There is a point early on in Dreams for Sale, just as the story is beginning to find its way into a familiar destructive-depression groove, when every bit of logic in your brain tells you that A will happen to these characters as they move into the next act; or at least B will happen, certainly. Film being what it is these days, that’s usually the width of story options we’ve come to expect. So when Z happens instead, it takes moment to settle back down and readjust your brain.
The Z in question comes after an accidental fire burns down the sushi restaurant that husband and wife duo Kanya (Sadado Abe) and Satoko (Takako Matsu) have gone into serious debt to build and make a success. Though the customers all make it out alive, the only thing left from the fire is Kanya’s chef’s knife and the huge burden of the debt.
Kanya, depressed and feeling like he’s dragging everyone around him down with him, begins to withdraw from life, especially from Satoko, who offers him her meager life savings to help pay off their debt. In a final bout of blind self-harm, he finds himself alone in a hotel room with Rei, a friend who has just come into a thick envelope of money, a bribe so her paramour’s wife doesn’t find out. Initially upset over how he came into the money, Satoko decides against divorce and comes up with a different idea: to use Kanya’s charm on other women (women she thinks deserve it), for other thick envelopes of cash to pay off their debt, or better yet: to start up a new restaurant.
That sidestep of the obvious story path is down to the film’s writer-director, Miwa Nishikawa, who spent parts of her early career working as an assistant Hirokazu Koreeda, who gave her a boost when he produced her first film, another twisty family drama called Wild Berries. Like Koreeda himself, Nishikawa has a knack for taking a straightforward and giving it a little flip, creating a new and unexpected experience.
In Dreams for Sale, part of the drama comes from a little flip of Cyrano, with Satoko taking the behind the scenes role, puppeteering Kanya through some of the more emotionally manipulative moments of their con spree. Though he seems to take naturally to defrauding these women, Kanya ultimately struggles with his conscience in certain situations. This mark one of the few truly accessible emotional avenues for the audience to enter in and see through his eyes for a little.
As you watch it, the film does occasionally feel meandering as it delves into Satoko’s lonely everyday life while Kanya is off his other women, but in retrospect these are some of the more interesting moments that the film offers. They drive home Satoko’s disconnection, as if she herself doesn’t quite believe this is the life she’s living now and can’t find a comfortable position in it. Dreams for Sale is a pure character study. It’s a difficult film, with a difficult culmination, but it’s one made with a keen eye and a steady hand.