Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (Takashi Miike, 2006)

Ryuhei Matsuda as Jun Ariyoshi in Takashi Miike's Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006).

I recently rewatched Takashi Miike’s Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006). A film that I did like on my first viewing but at the same time felt more as an observer of than drawn into. Also, I wasn’t able to make much sense of just about everything in the film except the pretty straight forward murder mystery at the center of the plot, so when I sat down with it the second time, I figured that I’d try to find some possible meaning in the film. Something that would mean something to me, personally, at least.

The film starts with Kenichi Endo, who plays one of the detectives in the film, supposedly reading from the script and describing the place where the prison that everything takes place in is located. A place so far away in space that when the light from earth hits it, you’re able to see into the past. A hundred, a thousand or ten thousand years into the past, depending on which way you look. Turn this light on Tokyo in 2005 and an alternate reality is created, a place outside of time, this is where the prison exists.

A boy is asked what kind of man he wants to be, and the answer is expressed in an animalistic dance. The boy grows up to be Shiro (Masanobu Ando), strong and violent. He arrives in the prison at the same time as Jun (Ryuhei Matsuda), Shiro’s opposite, but they are both convicted of murder. Shiro for beating a man to death out of anger and Jun for killing a man who possibly raped him, but it’s uncertain if it really was in self defense, since he stayed in the hotel room where the murder took place to keep beating the corpse several times and it’s implied that he followed the man there by his own will.

While Jun and Shiro seem to be exact opposites, there are some things that point to them being the same. The question of what kind of man to be is perhaps one clue, making Shiro and Jun two sides of the same man, or same human. While Shiro is violent, Jun is calm, when Jun is bullied in the cafeteria Shiro comes to his rescue, but as soon as Shiro gets the attention of the others it’s like Jun isn’t even there anymore, totally ignored by eveyone and after the fight it’s Jun who is in solitary confinement bleeding, with the dancer from the beginning is staring back at him. When Shiro gets farming detail, Jun gets to do laundry, combined with each of their behaviour it’s easy to do draw the stereotypical parallell of male/female, not only as opposites but as parts of the same being. It is a stretch though that they would be the same physical being since they are both acknowledged as individuals by the other prisoners, but in Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, physical accuracy seems to take a backseat to representations.

Perhaps the prison could be seen as a kind of childhood, where Jun and Shiro’s entry dressed in bloodied whites can be seen as a kind of rebirth from the regular world, and a new kind of innocence, even though the warden says that their crimes will never be forgotten. Jun felt like he was locked up in the modern world too, where he was abused by adults, and now he’s locked up in another kind of society, governed by adults. The prison is where they decide what kind of humans they want to be. When the two police officers are discussing Shiro’s background, they say that he’s been through horrible things as a child, but they never go into detail. One can only guess that he was also abused. When Jun walks into their cell, he literally sees a child looking out the barred up window, when it’s actually Shiro standing there, and outside the prison there’s a rocketship and a pyramid, maybe representing science and religion but also something that could be from a child’s fantasy.

Even though both Shiro and Jun bring their respective personalitites into prison, prison also turns out to be a place where roles are shed and their true selfs come out. Several times it’s shown that the violence and aggressiveness of Shiro is just a front and inside he’s still a child and at one point it’s said that no news from the outside world gets into the prison making it even more reminiscent of childhood.

If the prison is indeed childhood and the prisoners are children the guards and especially the warden must be seen as the adults. One thing that confirms this is that the warden (Ryo Ishibashi), even though Shiro raped his wife which caused her to commit suicide, puts his feelings of wanting to kill Shiro aside because even if he is husband to his wife, he’s also a civil servant.

