Veering from scathingly funny to scathingly…scathing, AT THE TERRACE is, overtly an adaptation of a work for the stage as Kenji Yamauchi crafts a film version of his own play. It is heavy on dialogue and light on movement; the entirety of it takes place on the terrace of a party, on which a rotating cast of partygoers plus the soiree’s married hosts exchange pleasantries, which are often entirely unpleasant.
The first interaction falls between the late arriving Mr. Tanoura, an employee of Toyota, and Mrs. Saito or ‘Saito-san’ one of three, which includes her husband and another guest, making for some of the film’s wordplay based banter, and adding to its overall atmosphere of commotion. Exit Saito-san (or enter the house, thus exiting the scene) and enter Mrs. Soejima, wife in the couple playing host. Like a seasoned vixen, she corners Mr. Tanoura over his being taken with Saito–san. While chiding him into confessing his affection, Mrs. Soejima (played by a shrewd Kei Ishabashi) also sets about wooing the hapless Tanoura with her own charms. From the outset her expert gamesmanship is established. Along with these players, there is the other Saito-san, whose gaunt demeanor due to illness makes him unrecognizable to some guests that had met him a year ago, Mr. Soejima, the pompous husband of the party throwing couple, and the Soejimas’ uninhibited son.
What at first is playful soon becomes confrontational, as agendas are revealed. It seems a veritable den of sheep and wolves. Some look to satiate carnal desires that would be taboo in their everyday lives, while others like the sorrowful —san struggle just to survive the night. Hypocrisies abound as the lines of etiquette are danced around.
Shows contradictions between acceptable behavior and that which is actually practiced. It should be obvious to all but the most insensitive of brutes that if abiding by polite conduct, Tanoura‘s initial fancying of a fellow partygoer should be left a private matter. But the attendees seem compelled to go along with the discussion of the matter led by Mrs. Soejima , showing a staunch hierarchy, with the obviously wealthy hosts at the top. Yamauchi’s whip-smart narrative finds tradition clashing with modernized behaviors and interests. When the participants refuse to play by the rules, a spectacular mess of sordid intentions plays out.
Kami Hiraiwa, who plays who plays Haruka Saitama (the Mrs.) does an incredible job of gliding from demure modesty to shameless abandon to hostile indignation. She is the center of an incredible drinking scene that calls upon physical comedy and subtle suggestion, at which she shines brightest amidst a collection of fine performances.
Yamauchi’s manner of revealing information about characters is done in such a way that never feels cheap or unrealistic. It feels as though we have been spending time with characters that have been playing a careful hand in a game routinely played in their social constraints, their cards being shown only when pushed to the point of necessity or exasperation. It is a dizzying thrill, with tensions cooled off by one of the funnier end credit sequences you’ll find in the festival season.
AT THE TERRACE is being shown as part of the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film at The Japan Society on Sunday, July 16 at 6:45 pm. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.