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by Richard Eisenbeis,

Kaoru Fukusawa is a popular manga artist whose first long-running series has just come to an end. But without his all-consuming work, Kaoru becomes disillusioned with the world around him—from the profit-driven nature of the manga industry to his marriage, where his wife values her work more than him. With his life spiraling more and more out of control the longer he is out of work, Kaoru becomes ever more self-destructive. Will he be able to find what he needs to go on, or will his downfall continue until he has nothing left?

Downfall, adapted from the Inio Asano manga of the same name, is a film that uses one man's midlife crisis to explore the hypocritical nature of both man and the society we have built. On one level, it is about the clash of ideals and reality. Kaoru believes himself to be a highbrow artist—that he created a manga for discerning readers rather than the vapid, unoriginal pandering of other, more popular creators. Even if sales declined a bit as his series continued, it was still a success. Yet, as soon as it wraps up, all his importance and notoriety quickly fade.

Kaoru never truly realized that, while he was focused on the art and the story he wanted to tell, he was alone in that. Everyone else was basically in it for their self-interests. His assistants put up with his squalid lifestyle and poor management to pad their resumes—hoping to one day have the clout and connections to publish their various manga. Meanwhile, his editor and the publisher are only concerned with the money. The moment he's not churning out new chapters, they're quick to move on and spend their time on other money-makers.

It is a damning look at the manga industry from a creator's point of view—that art matters less than money. New and creative niche stories have no place when mass appeal is the main driving force of the industry. So, it's easy to empathize with Kaoru as he is cast aside when it becomes apparent that he is stuck in a rut and won't be putting out a new work anytime soon.

Yet, as the film goes on, it becomes clear that there's a deeper level to what is going on—that it's not only about his ideals crashing against the harsh reality of the billion-dollar manga industry: It's about ego. Kaoru simply thinks he is better than other manga artists—that his work is true art while theirs is derivative drivel. The fact that he can be cast aside so easily spits in the face of that.

Kaoru wants what we all want: to be loved unconditionally. Yet, everyone he goes to in his time of need—be that his best friend or his wife—is likewise too caught up in their own lives to give him what he craves. He is quick to blame everyone for failing him—for continuing on normally while he spirals. But, at the same time, he cannot see his glaring problems.

What he takes away from the events in his life is that romantic or platonic love is transactional rather than unconditional. His wife puts her work first because he shows no interest in her or her life. Meanwhile, the sex worker he sees regularly is only willing to play pretend lovers and dote on him while he keeps paying. All those who fawned over him at work were only doing so for what he brought to the professional relationship. Therefore, the only way Kaoru can get the love he wants from those around him—what he got while he was in the midst of writing a successful manga—is to get over his ego and give them what they want. The question is, is he actually capable of doing so?

Given the pessimistic nature of the film, it should come as no surprise that it can be rather difficult to watch. Kaoru is far from a likable character, and the unvarnished look at the cutthroat manga industry is disheartening, to say the least. However, the film wouldn't be half as impactful if it weren't for the stellar directing of Naoto Takenaka. The film is filled with artistically powerful and creative shots, and much of the plot is conveyed through visual storytelling rather than dialogue or voiceover. The visuals are, in turn, heightened by the film's near absence of background music—significantly adding to the realism and the constant feeling of unease that permeates the film.

In the end, Downfall is an amazing live-action adaptation of a manga. It doesn't fall into the trap of trying to match its source material frame-for-frame, yet neither does it change things to the point that it recklessly discards important plot beats. But more than being a great adaptation, it is a great film—relentlessly delivering the story it wants to tell in a visually creative way. I won't be surprised if this movie becomes a film festival darling. But even if it doesn't, it is certainly worth a watch to anyone with an interest in the darker side of the manga industry and the struggles faced by manga creators.

Downfall will be released in Japanese theaters on March 17, 2023. There is currently no word on a North American release.

Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
Music : B+

+ A look at the cutthroat nature of the manga industry from a manga creator's POV. A deep dive into the darker side of ego and the need to be loved.
Thoroughly unlikable main character whose actions make him hard to connect with.

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