balances out her control-freak tendencies. Soon after, a friend of Kanao’s introduces him to a new line of work, as a courtroom artist for a local television station. At first, this promises to be the latest in a series of jobs Kanao casually drifts into, but he soon takes to the work, and he now spends his days in the courtroom observing trials for some of the most heinous crimes: serial killers, cannibals, cult mass murderers, as well as their victims, fall under his artist’s gaze, as he picks up the telling details that he sketches and presents to the public to satisfy their insatiable curiosity. While Kanao becomes a more responsible, stable person due to his new calling, Shoko begins making an opposite trajectory, unable to cope with the death of their infant daughter and sinking into a deep depression. Kanao, as much as he wants to help her, is ultimately at a loss as to how to do so, and can only observe his wife getting worse, much as he observes the criminals in the courtroom.

Hashiguchi, one of the few openly gay filmmakers in Japan, returns after a seven-year hiatus from directing with his best film to date. While the subject matter of his latest film would seem to represent a break with his previous gay-themed features, such as A Slight Touch of Fever (1992) and the film festival favorite Hush! (2001), All Around Us retains the qualities of humor and astute observation that run through all his films. At once sweepingly panoramic and microscopically intimate, Hashiguchi’s fourth feature parallels the pains and struggles of the married couple at its center with the changes in Japan itself, touching on such major events as the 1990’s economic collapse, the 1995 subway sarin gas attacks, and others. Also attesting to Hashiguchi’s care in accurately detailing the specific time period he covers is the fact that the courtroom trials we see in the film are based on actual cases of the time. Shoko’s trauma of the death of her child and the subsequent devastation to her psyche mirrors (perhaps a bit too neatly in the film’s scenario) Japan’s economic collapse and the violence and desperation that follows, at least as can be evidenced from the increasingly grisly crimes that Kanao observes in the courtroom. At almost two and a half hours, All Around Us is patient and subtle in its examination of the married couple it follows, leaving the major dramatic moments mostly off-screen, instead conveying them through synecdochic details: the altar for their dead child; the parenting manuals left in the trash; spilled rice in a sink representing Shoko’s mental unraveling. Shot with a burnished glow and a gorgeous palette (appropriately for a film in which art plays such a large role), All Around Us boasts great performances across the board, but especially by those of its two anchors – veteran character actress Tae Kimura, who compellingly registers Shoko’s changing mental state and eventual healing with astute precision, and Lily Franky, a real-life illustrator and author (his memoir Tokyo Tower became a popular television series, and later an equally celebrated film), whose appealingly deadpan performance paradoxically conveys an emotional depth that is a revelation and endlessly fascinating to watch.

All Around Us, a co-presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, screens at Japan Society on July 2 at 8:45 and July 5 at 2:45.

Review by Christopher Bourne.

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sitenoiseJuly 2, 2009 5:31 AM

Strange to agree with everything in this well written review but arrive at a less than enthusiastic recommendation. It is a quality film and Lily Franky's performance is one to behold (even more so knowing this is his acting debut--I wonder how much he studied or trained). The film could have been more tightly edited. There's too many shots of ... nothing. I understand this style is done too create an atmosphere and control a pace, but I think the director over did it. In the end, however, my only real criteria for not giving it highest marks is that I have no desire to watch it again. It came, it was good, but now it's gone.