In urban Japan, there is a particular bathhouse. By day, it functions just like any other, a communal space for the unwashed masses to cleanse themselves. But by night, it becomes a Grand Guignol, where mobsters execute and dispose of bodies, turned to ashes in the water heater. ‘Business as usual’ takes on a whole new meaning in director/writer/editor Seiji Tanaka’s debut feature, and if this is his first step into cinema, he has a bright future ahead.
The matter-of-factness of the setting and main character Kazuhiko’s place within it gives the film a certain Scorsese-esque tinge, where the normality of such grotesque actions gives way to its own brand of quiet terror. The visuals make it a point not to linger on the blood spray for too long, treating it as routinely as the characters themselves.
Kazuhiko, a Tokyo University graduate who hasn’t managed to hold down a full-time job yet, finds himself venturing deeper and deeper into the bathhouse’s hidden utilisation, but it only briefly serves as a shock to the system. Beyond that, it becomes simply part of the job description, as he cleans up the blood and corpses before the day customers arrive.
It serves partly as casual horror, but it also gives way to a certain gallows humour. Watching Kazuhiko converse with his co-workers and his family, whether it’s talking around the specifics of his work or getting into the simple mechanics of why certain people meet their end at his workplace, it’s difficult not to notice the absurdity of the situation. It also potentially leads to cries of “why is he still there?”, but that turns into another avenue of dread, one far closer to home.
The truly messed-up part of this premise is that, even removed from its violent specifics, it’s a scenario that is all-too-frequent in the workforce across the board. The more a given employee knows about who they work for, the more likely they are to find certain… discrepancies. The people and groups that the work helps keep funded, the actions made to keep the work coming in and out, the blind eyes that get turned whenever something unsavoury pops up that may jeopardise the business; you don’t have to look far to find this going on right under people’s noses.
And much like Kazuhiko, most can’t afford to argue with it. Money is the oil that keeps the machinery moving, and since all humans need sustenance, lodging and a place to be made useful, rejection of the nitty gritty of the system is a luxury outside of the working-class tax bracket. Wrestling with one’s conscience to gather the funds needed to live is a sad state of affairs, but it’s reality. A reality that can be altered, but only through a possession of will, determination, and a willingness to change the system. That’s the weirdest part of all this: for as bleak as it is for its majority of screen time, it also contains a great big ball of optimism by story’s end.