I think Sabu's amazing. No one else makes movies like his. He loves coincidence, the universe being whimsical and the kind of thing that'll happen in real life but isn't usually included in fiction because it's too outrageous. That's stronger in his early films and he's since become more conventional, but even so I have high expectations of Sabu. I expect to be surprised.
This film went beyond those expectations. I was surprised in ways I hadn't anticipated. This film was screened in the main competition section of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival and I wholeheartedly approve.
It stars Kenichi Matsuyama (whom I've never much liked) as the bloke who makes the tea in Heaven. What's more, everyone we see in Heaven is very busy. They're scriptwriters, planning out the lives of everyone on Earth. An unimpressive-looking man proposes to his girlfriend and she says "no" because that's what her scriptwriter's written. (Sometimes we see people's backstories. The film will stop dead to spend five minutes telling us about the latest protagonist, as if we're reading a series bible.) God passes through and tells everyone to be more avant-garde. Suddenly, though, one scriptwriter realises that a nice-but-mute girl is scheduled to be killed.
Chasuke descends to Earth to fix this.
The reviews I've seen of this have been a bit sniffy. I disagree. I think these people are judging the film too conventionally. It's about a protagonist who knows he's at the mercy of bad hack scriptwriters. (Sometimes they're trying to help, admittedly, but sometimes they're definitely not.) It's about the characters in a badly written story trying to resist their fates. One character has a backstory that's plagiarising Titanic, complete with visual homages to the James Cameron film, and Matsuyama comments on this. "All because of a no-talent writer who rips off movies and jumps on trendy bandwagons, Joe has to feel this misery."
This premise opens up unusual possibilities and story directions. When Matsuyama wonders if something's a sign from heaven, that's not metaphorical. His friends up there might be trying to help. When he sees a tragedy, he'll get angry at the lazy bastard in heaven who made it happen. (I'd love to see a fundamentalist Christian deep reading of this film.) To what extent can Matsuyama resist reality? Can he rewrite the script? Can the script rewrite him? The whole film's partly a giant exercise in going places you hadn't seen coming.
There's surreal stuff here that you might see as either random or metaphorical. The Chinese dragons. The white-faced cop. The scene where Matsuyama's out in the street at night and it's deserted except for a line of weird people dancing beside him for no reason. You could read the whole film as meta-commentary on movies (which is common in those reviews I was reading), but you could also easily see it as commentary on religion, or on the arbitrariness of real life and our relationship with fate and the universe. Matsuyama has the option of becoming Jesus. (Sort of, approximately, a bit.) Sabu's been exploring this kind of thing for decades, after all, except that here it's ten times more so.
Kenichi Matsuyama's okay in the lead role and reasonably entertaining to watch, but I still didn't end up liking him any better. As usual, there are little moments where I disagree with what he's doing. These are subtle points, though, and he's basically fine in a deceptively difficult role (as an often non-verbal protagonist who's doing much of his communication via voiceover). That said, though, I think he and Ito Ohno might be part of why the finale isn't quite as strong as it might be. (Ohno's another actor in a role that's making things harder for her, but she's still not projecting as much presence as she might have.) The film's finale is a sort of clash of the scriptwriters, with events going a bit random and arbitrary. This isn't quite what one expects of a movie's conclusion and I'd guess that's part of why not everyone loved the film as much as I did. Personally, I didn't mind it. Sabu's cashing in the Sabu points he'd accumulated over the first 100 minutes. For me, he'd earned the right to do that ending, which after all fits the story he'd been telling. However not all audiences will be as forgiving as I was... and I think Matsuyama and Ohno could perhaps have done more to carry the film, with slightly different choices.
It's a strong cast, though, with Ren Osugi (an old favourite of mine), Susumu Terajima (who's in most of Sabu's films) and Tina Tamashiro (who's got an attention-grabbing face and I immediately went nuts trying to work out where I'd seen her before).
For me, this film was a delight. It's funny and continually going off at some new right angle I hadn't considered. "Bullshit. This screenplay is pure bullshit." It's some kind of Sabu epitome. It stars Kenichi Matsuyama, but I can cope with that. I'm distressed that it doesn't seem to have an English-language DVD release, since I'd been going to give it to my father for his birthday.