Running time: 92 min.
Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman
Though it’s been 10 years since Naoki Ichio’s first feature, “A Drowning Man”, and “Synchronicity”, some fundamental issues and ideas bind the two. First, there is a consistent plot device. Something happens. Something happens that fundamentally changes a character’s life. In “A Drowning Man”, the main character, Tokio (Shinya Tsukamoto) find his wife, Kumiko (Reiko Kataoka) dead in the bathtub. After a night of not knowing what to do, he passes out in a drunken heap. The next morning, Kumiko, resurrected, helps him up and life continues – but it will never be the same, as much as Tokio may try to maintain it. In “Synchronicity”, the three main characters, Ai, Yuu, and Kei go through some profound something-or-other that changes their lives. In this variation they try to continue on as normal, but every one around them, family, girlfriends, friends knows, but are helpless in what to do.
Chatting with Naoki, he acknowledged that Peter Greenaway is a huge influence on his work, but that he had never seen “The Falls”. This seminal work by Greenaway catalogs of a group of people that had all experienced the Violent Unknown Event (VUE) – something that had changed their lives (mainly by giving them potagium fallitis, a disease that is turning, basically, into birds). In “Synchronicity”, Naoki’s characters may have become angels.
The second binding concern of Naoki’s is surrealism. In a refreshing rejection of the common logic of even the most CGI-laden contemporary productions, Naoki has no fear in throwing a certain illogic into his stories and allowing the film to follow that course. Dream-logic, unreasoned and undefined, allows him to dig deeper into the emotional underpinnings of his strange tales.
Naoki believes that “we…are living in the loneliest age in history.” “A Drowning Man” addressed the problem through a self-purging personal story of a breakup of a relationship. “Synchronicity” throws the net wider, looking at contemporary malaise across the culture.
“Synchronicity” chronicles the live of three characters. Their lives may cross, but they don’t interact. Ai (Machiko Ono) is a concert pianist, in her 20s, living with her parents (played by the genial and ubiquitous character actor, Jun Kumimura and former 1978 Miss Japan/current epitome of Japanese grace, Hiasako Manda). Yuu (Tomohiro Kaku) is a 20-something salaryman already dead-ending in life and relationships. Kei (Hikari Kikuzato) is an unformed high school student, whose emotionally demanding single mother (Yumi Aso) has forced the young Kei into her own emotional retreat.
The film begins with each collapsing is some sort of rapture and coming to, changed in some fundamental but indescribable way. Through most of the film the main three characters drift through in an almost somnambulant state. It seems particularly perverse on the side of Naoki to take the young otaku idoru, Hikari Kikuzato, usually vivacious and kawaii and make her so completely flat. They walk through their lives with visual and audio motifs binding them – images of the sky, a mysterious ugly grey cat – the harbinger of the mysterious event, mirrors that fracture their faces, a beautiful trio of scenes depicting each with analog angel wings. The people in their lives recognize these changes, but have no idea of how to react. Mostly there’s misunderstanding and non-communication, but Ai’s father, also Kei’s school counselor, suggest that what Ai’s going through is what he, and most people, have gone through in their 20s, a certain unease with and ill-fitting into the universe that will pass with time.
Of course, it does pass, but in Naoki’s vision, a mystical – and cinematic – conflation of image and soundtrack brings all the forces at play into a somewhat new-agey symbolic union of Ai and Yuu creating a new “we.” They disappear into heaven. Young Kei, though is left in the world, now completely rearranged. She returns to her mother, only to find herself unrecognized. The remaining supporting characters find themselves in previously unknown situations. Kei eventually finds herself at Ai’s home, Ai’s parents now her own. Life goes on in a new formation and resolution. A final twist, driving to school with her new father, something happens.
Naoki’s oblique explorations into contemporary malaise dabbles with Lacanian notions of psychology, throwing a hodgepodge of symbolic, imaginary and “real” images on screen and in showing that once this malaise/desire is articulated in some way – in Naoki’s almost operatic orchestration of sounds and images at the denouement – that a resolution can happen. He’s also savvy enough and in a tradition of surrealist subversion, willing to playfully cut across most pop psychological notions and stir up the pot with slyly humorous images, dreams within the dream scenarios and scenes that belie much of any interpretation outside the sometimes abstruse logic of the film itself.
The Japanese title of the film, “Shichuu tenshi”, roughly translates to “Angels of the Heart”, but also references the idea of a double suicide. Naoki carefully and stubbornly refuses to give an easy interpretation to his images and ideas. As he says, “I’m not interested in seeking the cause. I am always interested in depicting ourselves symbolically.” The symbolism of his imagery seems broad, but cloaked. Naoki, ever the surrealist, allows the viewer to bring their own dreams to his films, revealing their own desires and interpretations.
Originally published in Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, February 27, 2011