Hiroki Tachibana (Tetsuji Tamayama) was a popular nature photographer with a successful television series, but the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy caused the end of his career. Years later, a request from his mother to photograph her friend triggers in Hiroki a fresh desire to pick up the camera.
Kenji Shibayama, who wrote and directed 2018’s Perfect World, returns with Once Hit the Bottom: an intimate light drama about second chances and finding new directions in life. While there is nothing in its script or direction that provides anything we have not seen before, it does boast a sort of satisfying low-key appeal. Good characters well-played go a long way to overcome its more pedestrian aspects. It seems unlikely that anyone would feel the need to watch it twice, but serviceable does not mean poor. ‘Enjoyable enough’ is exactly that: it can still make a film worth viewing – particularly if you are a fan of any of the featured actors.
The core pleasure of Once Hit the Bottom is its ensemble of various misfits, who meet by chance and eventually live in a share house together. In particular it is interesting to see Hiroki’s interactions with failed make-up designer turned hairdresser Hiroko Seto (Mai Fukagawa) and the irascible divorcee Yoshikazu Miyagawa (Takuma Otoo). Each character has their own problems to face and resolves, and each has things in their life where a housemate can help and things they must do on their own. There is an underlying warmth to most of the plot threads, making for a comfortable and light drama. When Hiroki is led to confront a former producer – and with him his past regrets – the film does descend into exaggerated histrionics. It is a misstep, but a temporary one. The bulk of the film is simply entertainment.
Takuma Otoo seems the film most valuable performer, bringing a good variety of moods to Yoshikazu, both good and bad. We see him at his rude and dismissive worst, and at his enthusiastic best, and Otoo does an excellent job of commencing an an unlikeable antagonist before softening as the movie goes.
The film’s largest barrier to success is its slightly unclear and woolly narrative, that can step into flashback without sufficiently signalling to the audience that the time frame has changed. The result is something that creates a fair bit of confusion, followed by working out events in retrospect. It does not ruin the whole movie, but it does complicate it and makes it an occasional chore.
Once Hit the Bottom, to put it simply, is good when it is good and confusing when it is not. It is severely unlikely that it will see much of a release outside of Japan – I watched it on an international flight from Melbourne to Hanoi – where it at least has the benefit of being based on a popular novel. It is a reasonable diversion when it is put in front of you, but I wouldn’t go hunting for it.