I have wanted to watch this movie since Naoto’s Instagram post about it a year ago. I was watching, waiting for news about it and saw nothing. It was a genuine first for me that there was no updates on the project, despite filming being wrapped and the high profile (at least to me!) cast. Nipponconnection.com once again had the hook up with English subs. I had to view it in one of the most convoluted ways possible via a rental, but it was 100% worth it and that is just me saying that because Naoto and Nozomi Bando were in it.
“Dancing Mary” has a simple at first reading premise. Kenji (Naoto) is a public service officer, who has been handed the unfortunate task of demolishing a haunted dance hall, haunted by Mary (Bando Nozomi) a former dancer. Of course, being that the dance hall is haunted it’s thought that anyone trying to demolish it will be cursed, as embodied by Kenji’s prior co-workers being hospitalized when they tried to evaluate the site. Through a set of circumstances Kenji is eventually introduced to, or more exactly discovers, a high school girl whose a medium (Yamada Aina). The girl manages to contact Mary and not go crazy, discovering that Mary will only leave if the spirit of her lover Johnny (Yoshimura Kaito) is brought to her.
Which I know, sounds absolutely bizarre but it’s actually incredibly powerful as a premise. Especially with the method in which it’s told from; the literal ghosts of the past. With a high school medium and tracking down a long-dead man, a lot of ghosts are in they story. None of them creepy or scary but seeing the variations of them; ghosts of samurai, yakuza, WWII soldiers, and more provide a lot of social commentary about why civil servants often fail the public. Kenji was the timid ‘yes man’ type, who only took the job because it was stable and would let him keep his hobbies. But his encounters with the medium, and then ghosts, slowly help develop his character. When the dead men have more of a backbone then the living, you can see what it means to be alive.
Of course, there’s additional whacky hijinks as Johnny apparently was wrapped up in something much more significant then Mary ever knew. Which of course leads them to Taiwan where they may or may not have to fight off a bunch of Taiwanese mafia ghosts. It’s a strong might be moment, I dunno guys. The story is a strong social commentary, but it’s blended with enough surreal and unexpected moments that help it be palpable to the common man without being overbearing.
There’s a lot of talk about remorse. Especially when we do finally get the full story behind Johnny and Mary. The fact that Johnny never realized how seriously Mary took him. That during life, and even afterwards that she never doubted him. So she fiercely protected the one spot she knew Johnny could find her even in death.
God, I could go one for hours about Bando Nozomi’s performance as Mary. To go to in depth about Mary’s character would ruin an important character reveal, so I won’t. However, the amount of feeling that Bando Nozomi managed to portray in her performance sent shivers down my spine. And being honest she didn’t have the biggest amount of screen time! She was absolutely brilliant, and of course, her choreography was perfect bar none.
Coupled with the story and cast, was an amazing use of black and white verses color. It was a subtle, but brilliant touch that really helped propel the story along without bogging it down with exposition. Coupled with the cinematography of the film, I could go on for hours about framing and lighting in this film. When it just clicks together with the changes between color and black and white, it’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. The literal and then metaphorical usage was top-notch, hands down one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Coupled with the locations throughout Kitakyushu making the story stand out further was amazing.
Of course, I have to talk a little bit about Naoto’s performance. I did find out about this film because of him, and watched it for him. Holy crap has Naoto improved a lot from his last films. He’s way more realistic and natural in his expression and delivery. Not because I am a fan, but because his acting was that believable that I was really sold on Kenji’s story. I have to say he probably also stepped up with Sabu’s direction and the incredibly brilliant supporting cast as well.
I have to say “Dancing Mary” is among the best films I’ve watched this year. It has a fantastic plot, amazing cast, superb cinematography and direction, coupled with some great Kitakyushu locations, with the icing on the cake being the sound design. A must watch if you get the opportunity.