To understand what Takashi Miike's doing with this movie, you'll want some background. Japan has racism. They're understated and gentle about it, but there are cultural differences between them and the Brazilian immigrants and understandable hostility between Japan and the area's chief Japan-bashers (China and the Koreas). Japan is fundamentally unlike Western countries. Ethnically and socially it's largely homogeneous and culturally it's a society driven by politeness, respect, unspoken understandings and everyone knowing their place. Furthermore this works more efficiently than the Western model. It has its drawbacks, e.g. Japan's eccentric implementation of democracy and the social pressures that regularly drive people to suicide or murderous rampages, but it's also the reason why Japan has a level of cleanliness, efficiency and technological development that makes Britain (for instance) look creaky and second-rate.
The problem is that this social model isn't very flexible. Lots of badly behaved foreigners, for instance, would... well, they don't break it, but they cause a lot of irritation. Western democracies on the other hand happily absorb immigrants because our societies are based on personal freedom and people doing whatever the hell they want anyway.
Hence Japan's problem with foreigners who don't fit in. In some prefectures you can be legally fired from your job for being an ethnic minority. You've got the Brazilians, who for historical reasons are fairly numerous in Japan and are liable to be loud, Latin and poor. Then you've got all the neighbouring Asian countries, who tend to have strong anti-Japanese prejudices (remembering World War Two) and yet are also full of would-be economic migrants trying to go there. There are lots of Koreans in Japan, but at least they look Japanese. Chinese people don't, although the differences are subtle. There's a lot of hostility, which isn't at all one-way.
The City of Lost Souls is about immigrant communities in Japan, predominantly Brazilian and Chinese. It's also a Takashi Miike film, so it has gangsters and ultra-violence. We're now ready for discussion.
Firstly, we're in Japan, but it doesn't feel like it. You don't often even see shops or street signs to remind you of where you are with Japanese writing. When we're with Brazilians, it feels like Brazil. That informal street wedding for instance is very Latin, with lots of noise and exuberant dancing. For quite a while I was unsure in which country the movie's events were supposedly taking place. Given the Japanese context, this is in-your-face.
Then you've got the fact that the film's explicitly about relationships, both personal and cultural. A Brazilian man (Teah) is in love with a Chinese girl (Michelle Reis), who's about to be deported as an illegal immigrant. Naturally he hijacks a helicopter and machine-guns the bus. (Did I mention that this was a Miike film?) He's a brutal criminal, but driven by love of a woman. The nature of both the Brazilian and Chinese communities are being explicitly studied in the movie, albeit often in a criminal context. Gangsters will test the loyalties of friends and don't even stop at taking children, which is scarier than it would be in a movie by any other director. There are bloodbaths and warring gangsters of three different nationalities, but the most important character is a near-cameo from a prostitute and a little girl who's not even hers.
Next you've got the Japanese yakuza, who'll admit that they're prejudiced and say that it's wrong to have immigrants making your sushi. (Or were those policemen? It's not always easy to tell.) There's a point where someone asks why Chinese and Japanese people can't get along and gets a reply that's appalling, albeit with a core of underlying historical accuracy.
As for languages, this film uses Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Russian and sometimes even, as a lingua franca between people of different communities, Japanese.
This is rich stuff. There's a lot to chew on thematically, enough that you could have regarded it a serious art-house film if it weren't for the machine-guns, grenades, gore, extreme murders and pig-fucking. (We don't see the latter, but it takes place.) This film is out to lunch. More precisely it's another turbo-charged Miike rampage that's clearly capable of absolutely anything, especially if it's ridiculous or physically impossible. That helicopter leap would have killed anyone except the Incredible Hulk and there's no way we're being expected to take it literally. However even that's practically a documentary compared with the Matrix-style CGI cockfights that reminded me of Ray Harryhausen. Have you ever seen a chicken impersonating Keanu Reeves? Well, here's your chance.
I'm starting to see where Happiness of the Katakuris
came from. Admittedly I've seen fanboys whinging that this film isn't quite as twisted and evil as some other Miike gorefests, but personally I can't say I noticed. If it helps, I suppose it's less likely to make you want to vomit up your own intestines than Audition
or Ichi the Killer
This isn't one of the infamous Takashi Miike films that even people who don't know Japanese cinema have probably heard of, but it's fascinating in the way it's combining serious themes and social commentary with Miike's extreme brand of movie-making. It's got a murder being filmed from inside a toilet, complete with floating turds, and a dwarf brushing his teeth with cocaine. This is the kind of trashy-looking material that's got Miike criticized in the past for only being interested in empty shock value, but it's also one of the fiercest examples of why that's a retarded criticism. Incidentally it feels particularly relevant from where I'm sitting right now, with immigration having been a explosive political issue lately in both Britain and America.
"Don't be too merry in someone else's country."