In the last few years, Daigo Matsui has slowly made a name for himself as a young and gifted director. In 2016, he pleased international audiences with his politically charged film, Japanese Girls Never Die. And in 2018, he delivered the highly intimate Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops, that explored in a profound way the subtle pessimism that lingers in youthful minds. Can Daigo Matsui strike gold again with Remain in Twilight?
Many years after they last met, six high-school friends, i.e. Kazuki Yoshio (Ryo Narita), Tetsuya Akashi (Ryuya Wakaba), Taku Sogawa or Sauce (Kenta Hamano), Taisei Tajima or Nej (Kisetsu Fujiwara), Yusaku Mizushima (Rikki Metsugi) and Kinichi Fujita (Kengo Kora), decide to gather again for a friend’s wedding and perform a dance for the bride and groom.
Then, three days before the wedding, at the karaoke bar, Toshio tries to ask his friends if he is not supposed to be dead. Yet, before he can finish his sentence, his friends silence him with their burst of celebratory expressions.
Remain in Twilight might seem to explore how time disintegrates friendships, but in truth Matsui’s narrative offers a somewhat absurd but heartfelt take on the difficulty to accept the loss of a friend in the symbolic, the impact of a lingering sense of guilt, and the importance being able to say goodbye. And even though Matsui’s narrative allows spectators to realize that youthful friendships are, more often than not, built upon an imaginary (and superficial) foundation – i.e. making fun together, his exploration of the interaction between these friends reveals that holding on to the imaginary dynamics of the past is often an attempt to avoid the confrontation with a certain traumatic truth.
It is, already from the very beginning of Remain in Twilight, evident that our friends try to hide how time has changed them. They hide behind the past, by indulging in nostalgic reminiscing and performing their former high-school selves. Yet, the societal demands or lack thereof that guide their current life and the truth of the imaginary quicksand that supports their current and past amicable interactions is easily discernable. The former is subtly underlined by the contrast in their garments and the tension that is created by the repeated references by some to the demands of their work life. The latter is made sensible by Sauce’s casual reveal of his marriage and his fatherhood and his reluctance to divulge more details about his current life with his high-school friends. Later, Tetsuya’s emotional burst of tears, which acts as a subtle invitation to explore something of their shared past at a more inter-subjective level, is playfully silenced by Taisei.
One could state that it is the very act of reminiscing that confronts them with the ‘ravage’ that the passage of time has caused. Rather than allowing them to see what they have gained – the position of businessman, a life of acting combined with part-time work, … etc., they are in danger of being confronted with what they have irretrievably lost. Our friends are first confronted with the dimension of loss when they are unable to find the scar on Tetsuya‘s head. The erasure of this scar, a sign of their amical past in the past, echoes the truth our ‘friends’ are trying to hide, that the imaginary supports of their friendship is highly eroded and that their current amical bonds and interactions are first and foremost a performance. This truth resounds most clearly in the relational tensions and quarrels that arise after the rather embarrassing performance at the marriage party.
The ‘ravage’ of time is, as becomes clear, function of an unsaid truth of Yoshio’s passing. In this sense, one can argue that it is precisely because our friends refuse to let this truth of loss become vocalized that they feel compelled to perform their past amical dynamics of pleasure and reminisce certain joyous moments of their high-school days with each other. These acts are, in other words, the only way to avoid the confrontation with the traumatic event that accelerated the erosion of their amical bonds and installed a certain subjective distance between them. This dynamic of avoidance is most vividly illustrated by subjects like kinichi who throw themselves into their performance, into enacting the pleasures of the past, to silence an intrusive memory – memories foreshadowing the traumatic event – that suddenly took a hold over them.
The personal memories, visualized as flashbacks, vividly underscore that the unspoken truth in Remain in Twilight concerns Yoshio. All flashbacks aim to evoke something about his position within the relational dynamics of our friends. These flashbacks, by beautifully contrasting their interactions of the past with those in the present, allow the spectator to get a decent feel of the performative dimension that marks their current comportment. Yet, the most important result of the concatenation of these personal flashbacks is that our friends, at one point, are forced to allow the truth of Yoshio’s dead and his riddle of his twilight presence to manifest itself in signifiers. How will our friends respond to this sudden vocalized truth? Will they try to diminish the impact of this truth by treating it lightheartedly? Or are they able to face, as subjects, the emotional impact his death has had on them (Narra-note 1)?
One element that, in our view, plays an instrumental role in making Matsui’s composition visually pleasant ishis use of slow floating camera movement (Cine-note 1). Instead of cutting his scene into a variety of shots, Matsui allows his camera to ‘naturally’ follow the unfolding of the interactions. What dictates the cinematographic flow is thus nothing other than the very flow of the speech between characters and the acts that are born from the interplay of signifiers.
Yet, the true source of the naturalism that marks Remain in Twilight does not lie in the composition, but in its performances. The actors expertly utilize their chemistry to give the unfolding of their interactions and speech-acts a realistic flow and their shared past as high-school classmates its genuineness. As spectator, we cannot but believe that these people shared in their high-school days an amicable bond – it oozes from the way they interact with each other.
With Remain in Twilight, Matsui delivers another masterpiece that will long linger in the spectator’s mind. The geniality of Matsui’s narrative lies in his daring choice to infuse some absurd elements into his finale. While such unexpected absurdity would have derailed many narratives by lesser capable directors, Matsui’s masterful handling of this absurdity transforms his story into a highly emotional and moving exploration of the difficulty of accepting loss and the importance of saying goodbye in the symbolic. Matsui might have delivered the best film of the year once again.
Narra-note 1: And, not unimportantly, the guilt some of our friends feel. Let us also note, without spoiling too much, the ability of our friends to accept his death is closely linked with Yoshio’s ability to move on.
Cine-note 1: The flashbacks are composed with more static shots and more cuts. Yet, his flashbacks have the same measured pace as the compositions visualizing the present. And as the narrative progresses, spectators will also notice that Matsui makes more and more use of the cut.