Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them. This episode: Japan, December 2014.
Monoglot Movie Club last visited Japan in 2012. (See MMC: Japanese Screens for details.) Back then, I mainly discussed the kind of domestic cinema that wouldn’t normally make it over to the UK, plus one film that was pretty much guaranteed an international release. (That was the Ring reboot, Sadako 3D. No, you didn’t miss it at your local multiplex, that was just me being wrong.) This time, I’ve got just two films to report back on – hey, we were busy, it was Christmas. Both of them are from Japanese directors with an established international reputation, but I’m not going to make any predictions regarding the chance of you ever seeing them yourself.
The first of those directors (and almost certainly the lesser known of the two) is Yuya Ishii. For a while there, as his quirky comedies were being given Western titles like Sawako Decides and Mitsuko Delivers, it felt like someone somewhere was trying to apply a Robert Ludlum-style standardisation across his oeuvre. That run was broken by his 2012 film The Great Passage, presumably because nobody would want to see a film about a dictionary editor titled Mitsuya Lexicographises. As for his latest work, The Vancouver Asahi? Well, if they wanted to bring that standard back, they could legitimately go with Reggie Bunts.
It’s the early thirties or thereabouts, and Japanese are heading over in their droves to Canada to make a living. It’s a hard life: they have to take on menial jobs as sawmill workers or service staff, and suffer the ire of Canadians, notoriously the most racist people in the world. They’re forced to live in their own purpose-built ghetto on the outskirts of town. Worst of all, they have to support the Vancouver Asahi, a collection of Japanese immigrants that’s been assembled into the crappiest baseball team in the local league. Can their new captain Reggie Kasahara (Satoshi Tsumabuki) turn their fortunes around? Well, yes, he can, by introducing something the English language papers start referring to as ‘brain ball’, but which looks to the untrained eye a lot like ‘taking the piss’. (Those papers are a Godsend to a non-Japanese viewer, of course. They’re also responsible for me discovering a use for the word ‘bunt’ outside of the context of Monty Python’s Travel Agent sketch.)
If this had been directed by Ishii six years ago, the Asahi would have stayed rubbish for the duration of the film, but by the end they would have become more at ease with their lack of ability. Sadly, Ishii’s taken a more traditional sports picture route. (In his defence, this is based on a true story, and changing it so that the team didn’t get any better probably wasn’t an option.) Over the years that Ishii’s been making movies, the quirky – bordering on massively irritating – tendencies of his characters have been filed down bit by bit, as his work has become more commercial. Some sort of sweet spot was reached in The Great Passage, which used its quirks to leaven what could have been a dull story about the creation of a new dictionary.
This film, though, could have been made by anyone. You realise how much of Ishii’s appeal is down to the verbal tics of his characters, and how you lose that without an English language translation. He just about keeps control of this massive production, only occasionally losing it in the overblown CGI establishing shots and the weak direction of the English speaking cast. (The sawmill boss, in particular, seems to have just been told “sound evil. No, more evil than that.”) And most of the racial subtext is dumped on the minor character of Reggie’s sister Emi, who suffers the most explicit prejudice but whose story never reaches any sort of resolution.
Still, as a sports story with a predictable arc, it’s fun to watch: and Ishii gives it some depth by making sure sufficient time is devoted to what happened after the Asahi’s final match. But there’s definite evidence of an individual talent being crushed by its absorption into the mainstream studio system. Does that always have to be the case? Well, there’s usually an exception that proves the rule. And as is so often the case in Japanese cinema, the name we give to that exception is Takashi Miike. Here’s the trailer for his new film for the same studio, As The Gods Command.
Yeah, that’s probably not safe for work, sorry. The funny thing is, you’re probably hoping that the next paragraph is going to give you a synopsis of the film which will allow that collection of images to resolve into some sort of sense. Allow me to disappoint you.
As The Gods Command (or whatever they decide to call it in the West – I’ve also seen As God Says being used in more monotheistic territories) starts much the same way as that trailer does. We’re thrown into a schoolroom where the class is taking part in a game of statues, with two twists. Firstly, the lead player is a traditional Japanese doll known as a daruma: secondly, if he turns round and catches you moving, your head explodes. This proceeds for the best part of ten minutes without explanation, until the class is whittled down to a single survivor, Shun Takahata (Sota Fukushi). His relief at getting through the ordeal is short-lived, because this turns out to be merely an elimination round: he discovers himself to be one of a group of half a dozen teens competing in an X-rated Crystal Maze, where characters and icons from Japanese folklore introduce massively gory variants on traditional schoolyard games.
Shortly after coming out of the Tokyo multiplex that was showing Gods, I sent a tweet to my editor with the message “today I saw possibly the most demented film Takashi Miike has ever made, and I need to write about it,” and I swear I could hear his
erection (let’s go with ‘enthusiasm’ – ed.) from ten thousand kilometres away. On reflection, I think it’s actually something more subtle: Miike’s made a film that’s going to be utterly impenetrable to his Western fanbase, because it relies on such a wide-ranging knowledge of Japanese culture. There are some references that are easy enough to grasp – for example, the maneki-neko welcoming cat that we all know and love from Asian restaurants, here stretched to twenty feet tall and with a paw that can squish you. But some of the other figures depicted here will be utterly unfamiliar to most of us. And that’s before we get to the games themselves, which play entirely differently to an audience who doesn’t know the originals they’re based on – you end up reverse engineering the rules of the game in your head, once you’ve seen what the outcome is. (For those of you following the parallels with the gamification of Hollywood cinema, you’ll be pleased to hear that just like Christopher Nolan’s last three movies, there’s a ‘snow level’ in this one too.)
You’ll notice that I’ve said nothing yet about why this is all happening. There’s a reason for that. In the occasional glimpses we get of the world outside the gaming arena, we learn that this scenario is being repeated worldwide: we discover that a large white cube is hovering just next to the top of Tokyo Tower: and we’re shown several mysterious cutaways to a scruffy man barricaded inside his bedroom. And then in literally the final seconds of the film, there’s a line of spoken narration – I missed it, obviously, but my Japanese-speaking viewing companion caught it – which reveals a crucial fact about a character who up until now has had around 45 seconds of screen time. This line doesn’t actually solve the puzzle: but if I’ve interpreted it correctly, it opens up a whole series of possible scenarios that weren’t even in the running a few seconds earlier.
Yes, I know that all sounds cryptic. And I can’t tell you if it’s cryptic because of the language barrier, cultural differences, sophisticated plotting, or cack-handed storytelling, all of which are possibilities. But sometimes, as the Korean man said to the Jew in a Coen brothers film, you have to “accept the mystery.” And if you’re prepared to go with the manic flow, this just might be Miike’s best film in ages. Certainly it’s the first one in a while that doesn’t feel overstretched at its current length. In fact, it’s a better bet that you’ll be demanding more when the credits roll, for one reason or another.
Obviously, Christmas in a Japanese multiplex is much like Christmas in any other multiplex on planet Earth, with all the usual Western franchises taking up a lot of screen space (including an early release for the Japanese-influenced Big Hero 6, here retitled as Baymax). There were still plenty of other Japanese films out there, but we didn’t really have time to investigate them further. I’ll leave you with the trailer for one that got away from us: Yokai Watch, which during our visit racked up the highest-grossing opening weekend of any Japanese movie this century. Based on a Nintendo 3DS game – hooray, my title still works – it feels like the real-world equivalent of the Japanese animation that sent the Simpsons into epileptic fits. If you thought the trailer above was manic, wait till you see this one…