There is also the question of guilt, fate versus choice. Violence goes in cycles, it's unavoidable if you're stuck in it. The warden says that he’s essentially powerless, he can’t help anyone. Those who reform do so out of the goodness of their own heart. It is also said that even if there are people who come out right from something like what Shiro has gone through, you can’t really blame those who don’t. When Jun brings out the guilt in Shiro for the crimes he commited, Shiro can’t handle it, his guilt turns him into a child but all the abuse has made him unable to handle his feelings. The original title, 4,6 billion years of love, suggests fate has brought Shiro and Jun together, that their love has existed since the beginning of time and that everything that has happened since then has lead up to their meeting in prison, like a butterfly effect. There even is a butterfly showing up in some scenes.

Masanobu Ando as Shiro Kazuki.

When Shiro’s dead body is found with Jun on top of it with his hands around Shiro’s throat, Jun claims that he’s the one who did it, possibly because his love brought out the child in Shiro which Shiro couldn’t handle so he commited a kind of suicide.

If all this sounds like confused ramblings it’s because the film does confuse me. Miike strips the scenery down to just lines on the floor in some scenes, like if to make you focus on the meaning instead of emotions. At other times he uses scenery that is more like something out of a Seijun Suzuki film, screaming for attention. The biggest problem for me, is to find a way to tie all of this together, and watching the interview with Miike on the Animeigo dvd might explain why. According to Miike the film was made with the intention of making a non-theme film, using the sets as a way to make the audience think critically about what they are watching, without there being any real meaning behind it. I have to say, as an experiment it worked, but I can’t help feel a little cheated. Miike also says though that the best way of watching the film might be while drifting in and out of sleep, experiencing it like a dream.

There are many more things in the film that could be interpreted, one is the conversation about heaven and space between Jun and Shiro out by the pyramid and rocketship. Climbing the pyramid takes you to heaven, going on the rocketship takes you to space, nothingness, there are less people there. Which one is to prefer? Maybe Shiro, in the end, just made his choice.

I think I was closer to the point the first time I watched it than I am now.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Miike Double Feature: Detective Story (2007) and God's Puzzle (2008)

Hayato Ichihara and Mitsuki Tanimura in Takashi Miike's God's Puzzle (2008).

Two films by Takashi Miike that has recently been released with english subtitles that both feel like something he could have made ten years ago. Personally, I don't feel that Miike's new direction that fans sometimes complain about is all that different from what he used to do, he just has more money to do it now but that doesn't stop him from churning out a few v-cinema flicks now and then. It's also easy to see the connections between films like Crows Zero (2007) and Crows Zero II (2009) and earlier works like the two Young Thugs (1997-1998) films and The Way To Fight (1996) and the line of existential questions going through Izo (2004), Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006) and God's Puzzle (2008), although Izo is probably the film that started what some would call Miike's decline.

Miike has always been all over the map when it comes to genres, he's been doing dramas, comedies and just about every variation of a yakuza film imaginable, the genre he's probably most famous for among casual fans, horror, is one where he has worked the least, so seeing him make more family oriented films shouldn't come as a huge surprise. And at the same time as he's been making films like Zebraman (2004), The Great Yokai War (2005) and Yatterman (2009) he's made Waru (2006), Sun Scarred (2006), Like A Dragon (2007) and Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) among others. I feel as if Miike is just moving forward by expanding his line of work while at the same time he keeps in touch with his roots.

Strange looking characters in Miike's Detective Story (2007).

Detective Story is a straight-to-video (apparantely it did play a few theaters) gory horror/crime comedy about a former policeman now working as a detective, Raita Kazama, played by Kazuya Nakayama, who gets involved in the case of a woman being murdered the same night as she has visited his home to ask for his help. Naturally, the detetive becomes the suspect. To make matters worse different possessions of his starts to pop up at the murder sites as more bodies start piling up. The only other connection between between the victims is their interest in a mysterious artist named Yuki Aoyama who paints in blood and ground up meat. To his help, the detective has his two assistants and a newly moved in neighbor who shares his first name and who's a computer wiz who is reluctantly drawn into helping Raita No. 1 with the case.

