Sleeping Man*

Gerow, Aaron
Japanase Title: 
Nemuru otoko
Oguri Kohei
Release Date: 
February 3, 1996

Production Company: “Sleeping Man” Production Committee
Release: 1996
Length: 103 min.
Format: 1:1.66
Color: Color


    Director: Oguri Kohei
    Producer: Kodera Hiroyuki
    Screenplay: Oguri Kohei, Kenmochi Kiyoshi
    Photography: Maruike Osamu
    Music: Hosokawa Toshio
    Editor: Ogawa Nobuo


    Takuji: Ahn Sung Gi
    Tia: Christine Hakim
    Kamimura: Yakusho Koji

Oguri’s Deep Sleeper

Oguri Kohei’s Sting of Death (“Shi no toge,” 1991), a masterfully dark portrait of a philandering novelist and his wife he unwittingly drives insane, concludes with the couple slowly preparing themselves for the sleep therapy that will supposedly cure her illness.

Five years later, Oguri’s much-awaited next work, Sleeping Man, begins with the lead character Takuji (Ahn Sung Gi) already in a somnambulant state, having fallen into a coma after an accident in the mountains. The motif of sleep links the two films, but one asks just what it is that must be cured in Sleeping Man?

The much celebrated director’s previous films, Muddy River (“Doro no kawa,” 1981), For Kayako (“Kayako no tame ni,” 1983), and Sting of Death (winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes), have revolved around deeply conflicted characters who must overcome contradictions in the social world.

The exquisite photography of these laconic and deliberately paced works has served both to reflect and concentrate attention on these internal dilemmas.

Sleeping Man, however, marks a change in Oguri’s style. The story is simple, almost non-existent. Takuji’s coma sparks his family and friends in a rural town to confront their relationship with him and with others, such as the Indonesian hostesses who work in a local bar. Yet even when Takuji eventually dies, these tableaux of everyday events and conversations never reach the level of the internal drama of Oguri’s previous films.

It as if cameraman Maruike Osamu’s picture postcard shots of Gunma have overcome the characters to render the film an antidramatic symphony of images.

A cynic would smirk that this is due to the fact that Gunma Prefecture actually financed this film to the tune of 300 million yen, the first time a local government has supported a fiction feature film in Japan.

But it is clear Sleeping Man is not a drama of inner psychology, but of external entities like nature and humanity. Oppositions are not between the characters, but between the larger forces they represent: the moon and the sun and the mountains and the rivers.

The sleeping Takuji, who was a lover of mountains both at home and abroad, is associated with the moon and silence as he nears death. His friends, in fact, try to call him back from the dead by making as much noise as they can. One of these noise makers, Takuji’s best friend Kamimura (Yakusho Koji), increasingly becomes linked with the sun as he basks in a rainbow towards the film’s end.

Oguri has thus left the gritty black and white realism of Osaka’s Muddy River to enter the incredibly colorful world of myth and legend set in his native Gunma. Takuji’s coma, and that which must be cured in Oguri’s cosmology, is less a personal problem than a matter of both celestial and earthly significance. His sleep, it seems, is meant to rectify the natural order and humanity’s place within it, to rejoin the mountains and rivers and bring back the sun to the community (the film begins and ends with the same shot, only the first is at night and the second at day).

Sleeping Man, however, is not in the form of an ancient legend. Myths of the land from bygone days tell of a space confined and enclosed, one which has no outside. On the contrary, Oguri’s Gunma is criss-crossed with markers of the foreign. Takuji the traveler is played by Ahn, a Korean film star, and these cosmic proceedings are born witness to by the hostess Tia, brought to life by the great Indonesian actress Christine Hakim.

Tied to the river and the sea, she is the one who glimpses Takuji’s “ghost” and is spectator to the changes in the mountains.

While featuring the mystic and the mysteriously spiritual, Sleeping Man is fundamentally set in an age of trains and cities, where people move from place to place. In his international humanism, Oguri in the end is offering us a simple, but beautifully told legend for modern times.

Reviewed by Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 15 February 1996, p. 9.

Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow