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'The Box Man' Cannot Be Contained


Courtesy of the Berlin International Film Festival / The Box Man Film Partners

Watching Gakuryu Ishii’s The Box Man near midnight at the tail end of a long day of press screenings at Berlinale may have been a foolhardy — yet in a strange way, ideal — setting to watch the film. An ambitious affair where in a sense, the way it wears you out into a feverish dream with its oddball central conceit and execution, makes it compelling, though also quite frustrating, in its messy scope.


To describe The Box Man in passing is quite the challenge in itself, where our protagonist, the nameless Myself (Masatoshi Nagase), aims to achieve the peak form of human condition in his world which is apparently a “Box Man”, someone who wanders around the city in a cardboard box, looking at the world through a peephole. 


Myself puts himself to task, living up to the ways of the Box Man in a tattered box and jotting down notes in an equally worn out notebook on his journey. He eventually crosses paths with Fake Doctor (Tadanobu Asano), who designates himself as the heel to Myself and his ambitions; the domineering General (Koichi Sato); and a mysterious nurse, Yoko (Ayana Shiramoto). 


If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. To say that chaos ensues is putting it mildly, and unfortunately, the film does buckle under the burden of its premise, and exemplifies why the novel the film’s based on was long considered unfilmable.


The Box Man seeks to grapple with dilemmas of identity and psychology, and offer critiques of society. Long winding conversations between characters are weaved throughout the film, discussing the supposed meaning of what it means to be a Box Man against surreal, random sequences of this practice. 


At times, the jumbled nature of the storytelling makes it hard to decipher among the shifting narrative tones. The film excels best when it’s at its most instinctual and visceral. Some very striking visual motifs involving the use of the Box Man make for memorable images, and there are some rather spectacular action sequences where Myself and Fake Doctor go toe to toe in a raucous shoot up while wearing cardboard boxes. These sequences are exhilarating and help keep one engaged even when there’s a struggle to pinpoint exactly what’s going on. 


By sheer force of will, The Box Man gets your attention with its quirky premise and bursts of inspiring sequences, and there’s something quite admirable in how the gestation of a 32 year passion project by director Ishii has finally come to fruition. It might not work all the time and the chaos leaves much unclear, but there’s no denying there’s a compelling nature to all the messiness. 

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