a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Archive for May 2009

Dainipponjin / 大日本人

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Hitoshi Matsumoto’s 2007 comedy, Dainipponjin (Big Man Japan) was a wildly audacious debut film by one of Japan’s leading comedians. It recently crossed the pond, opening in New York and other metropolitan centers in the USA. It’s a film that makes little sense, lovingly and hilariously refers to one of the main Japanese exports of the postwar years – gigantic city destroying monsters – and slyly scrutinizes a certain Japanese state of being and the spiritual malaise of the post-bubble economy.

Matsumoto is most famous in Japan in being the second half (along with Masatoshi Hamada) of the mansai comedy team, Downtown. Hamada and Matsumoto broke open the traditional world of mansai, in which one of the team plays the boke role – an air headed doofus – against the tsukkome role – the stern and often exasperated corrector of the boke. Think of the classic Abbot and Costello Who’s On First? routine. Downtown upped the ante with a degree of trangressiveness – Hamada was soon nicknamed “the super sadist – and a sense of surrealism and absurdity. They worked their routines with uncompromisingly “rough” Osaka accents. Osaka, being the comedy center of Japan, is where they launched their careers.

Over the years their routines have grown a bit staid, a little less edgy, perhaps owing to the self and network censoring of the TV world. So, when Matsumoto released this ostensible mainstream entertainment, Dai-Nipponjin, he broadsided reduced expectations and delivered a truly strange and wonderful film. It should be noted that Matsumoto does write regular film reviews and has published several books about movies. When Dainipponjin opened in Japan in June, 2007, it beat out Kitano Takeshi’s Kantoku Banzai and doggedly stuck to the number 2 position beneath Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End through that summer.

Using the contemporary trope of mockumentary, Dai-Nipponjin follows the life of an unlikely superhero. Masaru Daisatou (played by Matsumoto) is the sort of fellow who manifests the usual ennui of a contemporary Japanese citizen. Stuck in a cradle-to-grave job, living in an middle-class urban flat, he gets through the day with unwavering routines – eating dried seaweed for breakfast (“It only gets big when you want it to. I like that.”), going to the same ramen shop and always ordering the “super noodles.” He’s a face in the crowd. He’s alienated and bored. So, why is a documentary crew following him around?

It’s because his day job is being a giant superhero. With call from government he goes to a secret site, stands straddling oversized panties and his zapped with electricity. He is transformed into a strangely bulked up behemoth – his hair an absurd fright wig. His job is to battle giant monsters that are attacking Tokyo. It’s a job he inherited from his father, now senile and in a nursing home. Dad still sometimes “powers up,” making himself a public nuisance.

The giant creatures he is called on to vanquish are a doll-headed automaton attached to an bendy tile-toy body who’s sole purpose is to lasso buildings with its bracelet like arm(s), tear them from their moorings and dump them into the Kanda River; a headless plucked chicken-bodied thing with a single eyeball at the end of a really long ropelike “penis” that it throws (rather ineffectively) like a bolo; a smelly, fleshy human-meets-tropical flower whose counterpart, a penis-like variation on the same them, obliviously destroys buildings and roads with its absurd mating dance. Without abandoned, Matsumoto mashes images of traditional folk art and mass production, absurd and grotesque sexuality and whatever strange ideas that he’s pulled from his id to manifest these monsters. The commonality of all these creatures is the singular mindlessness of their endeavor. Whether the act of tearing up buildings, flaunting sexual organs or following the instincts and rituals of mating, nothing else – human lives, cities, culture – is important. Of course, the bland modern cityscape of modern Edo is a perfect stage to play out these “primal” urges. But Matsumoto doesn’t celebrate in the clichés of destruction of the inhuman urban landscape by “natural” forces. Instead, Dainipponjin just as dutifully and one-mindedly dispatches these creatures, who’s defeated carcasses are mysteriously beamed skyward.

Dianipponjin, though meets his match – and more – with the final creature razing Tokyo, a hyper-masculine Mohawked crimson devil with the face of a baby (note: babies in Japan are lovingly referred to as “aka-chan,” a diminutive that loosely means “little red one’). This near mindless manifestation of the ego is like a super-sized two-year old run amuck, whose sole desire is destruction.

