Many viewers look at Bright Future and throw up their hands in
confusion, even those who admire Kurosawa's style. I've thought a lot
about this movie and I don't think its intentions are that obscure,
though I confess it can be inaccessible. It's just that Kurosawa's
approach is VERY contrary to how Westerners understand film.
Bright Future examines the disillusionment of Japanese youth towards
their parents' generation, and, in turn, their parents' feelings of
failure towards their children. Throughout, a poisonous red jellyfish
symbolizes disaffected youth, drifting along silently, not threatening
unless you cross their path.
Namura and Arita are two 20-somethings working at an industrial
laundry. Namura is apathy itself. He cherishes his dreams of a "bright
future," but in his daily life, he barely registers much more than a
blank stare. He's such a loser he even sucks at his few hobbies; the
one time he goes out to an arcade with his upwardly-mobile sister and
her yuppie boyfriend, the boyfriend casually kicks Namura's ass at
games Namura plays constantly. On his lone trips to a nearby bowling
alley, Namura rolls mostly gutters.
Arita, Namura's only friend, is more mysterious, with a placid surface
underneath which lurks hints of menace. Arita's sole hobby is the care
of his pet jellyfish, which he is trying to acclimate to fresh water.
Arita gives the clueless Namura hand signals (thumb inward means
"wait," finger pointing means "go ahead") so he'll avoid doing anything
"crazy." Namura isn't sure what to make of this, but we get hints Arita
is more in tune with prevailing moods. "There's a storm coming," he
The boys' boss at the laundry lamely attempts to court their
friendship, borrowing a CD from Namura and popping up uninvited at
Arita's apartment. There he goes into a pathetic speech about "When I
was your age...", but loses his train of thought and gets caught up
watching cable. Namura and Arita view this middle-aged boy-man with
barely concealed contempt; you can tell they're thinking, "God, is this
what I have to look forward to when I'm 55?" When the boss sticks his
fingers in the jellyfish tank, Arita stops Namura from warning him
about the poison.
The boss, when he learns what could have happened, confronts Arita, who
quits his job the next day. The boss remains friendly to Namura,
throwing the socially inept young man into further confusion. That
night, Namura angrily goes to the boss's house to get his CD, only to
find Arita has been there earlier and murdered the man and his wife.
Arita is arrested but makes no particular attempt at a defense. In
jail, he cordially (but not warmly) greets his estranged father, and
only wants to talk about his jellyfish to Namura, in whom he has
entrusted its care. But when Namura, in a rare emotional outburst,
declares he will "wait 20 years" for Arita's release, Arita coldly
snubs him. Now even more bereft and confused, Namura angrily smashes
the jellyfish tank, inadvertently releasing it into the city canals.
Not long after, Arita hangs himself in his cell, his hand wired into
the "go ahead" signal. Namura regrets his rashness, and is overjoyed to
find the jellyfish still alive. He also strikes up a bond with Arita's
father, who makes a meager living salvaging discarded appliances (a
metaphor for pointlessly hanging onto the past). The father, who hadn't
seen Arita for 5 years before the murders, and who is held in such
disdain by his one other son that the boy has taken his mother's last
name, sees in Namura the chance for a real father-son relationship.
I've concluded that we're supposed to see Arita and Namura as two
different incarnations of the same person. This interpretation would be
consistent with Kurosawa's follow-up, Doppelgänger, whose hero
confronts an arrogant and violent duplicate of himself. Bright Future's
script hints that Kurosawa may have intended this:
At one point Namura says he thinks Arita killed the boss "before I
could do it"; indeed, right before Namura goes to the house, we see him
grab a metal pipe off the street and swing it in wild unfocused rage.
In another scene, we see Arita's ghost(?) watching his father and
Namura. Also, the way Arita's father cherishes his bond with Namura; a
reconciliation after an argument they have plays like the father is
really forgiving Arita and his other son for abandoning him (especially
the father's line "I forgive all of you for everything"). Finally,
Arita's rejection of Namura when Namura declares he'll wait for him in
prison; if Arita is really Namura's "evil doppelgänger," then the
rejection makes good thematic sense. It's Arita's way of saying, "You
idiot, don't you know that as long as you hang onto me, you'll always
be a loser?"
So is Arita the violent, acting-out side of Namura's personality made
flesh, who, once he commits the crime Namura fantasizes about, feels
it's time to give Namura the "go ahead" signal and bow out? An
intriguing possibility, and one certainly in keeping with Kurosawa's
magical realist approach.
The final scenes, in which Namura - saying "I got my go-ahead signal
long ago" - finally decides to stop drifting aimlessly (like the
jellyfish in the tank) and set himself towards the "bright future" he
used to dream of (like the loose jellyfish, now "escaping" from Tokyo
and drifting toward the sea), brings the movie's theme full circle. The
climactic shot of hordes of glowing jellyfish floating down a canal is
a truly stunning image. (And one thematically underscored by its
juxtaposition with the very last shot, of a gang of kids Namura briefly
falls in with, drifting aimlessly down the sidewalk to nowhere in
particular.) The title turns out to be not ironic at all. The young can
have a bright future, but sometimes, you have to know when to wait, and
when to go ahead.