The Blue Danube (Japan, 2020) [JAPAN CUTS 2021]

The first thing one will notice with The Blue Danube is the deadpan expression from its actors. But this isn’t the deadpan one can usually see from American indie: Akira Ikeda directed the film in this tone and in the most unapologetically theatrical sense. Due to its theatricality, the film presents a weird liveliness in that it that contrasts the deadpan expressions from its actors. This would have provided a great balance, but how it approaches its confused and mixed thematic concerns over war, bureaucracy and politics makes the film walk on a deadly tight rope. Its bound to lose its balance due to the shaky foundation of its commentary.

Th­­­­e absurd and being absurd are the things most contemporary arthouse films tend to exploit thematically. The Blue Danube grasps that by commenting on the repetitiveness of the never-ending fictitious war its world has found itself in. We follow Tsuyuki (Kou Maehara), who wakes up to go to war against a town on the other side of the river. Tsuyuki lives a ritualistic life, which involves waking up, going to work, and going home on schedule.

The unit where Tsuyuki belongs is being commanded by the town mayor of Tsuhiramachi (Naoto Takenaka) whose introduction exposes the first conflict the film has selected – the town mayor is introduced as one who self-consciously does not know why the war is happening. On the surface, this seems to be the film’s first hit against what it wants to criticize. However, the mayor’s self-consciousness poses a problem to the whole framework. If, as the film wants to depict it, generally everybody here does not know what the war is for, then there’s really no point in the awakening of the characters. While this is meant to be satirical, the deadpan approach erases any trace of humor that may have exuded from this very moment that casts suspicion as to the whole film’s knowledge of its own subject matter.

This begs the question: where is Ikeda coming from with all of this? His approach is undoubtedly a fresh take on the period-war genre. But his war comes from nowhere. Ikeda’s take on war and bureaucracy is way too general to even pin down its allegorical function, if it has any allegory at all. If it is a satire, one can never be sure what is it a satire of. The war is fictitious after all.  

One can’t even make a case of absurdism. Tsuyuki later got transferred to the music band unit of the military, and this is where the film made its case of contradiction between war and music. Being in the band saved Tsuyuki from being in the fore front of violence. We are presented with a fresher tone that does away for a moment the monotony of Tsuhiramachi’s bureaucracy. Suddenly, it’s not so absurd anymore. Music has painted hope and life for Tsuyuki as he starts to play with a stranger across the river playing a piece by Bach with him.

Where does The Blue Danube leads us? Having too much generalization and vague commentaries on humanity does not really do the film any favor. It only lands on very simplistic understanding on what should have been a very complicated matter such as war. Initially, war-versus-music or war-versus-love dichotomies are presented. After losing a hand in a combat, Tsuyuki’s neighbor, Fujima (Hiroki Konno) finds love with his superior’s former lover which, later would have been a reason for leaving the town. Like Fujima, the film seems to try to avoid any sort of further complication on its subject matter and instead leaves its commentaries too general to even matter.

Ikeda’s writing and direction seems symptomatic of contemporary global arthouse’s cynicism to anything that is meaningful. His deadpan approach, while at times humorous, further adds to the avoidance of meaningful resolution. Ultimately, the fictitious war of Tsuhiramachi leads The Blue Danube to an even more fictitious message.

The Blue Danube was streamed in the U.S. from August 20 to September 2 as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film.

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