The film suddenly makes a left turn. The scene becomes a television set-bound analog of a 60s television show. The city becomes a patently false backdrop. The aka-chan monster becomes a rather frumpy plushy. A quintet of Ultraman-style superheroes appears with a fanfare. The set of new characters are the American Super Justice heroes. With the stilted theatrics of masked wrestlers they proceed to beat up aka-chan, ripping off his clothes and tearing out his stuffing. They invite Dainipponjin to join hands and send a death ray to destroy the baby. Dainipponjin pulls his hand away to see the ray still emanating from the team, his own inclusion being a matter of form rather than effect. The film ends with the American superheroes flying off, carrying our hapless hero into the sky.

Apart from the genuinely funny and absurd situations and characters, Dainipponjin is a rather strange film. The pacing is off-kilter. It jumps from style to style. The main character is so deadpan that he risks any attempt at identification. The fact of its popularity attests not only to the unique comic vision and popularity of the filmmaker, but also to a deeper connection with Japanese audiences on the level of representation of their own reality.

Of course, there is the cliché, adaptable to most contemporary cultures, of urban alienation. However Daisato/Dainipponjin does not fall prey to reflection, rage, depression or any of the possible dramatic (or comedic) reactions expected in such fictions. Instead, with a deer-in-the-headlights look, carries on, somewhat placidly in the routines of life – whether it’s breakfast and lunch or fighting monsters. A traditional Japanese/Buddhist response to the travails of life on this plane is resignation and acceptance. As this world is only a part of a series of reincarnations and new manifestations of being, the issues and problems will pass. In Japan, though, the relentless drive for innovation and new gadgets or merely to the future has created a cultural shock beyond the simple definition of Buddhist acceptance. Witness the rise of otaku culture –where young men refuse to become involved with tradition social interactions (or even marriage), connecting to fantasy cyber-lives while locked in the safety of their rooms. – or the famous apolitical stance of most Japanese citizens.

The fact that his father was once a super-sized hero comments on the older Japanese tradition of familial passing down of trades and of class and place in society. In the new Japan, the old ways still continue. But the reality of taking care of an increasingly aging population becomes a new wrinkle on the old scenario. Japan is beginning to face this issue as its demographics turn toward more old than young people inhabiting this island nation. And particularly since the traditional social contract of cradle-to-grave care and support by companies and the state are disappearing with the rapidly changing face of the capitalist workplace and affects of the worldwide economic collapse. Dainipponjin is no youngster himself and will soon be joining the aging demographic. In the face and actions of his father he sees his own obsolescence and serious doubt about a future with any shred of quality.

The monsters themselves come from the Japanese tradition of Godzilla, a monster born of nuclear holocaust – something the Japanese knew of intimately. Unlike the Mothras and Gameras of the immediate decades of the post-war years, Dianipponjin’s monsters are products of the id, rather than of the mistakes of men and history. 50 years after Godzilla’s birth, the monsters are from the inside, rather than the outside. Ultimately, the super powers of the USA defeat the final terror, but to what end? The self-assurance and power of the interlopers leave Dainipponjin confused and fearful. They carry him away to an uncertain future.

Comedy, at it’s best, reveals the underside, tapping into a cultural id. It finds a way to speak about the unspoken and the things that can’t be said. Japanese culture, even coded into the language itself, thrives on not saying things in a straightforward way. In Japan, permissions, direct address and comments, even anger are spoken in spirals of language, diffusing as it approaches the point. Matsumoto is no different in his approach. Distancing his hero’s story with a fake documentary style, creating an utterly passive character to whom things are done rather himself doing and building a story with simultaneously funny and fearful id-creatures that remain largely unexplained, he throws a new light on a current cultural malaise. It’s no wonder that this odd film received such a positive response in its home country. The function of comedy is to lay open the fear and angst and laugh at and with it. Perhaps even laugh it away in a great catharsis.

As Dainipponjin travels beyond the borders of Japan, it remains to be seen whether Matsumoto has tapped into a more worldwide zeitgeist, or if his work remains more parochial to the Japanese experience. His response to these issues, though, remain firmly Japanese.

Unpublished Essay

Written by Nicholas Vroman

May 16, 2009 at 3:05 am

Goemon / 五衛門

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Kazuaki Kiriya’s free flowing adaptation and expansion on the folk legend of Japan’s own Robin Hood is a big, splashy, garish Hollywood calling card that is mildly coherent (unlike his first epic, Casshern), yet ultimately unsatisfying, even if one’s only desire is to jump into a world of computer generated churning action. Goemon opens on a cleverly cross cut set of character introductions, rooftop chases and a fantasy-filled and fantastic recreation of Azuchi-Momoyama period Japan, introducing Yosuke Eguchi as the handsome and roguish Goemon. The red flags go up as a Luhrmanesque dance sequence follows, featuring sexily clad geisha-ettes bumping and grinding to a contemporary beat. Putting historical inaccuracies aside (Gatling guns in 16th century Japan?), Kiriya’s main problem is making visual and logical sense in his action sequences. And the CGI, though creditable, is fairly derivative in big set pieces and poorly done in several sequences. The wildly convoluted plot highlights some good character actors and in a clever twist, the emperor Hideyoshi Toyotomi, historically portrayed positively, is deliciously evil in Eiji Okuda’s hands.

Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2009

Written by Nicholas Vroman

May 1, 2009 at 11:57 pm

The Code / 暗号

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Kaizo Hayashi has been playfully digging into the conventions of detective and film noir since his first feature, Sleep so as to Dream. Hayashi has recently focused on the internet series Detective Office 5, which served as the testing ground for The Code. The Code opens hilariously with the blowing up of Kawasaki’s Cinecitta megaplex. This MaGuffin is quickly discarded for the introduction of master code breaker Detective 507 and an adventure that leads to modern-day Shanghai, veteran Japanese nationalists trying to get to a hidden fortune in order to relaunch a new imperialist Japan, Triad-type action, plenty of double-crosses and a chance for Shishido Jo, the progenitor of Japanese cool, to bow in with tongue-in-cheek in a stately performance. As 507, Kikunosuke Onoe stars, giving nerd a new cool gloss. Shunsuke Matsuoka and Yosuke Saito fill in with great character roles. The totally preposterous story moves audaciously from an appropriately cheesy 60s TV look and Bondish soundtrack, swerves into a bit of Shanghai Gesture and ends up somewhere between a spaghetti western and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2009

Written by Nicholas Vroman

May 1, 2009 at 12:05 am

Versailles

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A clear-eyed, if somewhat didactic gaze, is given to the homeless and marginal of France in Pierre Schöller ‘s strong debut, Versailles. Opening in the hard streets of Paris, a mother, Nina (Judith Chemla) and her small son, Enzo (Max Baissette de Malglaive) find brief refuge in a homeless shelter near Versailles. Attempting to escape the red tape that would separate them, they enter the woods near the great palace where they meet Damien (Guillaume Depardieu), a recovering addict and ex-con, living in a makeshift shelter. Nina disappears to find work, leaving Enzo in Damien’s reluctant care. The story turns to Damien’s relationship with Enzo. Putting a gloss on the need for self-reliance against an interfering state, Schöller gives emotional form to a social libertarian argument. Max Baissette de Malglaive melts one’s heart with his wide-eyed blank slate performance. Depardieu’s penultimate performance is pitch perfect, capturing a sensitive, rebellious and troubled man coming to terms with responsibility. In a scene where he struggles with pneumonia, Depardieu prefigures his own passing last year from the same disease.

 

Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2009

Written by Nicholas Vroman

May 1, 2009 at 12:03 am

Survivre avec les loups / Misha (Japanese Title)

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Based on the worldwide best-selling book Survivre avec les loups, Misha tells the “true story” of a young Jewish girl who sets off on a 2 year trek across war torn Europe in search of her parents, picked up and disappeared by the Nazis. The unfortunate thing is that the story is a total fabrication, which was revealed last year shortly before the filmed version was due for release. Looking beyond the lack of veracity of the story, Misha is a sentimental mess designed solely to pull at heartstrings while never quite figuring out what it has to say about survival, the terrible legacy of Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism or the nature of innocence in the face of atrocity. Mathilde Goffart as Misha is creditable early on in the film as she witnesses uncomprehendingly this dark history unfolding. But as she wanders the woods, cared for by wolves, descending into hunger, madness and illness she comes off as an uncomfortable parody of a holocaust victim rather than the heroic symbol of survival.

 

Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2009

Written by Nicholas Vroman

May 1, 2009 at 12:02 am