Takeshi Kaneshiro is a shinigami (i.e. death god, Grim Reaper, etc.) with the job of deciding whether to go ahead and kill prospective victims or else allow them to live. His only companion is a telepathic dog that talks in subtitles and he loves hanging out in music stores.
It's lovely. I can't think why it isn't better known.
The tone is gentle and compassionate. Kaneshiro doesn't understand humans particularly well, but he tries to do his best for all his clients and he takes his job seriously. The nearest thing I had to a problem was that for quite a while I felt at sea with the film's premise. Does he have a death touch or not? (I think not.) What does his job mean? What's he looking for in his clients? What are his grounds for deciding whether or not to proceed? His scenes with Manami Konishi, for instance, are charming and sometimes even funny, but at the end of the day you can't get away from the fact that he's deciding whether or not to kill this young lady who's never done anything wrong.
What's more, he usually decides to kill. His dog tells us so. Their most common conversation is: "You'll decide to proceed, then?" "Probably."
However it didn't matter that it took me a while to understand. It's a heartwarming film about spiky subject matter, which is fine. You'll just go with the flow. Besides, I don't know if the film would be as strong if we were able to second-guess Kaneshiro's decisions.
He meets various clients. The first is Konishi, who works in an office and has attempted suicide in the past. She's an unhappy lady who lives on her own and wouldn't mind dying. The second is a yakuza. The third is a hairdresser. Each of these is a self-contained story, but they're also connected by threads that eventually resolve surprisingly and movingly. The ending might well make you cry.
It's not an action film, obviously. Everything depends on the performances and how well the characters come alive, with the greatest weight of course resting on Takeshi Kaneshiro. The film lives or dies at his hands. A bad central performance could have made the film unwatchable. He's a dispassionate killer who keeps his clients at arm's length emotionally, which doesn't obviously sound like someone you'd want to follow around for two hours. Fortunately though, Kaneshiro is magnificent. He's sincere, well-meaning, occasionally clueless and has superb comic timing. His occasional inability to misunderstand colloquial Japanese is amusing, although hard to translate into English. Note also the subtleties of Kaneshiro's performance opposite the yakuza, which is completely different from the relationship he created with Konishi even though on the surface he's being exactly the same cheerful, imperturbable death god.
Every so often he'll bump into other shinigami. They wear white gloves to stop themselves from accidentally touching anyone. They like music too.
Kaneshiro's adorable, of course, but obviously the heart of the movie is the humans. It's two parallel stories, really, one looking at the emotional development of the humans and the other doing the same with the shinigami who collects them. I particularly liked the detail in the human stories. That obnoxious, dim yakuza, for instance. Not only is there an explanation of why he says he hates music, but it's a key link in the film's chain of little connections.
This is a comparatively rare Japanese film from Kaneshiro, incidentally. He's half Japanese and half Taiwanese, speaking Mandarin, Taiwanese Hokkien, Japanese, English and Cantonese. He does most of his work in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. He's impressive enough here that I selfishly regret this fact, since I'd have seen more of him if he'd made more Japanese movies.
I was charmed. It's a simple film that I don't want to beat to death by over-analysing, but I thought it was thought-provoking and moving, while also at the same time entertaining. It's no slog. It's fun. You could show it both to your mother and to your teenage brother. I'm sure they'd both enjoy it. I like the way they give the spotlight to Sumiko Fuji (born 1945) in the final act, which means you've got an actress of enormous experience tackling this material and knowing exactly how to play its emotional weight. I've seen this compared with Meet Joe Black, but that film I haven't seen and in any case it was apparently a remake of Death Takes a Holiday.
"You're a shinigami, aren't you?"