#Manhole: a taut situational nail-biter

This thriller, about a Tokyo salaryman who finds himself trapped in a manhole, doubles as nifty nerve-jangler and sharp social-media satire, though it trips itself up in the final act.

Nakajima Yuto as Kawamura in #Manhole (2023)
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

Kumakiri Kazuyoshi’s seventh feature, #Manhole, is a minimalist genre exercise that largely lives up to the high-concept purity suggested by its title. This Japanese thriller concerns a man who gets stuck in a manhole, and earns its titular hashtag through effective social-media satire.

On the eve of his wedding, salaryman Kawamura (J-pop star turned actor Nakajima Yuto) enjoys congratulatory drinks in Tokyo’s Shibuya district with colleagues including the firm’s CEO and father of his fiancée, and unsmiling rival Kase (Nagayama Kento). Except for Kase, all Kawamura’s co-workers record video messages wishing him well and send him happily on his way – but soon after leaving them, Kawamura passes out, before waking up at the bottom of a deep manhole.

Kawamura’s desperation is heightened by a gaping leg wound, which he later staples together with the help of the only person he can reach by phone – ex-girlfriend and nurse Mai Kudô (Nao, also a J-pop star), whom he ditched just prior to meeting his fiancée-to-be. Ugly, bloody close-ups of the wound repair recall John Rambo’s DIY triage in First Blood (1982), an acknowledged influence on Kumakiri. It’s an overfamiliar trope, and grates alongside the inventiveness found elsewhere in Okada Michitaka’s smart script.

Kawamura begins a social media account on a Twitter-like app called Pecker with the name Manhole Girl (pretending to be his own sister), under the correct assumption he’ll get more help if users think he’s a young woman in need of saving. The party video is forensically examined by Manhole Girl’s followers, and the piece becomes a gripping whodunit; in recognisable social-media style, innocent people are blamed for Manhole Girl’s predicament and in one case physically hurt. The online amplification of social outrage while Kawamura’s manhole fills with rain and grim liquid from animal carcasses seeping in (presumably from a nearby factory) neatly couples his physical anxiety with wider digital angst. But there is humour to be found too: one tough-talking helper of Manhole Girl is later revealed to be a fresh-faced child, albeit one who’s a mean shot with a bow and arrow. The slippery nature of identity is a key theme throughout.

The sheer outrageousness of the final twist, however, risks undoing the whole project, seeming to belong to another film entirely – indeed, it mirrors a key plot element of arguably the most ridiculous Bond film, Die Another Day (2002). Given the intelligence with which the rest of #Manhole has been executed, it’s a particularly disappointing denouement.