Based on the novel of the same name by Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (Aru Otoko) from director Kei Ishikawa (Arc, Gukoroku: Traces of Sin) is billed as a mystery thriller. Despite that label, the film doesn’t really do things like leave hints or clues for the audience to piece together. Instead, it unveils relevant information at its own pace, taking us through a slow-burn story about the power of labels and how it is never too late to choose happiness.
A Man vs. A Woman
The plot of the movie initially deals with Rie (Sakura Ando), a divorced mother of one who moves back home after the death of her youngest child. She eventually falls in love with Daisuke (Masataka Kubota), a slightly gloomy but ultimately caring new arrival to the town. The two get married, have a child, and create a loving family of four. But then Daisuke dies in a tragic accident, which eventually reveals that he wasn’t in fact Daisuke Taniguchi, the supposed younger brother of an owner of a popular hot spring inn as he claimed. The story then shifts focus to Akira Kido (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a lawyer hired by Rie to discover the identity of the man she shared four years of her life with.
Having two POV characters, unfortunately, hurts the movie because it takes precious screen time away from Ando, who brings everything to the performance. In the relatively short time that we get to see her, Ando masterfully displays seemingly every emotion possible, leaving viewers wanting more from the actress. Tsumabuki does a commendable job and his character is interesting enough but, ultimately, Akira exists primarily to help deliver the film’s message that one’s history or familial circumstances don’t matter. But it’s a role that he has to share with other characters, taking some of the impact from it.
Looking Underneath the Surface During the Movie’s Big Twist
In the end, it’s revealed that “Daisuke Taniguchi” was the son of a convicted murderer who changed his identity in order to start anew after people, himself included, could only see his father in him. His struggle is meant to be reflected in Akira, who is a third-generation Zainichi Korean. Akira was born and raised in Japan, speaking only Japanese, but is often made to feel like an outsider because of his heritage. At first, equating the “problem” of having grandparents that hail from another country to being related to someone who brutally stabbed three people to death might sound like, to put it mildly, a carnival of poor taste. Fortunately, the movie seems to draw parallels between the fake Daisuke and Akira primarily to mock anti-Zainichi bigotry and to expose it as thoroughly irrational.
The lesson we’re meant to take away from the movie is that labels that people assign to you don’t matter as long as you’re a good person inside. If that’s all that A Man was, it’d hardly be worth talking about, but the film thankfully also tackles the topic of identity through Rie’s son Yuto (Manato Sakamoto) who has an interesting if short arc about how he’s not sure who he is due to his mother changing their surname following her divorce, remarriage and the revelation that they can’t keep going by Taniguchi anymore. The movie additionally expands on this theme through a look at how society views and treats criminals, which is woven very skillfully into the narrative and never feels forced.
Ultimately, though, what makes A Man a worthwhile watch are its thoughts on the nature of happiness. There is a powerful line in the movie about how the years that “Daisuke” spent with Rie, Yuto and his daughter were “a fact.” They weren’t a lie or an attempt to escape his past or identity. They were happiness manifested in its purest form, which only came after years of sorrow, self-hatred and even self-harm.
Through this, the film tells us it’s never too late to shed the labels imposed on us by society and find true happiness. It might not last long, and it might not be the easiest thing to do, but in the end our lives are our own and they are worth fighting for. In a story that drops a lot of bodies, including those of children, it’s a refreshing message of hope that doesn’t feel saccharine or cliché and helps average the movie out to “pretty good.”
Next time, though, please keep the camera a little while longer on Ando.
A Man is currently being screened in theaters across Japan.