Monday, April 16, 2012

Review: Himizu

Disaster Report

Image courtesy of Third Window Films
One remarkable and often uncommented upon strength of the Japanese film industry is their ability to get films made efficiently and quickly. Himizu, for example, is director Sion Sono's third film to receive a Western release in the last twelve months or so, and there's more on the way. Few Western directors would be capable of such feats (bar Woody Allen, and even he moves at a consistent rate of one a year, and at a frequent cost to quality). What sticks out particularly about Himizu, however, is how reactionary it is. It holds the unusual, potentially dubious honour of being Japan's first major post-earthquake movie. Berlinale this year played host to a number of films focusing on the tragedy, but Himizu received it's world premiere last September in Venice: a mere six months after the catastrophe.

The film was, however, almost ready to go prior to the earthquake and tsunami. The original story is based on a manga by Minoru Furuya that conjures up a dystopian near-future Japan. Sono has taken the surprising liberty of transposing that story into the direct aftermath of the March 11. The protagonist of the tale is Sumida (Shota Sometani), a 14-year old high school student whose parents have abandoned him. His mission in life is to simply run the family boat business: his ambition is modest. He's being 'stalked' (her words) by his classmate Chazawa (Fumi Nikaido), and is housing a makeshift refugee camp for a handful of Earthquake survivors outside his land. The yakuza are knocking on his door looking for him to pay his deadbeat father's debt. In the midst of these troubles and society's continued collapse into a state of disorder, Sumida struggles to achieve the blissful normality he dreams of, and ultimately cracks under the various pressures, with murderous consequences.

Fans and critics of Sono's previous films will feel right at home here: there's the same wildly self-indulgent pacing (a notable negative to his condensed writing / editing cycle), the same pitch black humour, the same shocking violence, the same surreal visuals, the same slightly unnerving misogyny, the same cast members (a plethora of cameos and minor roles for his regulars, from DenDen to Mitsuru Fukikoshi), the same repetition, the same insight through insanity. While the film just about passes the two hour mark, making it significantly shorter than his other recent movies, it's still stuffed to the gills with exhausting material. Like Guilty of Romance before it, it can be difficult to grasp the thematic focus of the film and the overall trajectory of the characters as they hurdle off in unusual directions and on bizarre tangents. This isn't light viewing by any stretch of the imagination, and as points are (needlessly?) repeated in the middle stretch any viewer's attention span is going to be challenged.

Yet it's the same repetition and self-indulgence that makes Sion Sono a memorable and distinctive director, and Himizu is a rather remarkable film. Some may argue the sequences of post-tsunami devastation and the blackly comic tone elsewhere are ill-fitting, but the varied tones and imagery create a hyper-real and hypnotic alternate reality of a Japan in chaos. It's impossible to imagine an American director, for example, conjuring such a cynical and dark vision in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. This is far from a sentimental display of patriotism in the face of adversary. Sumida's journey is a dark and unsettling one: a world of casual violence and disorder. Sumida is a heartbreaking anti-hero, especially as he rejects the kindness of others as he tries futilely to carve his own path through life. As a protagonist, it consistently appears as if he's a hopeless case, stuck in a hopeless world.

Yet while the vast majority of the running time makes for grim viewing, what lends Himizu a devastating power is the ever so slight glimmers of hope that seep through the shroud of darkness. Initially, the mildly psychotic Chazawa's pursuit of Sumida seems destined to failure. Yet somewhere, buried deep for the majority of the running time, is the pounding heart of a love story. Not one where the protagonists are ever going to be able to ride off into the sunset, granted, but the energetic, heart-wrenching final act of Himizu means Sono's typical self-indulgence elsewhere is almost entirely forgiven. After a relentlessly cynical two acts, the third's hints of a bright future and a burgeoning generation of young Japanese people is a perfect counterbalance. In a situation that seems so utterly grim and unrelenting, Sono has discovered something deeply human, and a touching reflection of Japan's strong collective spirit in the face of adversary. Like Love Exposure, it's a film where the wild flights of fancy sit side-by-side with a genuinely moving humanity.

Himizu is a film that is destined to divide audiences. Sono attempting to juggle belly laughs and violent jolts, often within seconds of each other, is a difficult balance to maintain. And that's not to mention the still very raw context and content of the film. For many, it will be too much, too soon, and you cannot blame them, especially as they try to contend with Sion Sono's most extreme and challenging eccentricities. But for those who endure, there is a real beauty in Himizu. Hope in seemingly hopeless circumstances: a provocative and powerful message for sure. Sono's rush to get the film out quickly may have come at the detriment of pacing and consistency, but his unwieldy opus is mesmirisingly raw and honest.

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