December 8, 2011

Keibetsu (Japan, 2011)

7 years ago Anne Suzuki made a lasting impression in Shunji Iwai’s Hana & Alice (2004). She was perfect as a high school girl desperately in love – so cute, that many didn’t realizes the far more talented Yu Aoi was the real star.

7 years later it comes as a bit if a shock to find Suzuki starring in former pink director Ryuichi Hiroki’s new film. Hiroki, known for realistic and often sexually frank films, had a streak of top quality (Vibrator, 2003; L’amant, 2004, It’s Only Talk, 2005) in the early/mid 2000’s, which made him one of Japan’s most interesting directors. Recently he’s been slumming in more mainstream oriented productions, or, even girl cinema.

(side note: Hiroki’s previous film, The Lightning Tree, starred Yu Aoi. Concidence? Or Hana & Alice fandom?!). Is Keibetsu (which also goes by an English title “The Egoists” that no one’s ever heard of – thankfully so) Hiroki’s return to form?

The film’s storyline at least comes from a fitting source. The original novel was written by Kenji Nakagami (in 1992) whose novels have been adapted into numerous gritty slice of life pics before, including Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s The Youth Killer (1976), Tatsumi Kumashiro’s The Woman with Red Hair (1979), and Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s The Nineteen Year-Old’s Map (1979). Koji Wakamatsu is working on the latest adaptation right now. A good gang for Hiroki to join.

7The film opening does not disappoint. Pretty boy Kazu (Kengo Kora) is a loser and gambler. In order to pay back his debt to the yakuza, he trashes another group’s pole dancing club. While at it, he grabs his favorite pole dancer (Suzuki) with him. Fast forward 10 minutes into the future and the couple decide to take off and start something together outside Tokyo – why not?

Believable? Maybe. Possible? Yes. Fresh and interesting storytelling? Certainly.

Hiroki is a romantic, but his best films are free from plastic cinematic fantasy. He likes to shoot on digital and keep his characters equally edgy, which gives his work a gritty semi-documentary look. Long takes are also favored.

There’s a scene in Keibetsu, between Kora and Suzuki, set in the back room of a strip joint, that is all dialogue. But it’s also 7 minutes of skillful acting, without a single cut. This is a feast of acting – no tricks, no saving edits – even the viewer will have to believe it is real. And what’s best? Suzuki has improved so much since her teen years that she actually can pull it off with no difficulties. Only while on pole she looks slightly lost.

The cinematography comes with a load of standout moments – the Tokyo shots, especially in Shinjuku’s neon lit streets, are beautiful to look at, all captured in HD. But something’s not right. The camera is too often too far. Odd, but true.

Bringing the camera “to the skin” is one of the best “special effects” used in new wave Japanese cinema. It’s perfect with digital HD cinematography – less cinematic make-up on the actors, less invisible safety glass between audience and characters, and more hyper-reality that is more real than the reality. But in Keibetsu cinematographer Atsuhiro Nabeshima (Heaven’s Story, 2010) too often takes distance. It may be the actors’ loss.

The storyline is a bit problematic, too. Kazu and Machi’s run take them to the quiet countryside of Shingu, where the young couple face the local yakuza, as well as the conservative Japanese values. But this is not where Hiroki’s strength is. He’s more of an urban director specializing in lonely people. In Keibetsu, too, the Tokyo segments are superior to most scenes or themes set in the quiet countryside.

Trimming could’ve been applied, especially with the film reaching a 145 minute length in its Director’s Cut form. The original theatrical version ran 10 minutes less, while the theatrical re-release and Japanese home video editions present Hiroki’s full vision. The reported additions – more Suzuki on pole, and a brief visit by AV-star Sora Aoi – are not bad, though. The problems arise from the original cut.

20 minutes trimmed good scenes would follow each other more tightly. But, even in its current form, smaller flaws are easy to forgive when the powerful closing scene hits.

Despite its shortcomings, Keibetsu is an enjoyable film and seems like a careful promise of better things to come – at least, if in his next film, the Akihabara massacre drama River, Hiroki manages to omit the 80’s sobbing ballad “Mune ga itai” (“my chest hurts”) that somehow found its way into Keibetsu’s soundtrack.

Oh, and Anne Suzuki goes topless quite a few times in Keibetsu. Should be mentioned.

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