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Review © Mandi Apple, 2008.

Directed by Toshiya Ueno, 2003, 63 mins., starring Hidehisa Ebata, Nikki Sasaki, Noriko Murayama, Rumi Hoshino, and Akio Kurauchi.

Ambiguous (aka Aimai (Waisetsu Net Shuudan: Ikasete!!), aka Vagueness), directed by a fairly obscure pinku director named Toshiya Ueno, sets itself up as a topical piece, with an eye to the recent Japanese boom in suicides and, more pertinently, Internet suicide groups. With more social disquiet than ever and an increase in teenage social anxiety problems such as 'hikikomori' (the peculiarly Japanese phenomenon of young people retreating into their bedrooms and only making contact with the outside world via the Internet, never to be seen again), it could be argued in fact that this movie, rather than reflecting the society which spawned it, is actually just a soft porn flick profiting rather cynically from the Japanese group-suicide phenomenon. However, on watching, this is self-evidently not the case. Ueno is clearly setting out a strong and meaningful agenda here, and accordingly Ambiguous conveys a certain political and social validity not normally found in most softcore porn ;-)

Full of interesting shots and novel ideas, such as intertitles featuring written quotes portraying the thoughts and motives of characters in a Battle Royale kind of style, as well as showing a full and extremely plausible range of extremely dehumanising character motivations, this movie is a great deal more rounded than you might imagine. According to the blurb on the back of the Sacrament DVD box, it's 'loosely based' on a true story of recent events that took place in Japan, although what events those may be is anyone's guess.

Considering it's obviously a no-budget movie, Ambiguous actually looks pretty good. There's an unusual, muted blue/green dusk tint throughout which makes the whole piece convey a certain atmosphere of having been removed from the bustling daytime world. The characters are living in a sort of silent emotional twilight, and the look of the movie reflects that very neatly. There is also no incidental music of any kind, which also lends the piece a realistic feel and a tangible air of sadness: it's almost as though any musical accompaniment would be inappropriate, given the storyline.

It's also very well-paced: even at a runtime of only 63 minutes, each character is properly fleshed out enough for the viewer to develop a relationship and sympathy with them, and at no point does the film lag badly. Likewise, the acting is rather good: Hidehisa Ebata is likeable and credible in the central role of the warm-hearted seal-maker Hanko, and the rest of the cast carry themselves well, each giving a good, believable performance rich with melancholic desperation.

Synopsis

"I'd like to disappear somewhere... somewhere that isn't here."

Ambiguous is based around five main characters, all of whom want to commit suicide for varying reasons.

First character: a young man named Hanko, an extremely impoverished artisan, who carves traditional Japanese signature-seals for a living and resides in his workshop. He's suffering existential angst, loneliness and ennuie, and desperately yearns for something to believe in.

Second character: a divorcee named Maria (Nikki Sasaki), no longer allowed to see her daughter unless she has permission from her violent, abusive ex-husband. He beats her up after she sneaks round to the school to catch a glimpse of her little girl, and threatens to kill her if she ever sees her daughter again.

Third character: Ginmaku, a porn movie director's girlfriend. The couple are sick of their relationship and want to split up. However, the director can't get enough work currently for him to be able to afford to move out. She is continually harassed by her boyfriend and called a whore because she has a thing for BDSM - and more specifically because she acts in his movies, in laughably misogynistic and hypocritical fashion.

Fourth character: a useless sous-chef named Innocent, whose only job is welcoming customers into a cafe - which he can't even do right, since he is profoundly withdrawn and socially phobic, and he is told he's not suited to the job and consequently fired. He is so hikikomori and alienated from society he can only communicate most of the time via mobile phone text.

Fifth character: a kogal, isolated from most of her classmates by the fact that she prostitutes herself to old guys. Her only so-called friends are gold-digging bitches who only hang out with her because she gives them expensive goods bought with the money she earns.

All of these sad people in their seemingly inescapable situations have, over time, become suicidal, bringing them all to the Internet, to look for 'suicide groups' - groups of people wishing to kill themselves together for moral support. Eventually, these five people agree to meet up at Hanko's workshop - whereupon they all make their own personal decisions about their destinies, sharing help, support and friendship among each other, finding that in some cases, they can forge new relationships, find new understanding, and fill each other's emotional voids. The five of them wanted to find the courage to die: instead, they find the courage to live.

Like Takahisa Zeze's arthouse-pinku Raigyo, Ambiguous qualifies as a whole lot more than just a simple softcore movie. Not really suitable for the one-handed romanporno viewer perhaps, but highly worthwhile from an artistic perspective: there's plenty of sex in it, albeit fairly tasteful, but the emotional tenet of each sex scene renders it difficult and vaguely unerotic. Yet this is only a somewhat superficial look at a single group of potential suicides: unlike Sono Sion's brilliant Suicide Circle which expounded on a lot of external reasons why suicide rates in Japan are so high, the societal factors outside of the characters' own failings and shortcomings are not even glanced at by Ueno in this work.

Full of fascinating shots, credible characters and perceptive, profound insights into the sadness that many suicide victims feel crushed by, Toshiya Ueno has created a stark, startling, intense fable of truth, love, redemption and, ultimately, rediscovering a reason for living. Compelling, life-affirming and inspiring.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:

Entertainment Value: 7/10
Chills: 0/10
Sex: 7/10
Violence: 4/10
Deviant Naughty Goings-On: a bazillion/10
Boobies: a bazillion/10
Litres of tomato ketchup: a small bathtub-ful

Films in a Similar Style: Raigyo, Angel Guts: Red Vertigo, Despite All That, Lunch Box

*** Recommended! ***

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Toshiya Ueno

Links

http://www.salvation-films.com/ - many thanks to Salvation, who provided us with the screener of this movie for review
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori - Wikipedia's excellent page on the phenomenon of hikikomori , or 'acute social withdrawal'
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_pact - some information pertaining to the real-life occurrences of Japanese Internet suicide pacts
http://dvd-subtitles.com/dvds/25/Ambiguous.php - technical specs and catalogue numbers for the Salvation release of Ambiguous


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