A member of the Online Film Critics Society, Peter writes for Twitch, the Financial Times, and Rue Morgue. A contributing editor at Metro magazine, and a columnist on blockbuster movies for Screen Education, he also blogs on pop culture at School Library Journal: http://blogs.slj.com/connect-the-pop/. Get too-frequent updates about comics, books, movies, and TV via Twitter: @Peter_GutierrezView all articles by Peter Gutiérrez
The titles alone should tell you that you’ve probably never seen movies exactly like these before: The Rug Cop; World Sinks Except Japan; Executive Koala. All made over the last few years, and now released for Region 1 in appealing, extra-laden DVDs by Synapse Films, these movies should probably be mandatory viewing for anyone interested in (addicted to?) Japanese pop culture. Satirizing both genre conventions and Japanese society itself with a perspective both skewed and heartfelt, director Minoru Kawasaki seems to have staked out some unique territory—quite an achievement since these days I didn’t know there was any left on the movie map.
Of the trio, Executive Koala is easily my favorite although initially I was least interested in it. The title seemed to portend a one-note joke: place a cute, suit-wearing koala at the heart of some huge corporation in order to mock the clichéd elements of Japan’s overheated brand of capitalism. But the film actually turns out to be a mystery, with the workplace mostly serving as a backdrop to all the intrigue. Executive Koala is also spiced with ingredients taken from slasher flicks, martial arts movies, and psychological thrillers (e.g., repressed memories figure prominently). In print such a mixture looks more off-the-wall than it comes across on screen, much to Kawasaki’s credit. Of course the film is extremely silly, too—at one point a frog rather randomly appears as a store cashier—so don’t think you’ll be able to keep a smile off your face despite the “heavy” themes of spousal abuse and corporate malfeasance.
World Sinks Except Japan is a parody of the Japan Sinks films (and novel) that is low on apocalyptic special effects and high on political incorrectness. Skewering both Japan (its male chauvinism, xenophobia, etc.) and the rest of the civilized world (its pompous leaders, Oscar-winning actors, etc.), the film contains many moments of pure delight. The premise is a great one as, following an upheaval in the Earth’s mantle, most landforms become submerged and a massive influx of refugees hits Japan’s shores. But many of the jokes can be seen coming several scenes in advance, such as the top American film actress who resorts to prostitution to earn a living. (At first it’s believed that foreign actors will be in demand for television shows, but it turns out that most of the new immigrants can’t purchase TVs with their worthless, non-yen currency.) It’s entirely possible that the humor quotient alone might cause you to love this film, but for me the uneven acting and herky-jerky pacing prevents World Sinks Except Japan from being a classic of black comedy.
The Rug Cop starts with a priceless stand-alone sequence in which the title character, a toupee-wearing detective, thwarts a bank robbery. And the film’s ending includes an out-of-left-field mega-twist that’s actually somehow satisfying. But in between the two The Rug Cop can be a very bumpy ride. Many of the running gags, even if inspired when first introduced, aren’t followed up on in particularly memorable fashion. For example, our hero joins a squad of misfit cops each known for a single attribute—one is handsome, one short, one well-endowed, an so on—but most of these gimmicky traits don’t impact the storyline or the other characters. Here Kawasaki feels like a child who piles on too many sweets at a buffet line and realizes at a certain point that he hasn’t saved room to devour them all. At other times, the editing gives The Rug Cop an aura of being excessively pleased with itself: reaction shots are held a couple of seconds too long, as if to give the audience a chance to laugh, but the result is usually a net energy loss. Similarly, there is the obligatory scene of the protagonist training with his “weapon” (which he tosses like a flying guillotine expect I’m not sure how it returns to him); it’s hilarious at first, but runs a tad too long, repeating its specifics without offering any surprises.
For all their zaniness, which includes the occasional musical number, Kawasaki’s films are shot in a very straightforward manner—sometimes to a fault. For scenes of dialogue there are plenty of long takes done in two-shots, and generally most angles are eye-level with very little camera movement. In fact, Kawasaki’s directing often has a certain amount of staginess in it—you can sense the actors hitting their marks—which at times adds to the sitcom-like feel of the proceedings. Yet instead of making the films boring, quite often this straight-faced delivery helps enhance the air of the ridiculous, as does the acting styles he coaxes from his casts. As one actor puts it during a special feature on World Sinks, many cast members were instructed to play things straight, as if in a drama, while another contingent was told to act comedically. In the end it’s that juxtaposition that’s effective, creating the odd feeling that, at times, Kawasaki is satirizing satire itself.His penchant for the bizarre and the apocalyptic, plus the way he’s able to make himself comfortable in a variety of genres and put his stamp on them, might prompt some to make a comparison to Takashi Miike. So if you’re inclined to do so yourself, imagine instead Miike developing as an artist on a steady diet of bad TV rather than on David Lynch, and you’ll get a sense of how divergent the two talents are. Moreover, such a comparison does a disservice to Kawasaki, whose ample talents clearly deserve appreciation in their own right.
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