Did I really say Love/Juice
had an google-unfriendly title? Try this one.
To be honest, I found it a bit boring. However I think that's more or less the point and it's certainly giving you a moral issue to discuss afterwards. It's another low-budget indie film, by the way. Our mild-mannered hero, Daijiro Kawaoka, is riding his motorbike along and minding his own business when suddenly a car of toughs pulls up and starts asking him for directions. He doesn't want to get involved, but he also doesn't want any trouble. Presumably if he just answers their questions, they'll drive on and leave him alone.
This is not a safe assumption. This is a Stockholm Syndrome road movie.
There are only five actors in this movie, not counting cameos from shopkeepers, passers by, etc. The thugs are played (rather well) by the film's writer-director Kazushi Watanabe and two non-actors, Takeo Noro and Ryo Shinmyo. The latter aren't professional actors and this film would be their only screen credit, but I'd never have guessed if I hadn't looked that up. This is a very low-level, naturalistic film and I'd guess they're basically playing themselves, or rather people they know. Besides, one of them never speaks, but instead just drives and beats people up. The scary thing though is that one of the three is basically Kawaoka after enough time has passed for him to have native. He got kidnapped too. Watanabe just took him away from his life one day and never let him go back.
The question being asked is where Kawaoka belongs on this Stockholm Spectrum, which by extension means us as well since Kawaoka is playing a complete milquetoast. I must admit, I found the film's basic premise a little far-fetched. Kawaoka could have probably killed his captors if he'd wanted to, once we're well into the film and they've relaxed enough to let their guard down. If they keep doing silly things like that, sooner or later our antagonists are going to pick up someone who'll finish them off. However I don't think they really care. They're bored. They drive around, randomly hitting people and stealing things as if they've forgotten what it's like to have a life. The film demonstrates this for instance with a half-hour beach sequence in which our characters just sit around and take photographs. Admittedly they also find a fifth friend there (not good), but what they do to him is as random as everything else they say and do.
The freaky (and scary) thing though is that it's based on a real incident. I presume we're not meant to be taking it as a documentary, but even so Watanabe had previously made a short film of the same name in 1996 on the same subject matter, of which this movie is a feature-length remake. That puzzling ending in particular really happened.
As I've said, I found the film a bit boring. Kawaoka is so utterly determined not to stand up for himself or make a choice that in the end it's the defining flaw in his psychology. Meanwhile the mindless routine of driving, robbing, kicking, etc. is understandably a bit dull. Yes, I can see that's the point. However at the same time it's also kind of hypnotic because everything's so realistic and low-key that you identify more closely with the situation. On top of that, I'm also intrigued by the moral and ethical issues associated with Kawaoka's personal journey, particularly those that spring up if you start trying to apportion blame for one particular bloody incident. How much was that his fault? He'd caused the critical situation through his earlier inaction, which in fact was such a clear choice that it has to be called an action. We hardly learn anything about anyone's personal background beyond the claustrophobic world of the thugs' violence, but by the end I think we've come to infer a lot about all of them.
Don't call this a yakuza film, by the way. Yakuza don't behave like that.
It's occasionally a bit scary, if only in the existential sense of "they've stopped at a petrol station and surrounded by people who could help, but nothing's going to happen and they'll all just drive off again." Personally I almost felt that Kawaoka being stopped at the traffic lights was the scariest bit, because at that point it feels like something that could happen to anyone. There's also symbolism, as with the English that's written on people's T-shirts or else the scene in which Kawaoka keeps randomly pulling "angel" cards from some children's sweets while Watanabe keeps getting "devils".
I've seen this film called a comedy, although it never occurred to me to find it funny. Both Kawaoka and Watanabe have respectable acting careers, by the way, while on top of that Watanabe has since managed to write and direct two more films: Space Police (2004) and Captain Tokio (2007). Oh, and he also played the visitor in Takashi Miike's Visitor Q
. As for this film, it's an exercise in minimalism. I think I like it more in hindsight than I did when I was watching it, for whatever that's worth.
I've no idea why it's called 19, though. Strangely there's another Japanese movie called Nineteen, a sci-fi/fantasy from 1987. Don't confuse them.