The film turns into a bizarre crime mystery, mostly because of the mix of gore and weird sense of humor and the overacting by Nakayama in the lead. There just doesn't seem to be any other reason for his weird behaviour other than that he's a just a big kid inside who refuses to realize that he's grown up, which might explain his clothes. This is nothing new though for a Miike film produced by Hisao Maki, the man behind the Bodyguard Kiba (1994-1995) films, Silver (1999), Family (2001). As a product of a Miike-Maki collaboration, Detective Story still fares pretty well. Even though it's a bit too silly to be taken seriously as a crimethriller it is still fairly entertaining and Nakayama's odd performance is fun to watch. At least Maki settled for a tiny cameo as a police chief in this one instead of playing the hero's martial arts mentor and having a meaningless fight scene spliced into the middle of the film. It's hard to imagine that Maki also produced Miike's contemplative homoerotic prison drama Big Bang Love, Juvenile A.

Ryuhei Matsuda and Masanobu Ando in Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006).

God's Puzzle is a bigger film than Detective Story, produced by Haruki Kadokawa. The premise isn't really that complicated, Kiichi is about to graduate from university but decides to go on vacation, sending his delinquent twin brother, Motokazu, to physics class in his place since all he needs to graduate is the attendance and since all Motokazu has to do is sit there, it won't be a problem that he doesn't know the first thing about physics. Things get complicated when he actually shows up in class and a teacher asks him to encourage another student to come to class, isolated girl genius Saraka. She agrees on the condition that Motokazu helps her with a science project, to figure out what the nothingness that our universe was created out of consisted of and to try to create a new universe.

Now the english subtitles on the Malaysian dvd are pretty bad, so this is where things get shakey. The first half of the film is mostly physics talk about particles, energies and theories about how the universe was created and what would happen if man was actually able to create a universe. Would it create a black hole that would swallow our own universe? If man were able to create such things, would there be any need for a god and would scientifically proving that everything that is needed to create a universe and what is contained in the nothingness out of which our universe was born is right under our noses also prove that there is no god? But God's Puzzle also deals with the troubles of youth, growing up and finding out who you are and dealing with the unwanted expectations of others, things that are close to heart of Saraka who was concieved as a "manmade" test tube baby.

Although I enjoyed just about every minute of God's Puzzle, there are some weaknesses. Hayato Ichihara's Riki Takeuchi like mugging and screaming of every line does get a bit annoying sometimes and at 133 minutes it feels a bit overlong, with the disaster movie ending actually feeling more drawn out than the first part of the film, but it's all saved in one of the greatest moments in Miike film history. In spirit, acting and setting it was reminiscent of his early Osaka films but with a sci-fi twist.

While Detective Story shows that Miike, despite making big budget blockbusters now, is still not above getting knee-deep in blood and guts and v-cinema filmmaking, God's Puzzle proves that he also, while making bigger films, can bring together all the energies that made some of his early work so great.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Malaysian Gods (Amir Muhammad, 2009)

Poster for Amir Muhammad's 2009 documentary Malaysian Gods.

In 1998 the deputy prime minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, was arrested and later sentenced for corruption and sodomy. This caused widespread anti-government protests and Anwar was seen as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

Amir Muhammad's documentary, Malaysian Gods, recaps the events of 1998 by using text screens and by visiting the sites where the protests took place, interviewing random people there about how their lives have changed since the protests and what they think have changed in society. All of the interviews are in Tamil language, the Tamils constitute the major part of Malaysia's Indian minority that makes up for 8% of the population.

While things does seem to have changed, a lot of things remain the same. In 2007 protests against governmental policies favouring ethnic malays took place and the organisation behind them HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Force) was declared illegal in 2008. Also in 2008, Anwar Ibrahim, who after being released from prison in 2004 has become leader of the political opposition in Malaysia, was once again brought in for questioning about charges of sodomy.

These events are shown in both a ciritcal and a humorous light and while it does feel like Malaysian Gods is only scratching the surface it keeps Malaysia from becoming just another exotic location in other films.