Production Company: Adrenaline Drive Production Committee
Release: 12 June 1999
Length: 112 min.
Format: 35 mm
Director: Yaguchi Shinobu
Screenplay: Yaguchi Shinobu
Photography: Hamada Takashi
Music: Yamamoto Seiichi and Rashinban
Art Director: Yamada Yoshio
Editor: Yaguchi Shinobu
Sato Shizuko: Ishida Hikari
Suzuki Satoru: Ando Masanobu
Six punks: Jovi Javi
Laughing as the World Turns UPSIDE DOWN
When a nicely-dressed woman trips over a rock and tumbles down a steep slope in real life, you usually call for the paramedics, not stand there and laugh. Movie comedy, however, makes you do the opposite. That’s the sinister, almost sadistic side to humor that allows the better comedy directors to go beyond just the laughs to explore the underside of our feigned normalcy.
Yaguchi Shinobu’s characters always seem to fall, but what makes him the most talented comedy filmmaker in Japan today is the fact that he uses that falling to brilliantly turn our world upside down.
In Down the Drain (“Hadashi no pikunikku,” 1992), one mistake by a high school girl starts an avalanche of humorous tragedy for her that not only questions our laughter, but exposes the precariousness of our everyday existence.
If we are all unwittingly walking on the edge of cliff, what Yaguchi revealed in his second film, My Secret Cache (“Himitsu no hanazono,” 1996), was that there was a cauldron of desire at the bottom, a volcano threatening to erupt beneath us. The heroine plummets into a watery hole with a bagful of loot from a bank robbery, gets flushed out, and then spends the rest of the film maniacally trying to recover the cash.
Money in his new Adrenaline Drive also provides the impetus for characters to climb back up after their falls, but by being linked for the first time to romance, it allows Yaguchi to hilariously explore normalcy–and utopia–in a way he hasn’t done before.
Instead of the usual single, blandly normal protagonist, this film has two. Suzuki (Ando Masanobu) works for a rental car agency and is completely lacking in self-assertiveness. Shizuko (her name itself means “quiet one”) is a bespectacled nurse so dully serious she probably hasn’t dated in years.
It is chance and money that changes their lives. Suzuki accidentally bumps a company car into that of a yakuza named Kuroiwa, who drags him off to the gang office to extort some money. A freak gas explosion there leaves everyone but Suzuki and Kuroiwa dead–as well as millions of yen in dirty money available for the taking.
Shizuko (Ishida Hikari ), who was passing by at the time, helps Suzuki, the nearly-dead Kuroiwa, and, by chance, the case of dough, into an ambulance. But the mobster, as if subconsciously programmed to protect the gang’s loot, begins kicking Shizuko and Suzuki out of the vehicle, grabs the wheel, and sends it falling into a river.
Suddenly realizing that the cash is there for the taking, the couple grab it and silently let the ambulance sink.
Money now provides the spark for their transformation. Suzuki finally punches out his boss, Shizuko comes out of her cocoon to don a sexy red dress, and the two leave family and work behind to escape the world that had stifled their potential.
Things, of course, can’t be that good so Kuroiwa and his band of six goofy punks (played by the comedy team Jovi Jova) set out after them. A predictable setup, but what Yaguchi adds to it is the sense that Kuroiwa is not simply a money-mad mobster, but the return of the repressed, a monster set on revenge for being left in the ambulance to die.
Suzuki and Shizuko are tinged with the guilt of trying to kill him, and thus an air of blood, death, and violence hovers around them no matter how much they try to hide it. They can’t seem to escape it; it, as well as the social roles of husband and wife, brother, friend, etcetera, seem to trap them wherever they go.
This and the budding romance between the two young protagonists give Adrenaline Drive’s heroes a complexity not found in the typical single-mindedness of Yaguchi’s previous characters. More than before, he appears to be exploring the human dimension of those regular people thrust into odd situations. He’s not always successful at balancing the humor and the humanity, but this is definitely a work where getting up after the fall is not merely a matter of drive, but of morality too.
Speaking of drive, the movie, as the title suggests, is propelled by an blinding series of plot turns and coincidences with one scene thrillingly hurtling you into the next. The unreality of it all may smack of convention and remind you of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, but Yaguchi shares none of the moralizing attitude towards money of that film.
As with My Secret Cache, money here offers an alternative to bland existence, an opportunity for his characters to escape their restrictive identities. The chance and coincidence, however, make that prospect all the more unreal. While giving us a glance at utopia, Yaguchi always reminds us of the pitfalls that keep us trapped. That, you might say, is his ultimate gag on us.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 17 June 1999, p. 9
Copyright 1999: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow