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Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2004
A parallel universe made in Japan
Although more and more new movie directors are now coming from the worlds of television and advertising, few of them are making the sort of indie-auteur films that characterized the New Wave of the 1990s in Japan.
Instead, they are mostly giving us films that are TV dramas writ large ("Odoru Daisosasen 2"), TV comedy sketches writ large ("Kisarazu Cats Eye") or TV fashion ads writ large ("The Hotel Venus"). Some, such as Kazuaki Kiriya with the retro-future epic "Casshern," are following in the director-as-megalomaniac tradition, while others, such as Eiichiro Hazumi with the coast guard action drama "Umizaru," are only looking to fill multiplex seats.
Taku Tada and Gen Sekiguchi, scriptwriter and director respectively of "Survive Style5+," are in a different category altogether. As makers of clever, surreal ads for Fuji Xerox, Suntory, NTT East Japan, Wowow and a long list of others, they have won industry awards and, more importantly, rung up big sales. Given carte blanche by their backers, they have produced not an auteurist experiment, but a comedy reminiscent of 1967's "Koroshiya no Rakuin (Branded to Kill)" -- the absurdist gang film that famously got Seijun Suzuki fired from the Nikkatsu studio.
"Survive" has none of the darkness of Suzuki's masterpiece, with its feeling of being trapped in a nightmare of fatal infatuation and insidious menace. However, it is similarly brash, loopy and fresh in ways that are undeniably unique and unmistakably Japanese.
Where else is there a pop culture like Japan's, in which the usual brakes of censorship or sanity are either worn thin or gone entirely? Where influences pour in from around the globe, but the end product -- be it a manga, anime or TV ads for canned coffee -- is often little or nothing like its sources? Where imaginations and egos can run riot, as long as the tolerant, curious, but easily bored public continues to watch, listen or read?
Tada and Sekiguchi are both products and producers of that culture as the more serious Japanese filmmakers of the '90s New Wave, studying their Bresson tapes and dreaming of prizes at Cannes, were not. At the same time, they are not former class clowns with clout, indulging themselves at the expense of the audience. They are instead modest sorts, who would rather make their characters breathe and their gags work than impress with their impeccable cool.
As the title implies, there are five main story lines that seem, in the beginning, to exist in parallel universes. In the first and strangest, a husband (Tadanobu Asano) buries his murdered wife (Reika Hashimoto) deep in a forest. When he arrives back at their Swiss villa of a house, with its high ceilings, spacious rooms and extravagant objets d'art, he finds her waiting for him, glaring, gorgeous and very undead. Instead of raging at him, she methodically prepares an enormous breakfast, which he then proceeds to cram down, while she watches intently. Then, possessed of supernatural strength, she beats him to a pulp -- and that's for starters.
Next there is the story of Yoko (Kyoko Koizumi), a hard-charging ad exec who won't take no for an answer. When a big client -- a hen-pecked company president (Sonny Chiba) -- complains that her latest, decidedly bizarre commercial is unsuitable, she goes ballistic. "Ads have to be interesting, or they're nothing." What is her idea of interesting? When a lover proves to be disappointingly quick on the trigger she imagines him competing in an obstacle race -- and beating his competitors in the bed event.
Then there is Kobayashi (Ittoku Kishibe), a salaryman who lucks into tickets for the show of a famous hypnotist (Hiroshi Abe) and takes his regulation-issue adoring wife, cute son and snarky tweener daughter. But something goes horribly wrong onstage -- and poor Kobayashi finds himself a bird trapped in a man's body.
Then there are three punks whose idea of fun in sneaking into strangers' houses -- and they happen to pick the Kobayashis' while they are at the show. Problems ensue when the family returns -- and we learn that one punk (Yoshiyuki Morishita), whose mouth is an orthodontic disaster, has a crush on another (Kanji Tsuda), who is seemingly straight.
Finally, there is a yobbish Brit hit man (tough-guy soccer player turned actor, Vinnie Jones) who goes everywhere, including on his hits, with a shaven-headed, blubbery-mouthed interpreter (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa). His one question, snarled to all and sundry: "What is your function here?"
The function of the various story lines is to astonish, provoke and entertain, while entwining in ways that, by the final act, make exhilarating sense. Even the film's Three Stooges, whose brand of do tabata (knockabout) comedy would usually have me glancing at my watch, are finally more amusing than aggravating, while playing an important, even inspiring, role in the film's cosmology.
Nearly all the characters spring to life in ways that belie their cartoony first impressions. Asano is particularly good as the husband harassed by his undead wife: He's funny the way Buster Keaton was funny, with a blank mug that expresses volumes -- affection as well as fear.
Faced with this crowd, the average director would become frantic, like a juggler with one too many plates in the air. Sekiguchi, with more faith in his material and his own abilities, takes a more relaxed approach, at the risk of overstaying his welcome. (The film clocks in at exactly two hours -- an eternity for a comedy.)
Meanwhile, production designer Shun Yamaguchi has created a world that perfectly reflects Sekiguchi's flamboyantly pop, blithely borderless vision. But unlike Takeo Kimura's work in "Branded to Kill," which was deliriously sui generis (where, I still wonder, did he get that all-white nightclub?), Yamaguchi's is like an American mall at Christmas -- excess piled on blinking, glowing, primary-colored excess. But stripped of its cultural context, the effect is less cloying than playful -- if your idea of play includes body parts shot by their owner across the room like guided missiles.