Halfway through, I assumed I'd found the big commercial hit I'd been waiting for from Japanese cinema in 2000 and was wondering why I hadn't heard more about it before. It's a family-friendly comedy with a huge cast that you'd guess might have been adapted from a successful stage farce, like Koki Mitani's films. You could recommend it to anyone. It's funny, with lots of life and eccentric characters.
Then I started getting puzzled. The cast collectively does something insane because it sounds fun, whereupon the audience starts hitting their heads against heavy objects as the film bubbles along as if this was normal and reasonable behaviour. Horrific consequences become ever-more inevitable, but the tone stays entertaining and light-hearted. It's still a good film with some "you must be kidding" laughs, but it doesn't fit. Are these people stupid? (Yes.) Is the film going to cheat and let them chickenshit their way to safety after all? Um, no. It all ends in blood (eh?), but then things get even more perplexing for the coda.
However if you think about it, there's a lot here. Despite its jolly, comedic surface, this is a film with themes.
Firstly, the plot. Surprisingly this isn't a science-fiction film. The title actually refers to an anime of the same name, which is loved by one of three bank robbers (Takeshi Kaneshiro, Masanobu Ando, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). They're not yakuza or anything. They're just idiots, although that doesn't mean they don't have guns. However these punks won't reach their target until the eighteen-minute mark, because the film has a rich supporting cast to introduce. Eri Fukatsu is a bank teller waiting for a surprise party to celebrate her engagement to one of her colleagues (Masatoshi Hamada). Masahiro Komoto is a nerd. The indefatiguable Ren Osugi is a bullying bank manager, making an enemy of a security guard played by former boxing champion Guts Ishimatsu. Not smart. Furthermore that's just the bank staff, while in addition we've got weirdo customers like the clingy Teruo Takeno and the explosively bitchy about-to-divorce couple Sawa Suzuki and Toshio Kakei.
Oh, and there's Ken Watanabe. C'mon, you know Watanabe. He's one of the few Japanese actors who's famous internationally, in films like Batman Begins
, Letters from Iwo Jima
and The Last Samurai. He's also very tall. He's clearly the biggest badass in the movie and my first assumption had been that he was a yakuza. Nope, he's something worse.
Anyway, that's what our three punks are walking into. Will things go to plan? Not a hope in hell. However the important thing is that all this is slick, entertaining and makes for a film that feels bigger and more commercial than most Japanese cinema. It's a large cast, but the film's confident in how it juggles them. Before long the police get involved and our robbers find themselves in a siege with telephone negotiators and SWAT teams waiting outside, which is the point where the hostages start going Stockholm and I found myself headbutting those heavy objects. The film never stops being funny, though. Some of its best jokes come from this twist. It paralysed me to see everyone playing their Space Travelers anime
roles on the telephone to the police, while I don't know why I'm still alive after seeing Masahiro Komoto going outside to collect pizzas in 1970s blaxploitation regalia.
However I still don't buy the story beat. I don't believe that they'd have done that, or at least without someone saying, "Hang on, isn't this going to get us arrested, imprisoned and/or shot?" This is a movie that every so often will have you wondering if they're being clever or dumb. They'll flirt with cliche and overdo the incidental music.
What rescues it is the theme. Maybe. Depending on how charitable you're feeling. You see, it's talking about dreams vs. reality. The bank robbers have a dream, you know. The other people in the bank adopt that dream and make it theirs too, which on the one hand is forehead-slappingly ridiculous but on the other helps them learn new and important things about themselves. The punks' dream may be destroying its dreamers, but it's also going to have mended some other people's lives, thanks to their leader eventually gaining enough self-awareness to push them back to safety. They don't like it, of course. They want to keep clinging to their fantasy... hang on, that anime otaku motif is starting to fit almost too well, isn't it? Anyway, even Osugi and Ishimatsu become better people, despite not being directly involved, thanks to what's metaphorically a homosexual affair. One has to bend over humiliatingly for the other, after which they have a cigarette together, remove excess clothes, say this is better than family responsibilities and eventually go to sleep together.
Anyway, this explains a lot. Ridiculous behaviour doesn't merely fit the theme, but makes it stronger. However I'm not convinced that the script isn't sometimes just being lazy, for instance with those SWAT team tactics that in real life would get all hostages killed.
The acting's good all round, except maybe for Eri Fukatsu. She's okay, but maybe she could have been more convincing.
This is a slightly tricky film to pigeon-hole. It's a big, well directed comedy with a good number of laughs and memorable characterisation right across a large cast. It's basically a strong film, but it's capable of surprising you both with unexpected strengths and lapses. Occasionally it struck me as undercooked, as in for instance the catastrophically bad advice to the squabbling couple (...for the sake of the children??) or else simply the fact that it might be a bit too long. However the theme is surprisingly strong, going right through to the closing credits of that desert island paradise, and I like the fact that it's not as safe and predictable as it looks. The apparently obvious resolutions don't always happen, or else are left implied.
Incidentally there's a Space Travelers anime
spin-off, based on the fictional anime-within-the-movie. That actually is SF. I thought it was undemandingly watchable and even quite fun, but this film's clearly better than that.