InReview : VIFF
27th Vancouver International Film Festival
September 25 to October 10, 2008
Reviews by Kentaro Ide
Director: Takashi Miike, 2008 (134 min.)
Takashi Miike’s God’s Puzzle begins as a comical fish-out-of-water story of slacker Motokazu (Hayato Ichihara) attending physics classes for his twin brother. Teaming up with reclusive prodigy Saraka (Mitsuki Tanimura), Motokazu becomes entangled in a challenge to recreate the Big Bang. The film’s first half is a humorous take on sibling rivalry, adolescent lust and particle physics, all tied together by the charming performance of Ichihara as a clueless loser way in over his head.
In keeping with the film’s theme of order and chaos, Miike deliberately lets the film’s second half fall apart by creating a farcical disaster movie. Unfortunately, this involves removing the film’s central pillar, Ichihara, for extended lengths of time, leaving no other characters engaging enough to compensate for the film’s self-conscious lack of depth. Even the farce and satire ultimately rely on Ichihara for their biggest punchlines, but by the time the main star returns to save the day, God’s Puzzle has already lost the audience’s attention.
All Around Us
Director: Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008 (140 min.)
Director Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s long-awaited return is an absolute triumph, expertly veering between emotional extremes. All Around Us follows the tumultuous early years of marriage between the tightly wound Shoko (Tae Kimura) and the emotionally adolescent Kanao (Lily Franky). The loss of a baby reveals the underlying frailties of their relationship, and Hashiguchi’s patient portrayal creates characters that the audience comes to truly care for.
Moving swiftly through the years, the film shows the aftereffects of traumas that are left off-screen. Even in Kanao’s job as a courtroom sketch artist, the social decay of 1990s Japan is represented through only the aftermath of some of the period’s most infamous crimes. The effects of these traumas are so vivid that they haunt the film even after Shoko and Kanao begin to patch things together, anchoring scenes of heartfelt happiness with a sense of fragility and pathos. This film is one that lingers long after the closing credits.
Achilles and the Tortoise
Director: Takeshi Kitano, 2008 (119 min.)
The third and final installment of Takeshi Kitano’s surrealist self-explorations, Achilles and the Tortoise is only a mild improvement over its wayward predecessors. Kitano (along with Reo Yoshioka and Yurei Yanagi) plays failed artist Machisu, using his trademark combination of violence and humor to provide a cynical look at modern-day artistic enterprise. Unfortunately, Kitano is unable to restrain his own comedic impulses and ultimately loses sight of the film’s direction.
Machisu’s fruitless efforts to attain fame are portrayed as a long series of gags that, while amusing, run on for far too long. The film’s real punchlines are the scenes of sudden and sobering violence that strongly convey the film’s disillusionment with the pursuit of genuine creativity. But rather than confront and explore the implications of this disillusionment, Kitano repeatedly withdraws into his comfort zone of deadpan gags and slapstick comedy. Achilles and the Tortoise is good for laughs but falters at the prospect of digging deeper into its own themes.
Director: Isamu Hirabayashi, 2008 (25 min.)
Isamu Hirabayashi sets up his short films like magic tricks, engaging his audience with mysteries that gradually reveal themselves. Babin stars a strange man (Keisuke Horibe) buried waist-deep in the forest and chattering to himself and to various creatures. Questions about the man’s identity become almost secondary to his comical okama-esque musings on skin care and nutrition. A silent geologist and a cheeky little boy add to the mystery through their abusive interactions with the man, until the final tearful and gruesome reveal. The result is a surprisingly touching tale of innocence, decay and love.
German + Rain
Director: Satoko Yokohama, 2007 (71 min.)
Several scenes in Satoko Yokohama’s debut film feature the childish antics of three young boys as they scribble on walls and squeak out painful performances on their recorders. These scenes encapsulate German + Rain, a film that starts off promisingly enough but fails to capitalize on the strength of its protagonist, Yoshiko (Yoshimi Nozaki). Nicknamed Gorilla Man, Yoshiko is a short-tempered social misfit who dreams of becoming a famous singer. Nozaki inhabits the role with ease, infusing her character with both angst and innocence.
The film’s youthful energy seems to get the best of Yokohama, as the narrative quickly unravels in multiple directions. For example, we see Yoshiko interview characters about traumatic experiences, blackmail a sexual predator, deal with her estranged and ailing father, and confront her own resentment of her more attractive best friend. These and other narrative threads are handled carelessly and superficially, leaving only the awful sound of screeching recorders to echo in the audience’s memories.
United Red Army
Director: Koji Wakamatsu, 2007 (189 min.)
Koji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army is a haunting historical epic tracing the rise and fall of the Rengo sekigun (URA), a group of communist revolutionaries that formed in late-1960s Japan. The outlaws isolate themselves in the mountains to undergo military training, but their frustration at their own inability to realize their revolutionary ideals soon leads to the group’s violent self-destruction.
The film provides several characters as tenuous emotional anchors, such as the naïve young girl forced to beat herself or the three brothers who betray one another, but the film’s tragedy is in the unraveling of the group’s idealism. Though Wakamatsu does not hesitate to showcase the URA’s brutality, he sentimentalizes their fervor and desire for social change. Though the film is unnecessarily long, particularly in its second act, it is a poignant chronicle of a socially and politically active time that is quickly being forgotten in Japan.
Director: Yukiko Sode, 2007 (87 min.)
There are no heroes in Yukiko Sode’s mime-mime, a blunt and unsentimental depiction of a flawed girl growing up with flawed people. Makoto (Ayaco Niijima) is a jaded young furi-ta (part-time worker) with a sharp tongue and no sympathy for the people in her own life, especially her own family. Encouraged by her inept but well-intentioned friend Nakaji (Masahisa Yamazoe), Makoto reluctantly reevaluates her own personal direction.
Niijima expresses her character’s apathy toward life with a strong level of charisma, drawing the audience’s sympathy despite Makoto’s obvious shortcomings. The film is also full of subtle sequences that vivify the shallowness of Makoto’s friends and family, making her antipathy understandable. In fact, it feels almost unfortunate when Makoto allows herself to be influenced by the unappealingly naive Nakaji. But like its protagonist, mime-mime makes up for its flaws with charm and a headstrong attitude.
Director: Kenji Uchida, 2008 (100 min.)
In After School, director Kenji Uchida addresses the question of what teachers do after school lets out. Uchida’s answer incorporates every student’s wildest theories in a story involving shady yakuza deals, two-faced deceptions, and a damsel in distress. Even while handling numerous characters and some genuinely surprising plot twists, this comedy-thriller skillfully manipulates its audience with humour and mystery.
The clever script is enhanced by a comedic and yet tense rivalry between Jinno (Yo Oizumi), a schoolteacher whose friend Kimura (Masato Sakai) has gone missing, and Kitazawa (Kuranosuke Sasaki), a seedy private detective hired by corporate gangsters to find Kimura. Oizumi in particular portrays the multiple aspects of his character convincingly while also showcasing some old-school physical humor. After School is a crowd-pleasing choice for anyone looking for a fun and entertaining ride.