Sono Sion’s 1990 debut feature is a coming-of-age story heavily influenced by the then newly fashionable minimalist style, but with a few distinctive quirks. Sono himself plays Shiro, one of three friends hanging around delivering newspapers while they study for their college entrance exams. Shiro’s best friend, Keita (Sugiyama Masahiro), is under family pressure to become a doctor and pines after an old girlfriend (Yamamoto Hiroko). Shiro is ambivalent about college; he just wants Keita to help him finish the short film the two were working on in high school, a film which Keita claims not to remember. It’s in this film-within-a-film that Bicycle Sighs is most alive: Shot in a sepia-toned Super 8 with pre-modern special effects, it’s about a group of friends who play baseball and who conjure an imaginary runner to round out the team. The runner (who wears a trench coat and a Godzilla mask) becomes real and eventually admonishes them to keep moving forward, to stretch first base out into the unimaginable distance. The short is beautiful, but Shiro wants to add a second act, a goofy sci-fi conspiracy story set around the rusted-out playground the friends call home. Keita isn’t interested. Sono will deftly blend imagery from the short into the primary narrative, transforming an off-beat but still realistic story into an increasingly abstract one of metaphorically blunt scenes of alienation and despair.
Like Tsai Ming-liang and Jia Zhangke, Sono is particularly attuned to the importance of sound and off-screen space in minimalist filmmaking. The rattle of a matchbox is repeatedly linked to the rumbling of a distant train and the clickety-clack of bicycle spokes, the soundtrack of his cluttered and dilapidated industrial hometown. Bicycles suffer terrible damage, but always off-screen (one buried and resurrected bike disintegrates in a series of cuts, like a Méliès trick). Absence and elision increasingly dominate the second half of the film, as in a long sequence-shot in which Shiro’s sister, Katako (Kawanishi Hiromi), returns home carrying a makeshift flag, flying a large pair of boxer shorts. The camera pans as she rounds the outside of the house, enters and goes to her room. It lingers on an empty hallway while a mother’s voice orders an army of giggling children to “go play with Katako,” and then reverses its pan as Katako re-emerges with a new flag — a tie-dyed banner bearing the character for “Me” and climbs a tree up and out of frame. The camera remains fixed as Shiro climbs up after her and attempts to talk her down. This sequence wouldn’t be out of place in a Tsai film — though it’s hard to imagine Lee Kang-sheng doing something so obvious as literally flying the flag of his self.
Shiro later adopts his own “Me” flag, wandering the streets alone on his birthday (which is New Year’s Day, because of course), while Keita becomes catatonically unhinged, paralyzed by his ex-girlfriend, who haunts him with a movie camera, and his family, who wear ape masks. It culminates with Shiro and Keita on a long bicycle journey, following the first base line laid out by the imaginary runner, and ends in an unseen fire, just a few feet shy of the ocean, at the end of the earth.