Two men see each other across a busy street. They were once the best of friends, but they haven’t seen each other much since college. They share a meal, catch up on old times, and park a few blocks away from where the Prime Minister’s motorcade will be heading down the main street of Sendai. That’s when Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka) reluctantly explains to Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) all of the following: he impregnated a slot jockey, fell into massive debt, and went to the yakuza to bail him out. His final assignment: bring Aoyagi to the site of the Prime Minister’s assassination, to let him be this plot’s Lee Harvey Oswald.
Before Aoyagi can ask any follow-up questions, a bomb explodes (both literally and figuratively), and he’s on the run. The propulsive opening scenes of Golden Slumber introduce a film that’s unwilling to pigeonhole itself in any genre. Part conspiracy thriller, part action, part comedy, and part romantic drama, writer/director Yoshihiro Nakamura does a great job balancing tonal shifts that would have seemed jarring or unearned in less skilled hands.
Why Aoyagi? As characters frequently point out throughout the film, it’s all about image. Two years earlier, the mild-mannered deliveryman became a minor celebrity when he rescued pop star Rinka (Shihori Kanjiya) from a burglar. Aoyagi eventually theorizes that people like it when a hero falls from grace. Suddenly, Aoyagi finds himself teaming up with a mobster (Yasushi Hodogaya) and a serial killer (Gaku Hamada) in order to elude authorities and attempt to clear his name.
In the midst of the chaos is a much more complex story about friendships in decay. Years ago, in college, Aoyagi and Morita formed the Food Culture Research Club with friends Haruko (Yuko Takeuchi) and Kazu (Gekidan Hitori). Well-utilized flashbacks explore the closeness of their past and contrast it—quite starkly, at times—with their present-day fragmentation. Although they all remain in Sendai, their lives have pushed them away from each other. The assassination conspiracy forces Aoyagi to return to Haruko and Kazu for help. Nakamura shows no fear in portraying this as a difficult, awkward experience for all involved. This is a group with many unresolved issues, which need to be confronted head-on in order for Aoyagi to survive. For the characters, this dynamic serves as a wonderful core that instantly makes them more interesting than they would be otherwise.
Mostly, though, the film is a fast-paced thriller with some great comedic moments. Take, for instance, the moment a terrified Aoyagi returns to his apartment to watch news coverage of the assassination. He learns the Prime Minister was killed by a bomb planted inside a radio-controlled helicopter. “The assassin,” the newsreader declares, “must be very experienced with RC helicopters.” The film then cuts to Aoyagi’s reaction, and for the first time we discover a wall filled with RC helicopters. They, of course, belong to his girlfriend (Saki Aibu), whom Morita has warned him not to trust. “Has she ever told you to hand out flyers?” he asked Aoyagi, deftly referencing Lee Harvey Oswald’s alleged activism.
The film also includes one of the most novel character traits I’ve ever seen in a chase-filled thriller: the main character is a deliveryman, with unparalleled knowledge of Sendai’s nooks and crannies. As a criminal, Aoyagi’s inept—because he’s not one—but a deliveryman is probably the only “citizen” who could flee the authorities with such resourcefulness.
Golden Slumber, for all its charms, is just a tad overstuffed with subplots and characters. It overstays its welcome at 140 minutes, but not by much. Moments and even entire characters could be cut without impacting the story, but it’s still a tremendously entertaining film. Even the extraneous material form pieces in a large, eminently satisfying puzzle.