Based on a novel by Yasushi Sato and written for the screen by Takashi Ujita, Sketches of Kaitan City tells five gloomy stories (the novel originally has eighteen) of several gloomy characters, in a depressingly gloomy city–a fictional port city called Kaitan–as they approach a new year. The shipyard, which is the heart of Kaitan, is downsizing and closing one out of its three ports. One of the laid off workers is Futa, whose parents died in an accident at the exact same shipyard he’s working at. Although frustrated by the unemployment, the rough-looking yet gentle Futa tries to keep his cool in front of his younger sister, and at New Year’s Eve he takes her to the top of a building where people come to watch the sunrise. They drink beers and when the sun rises, welcoming the new year, he just stares blankly. While queuing for the elevator that will take them downstairs, he realizes that he hasn’t got enough money to buy tickets for both of them. He then suggests his sister to go on her own while he takes the stairs.
From then on, I know that it’s only going to get gloomier.
Apart from the brother and sister, other stories include a solitary old woman–whose most precious companion is her pregnant cat–that won’t budge from her shabby little house even though the government needs it demolished to make way for a new urban development. A worn out father who works a dead-end job in a planetarium because he loves stars, trying to repair his relationship with his distant teenage son, while resenting his wife’s working in a shady bar, suspecting her to having an affair with another man. A newly-elected boss of the city’s gas provider company, who inherited it from his father (or father-in-law), seeming to be in a life where nothing goes they way they should. He’s cold towards his wife, always talks down to her, and she will unload her anger by hitting their son. The husband, doting on the son, will then beat her in return. The last story is about a young man native of the city but works in Tokyo, currently back in the gloomy Kaitan where he was born, to work on a project with the gas provider company. By chance, he meets his estranged father while visiting his mother’s grave.
Watching this film makes me realize that I’ve watched so many of these bleak, cheerless films. I wonder why people make these depressing films and why we keep watching them. Maybe because there’s a certain beauty that we find in despair, or maybe because desolation and broken relationships are things that most of us can so often relate to. Two of the five stories deal with broken families. Families that make you wonder if it’s better to not start one at all. There seems to be no ‘happy ending’ waiting for the characters, apart from, maybe, the old lady. She’s the oldest character, she doesn’t seem too interested in living much longer, she’s the one character that has seen changes in the city the longest, yet in the end we see her calmly stroking her heavily pregnant cat, with her house still standing intact behind her.
At 152 minutes, each story is able to stand on its own. The least strong of all is probably the last one, and the fourth–the one about the gas provider company owner–the strongest. It is also the longest, amounting to about forty minutes. It’s got more drama compared to the other stories and is also the most disturbing.
The gloomy nature of the characters and stories, set in the harsh cold of December, give the film a depressing look. Like all Japanese films, it’s slow-paced and it gives you time to soak in all the bleakness. The actors’ performances are all powerful, especially Pistol Takehara’s (apparently this is only his third film), Ryo Kase’s and Kaoru Kobayashi’s. I wouldn’t mind if the last story is cut, but overall it’s still a nicely made film.