Production Company: Video Champ, Taki Corporation
Release: 5 April 1997
Length: 102 min.
Format: 35 mm
Director: Aoyama Shinji
Screenplay: Aoyama Shinji, Sato Kumi
Original Story: Kurokawa Hiroyuki
Music: Yamada Isao
Art Director: Takakuwa Michiaki
Editor: Kikuchi Jun’ichi
Sakai Hiroki: Toyohara Kosuke
Tsumura Rie: Natsuo Yuna
Ijima Shigeki: Kunimura Jun
Mizuguchi Kunio: Mitsuishi Ken
Higuchi Seiji: Yajima Ken’ichi
Tsumura Kenzo: Mickey Curtis
The Unexpected Is the Joy of ‘Life’
It almost feels like Aoyama Shinji has been toying with us all along. With three feature films already under this maverick new director’s belt in the year since his debut, he keeps us guessing about what he will do next.
He started off with Helpless (1996), a shockingly amoral evocation of death and nihilistic youth. Then Two Punks (“Chinpira,” 1996), his second movie, dropped the nihilism to beautifully etch the human side of the all-too-fallible world of petty gangsters. But just when we thought we could at least call Aoyama a “serious” director, his new “comedy” Wild Life reminds us that this is a filmmaker who still continues to roam the cinematic savanna, free of the constraints of genre and audience expectation.
It’s hard to say kind of film Wild Life is–an action thriller, comedy, film noir, love story, detective flick, or experimental art film. Perhaps it’s best to call it a jigsaw puzzle since this film comes out of the box all scrambled up and out of chronological order–a story that we, like the jigsaw puzzle-loving hero, have to put together.
The pieces are this: the former boxer Sakai Hiroki (Toyohara Kosuke) is the right-hand man of a pachinko parlor owner named Tsumura Kenzo (Mickey Curtis). One day, Tsumura mysteriously disappears, leaving Hiroki and Tsumura’s daughter Rie (Natsuo Yuna) to figure out what happened. In what might be a related turn of events, Hiroki is confronted by a peanut-munching Kyoto gangster named Ijima (Kunimura Jun) who insists Hiroki pass over an “envelope” about which he knows nothing.
Battling these hoodlums with his hands and solving the mystery with his brains, Hiroki also enlists the help of a couple of foreign hostesses and a gay cop to get to the bottom of a sordid tale of police corruption and revenge–all the while falling in love with Rie.
However, this is not the order in which the events are told. Aoyama’s deft editing pulls us from one point in time to another and his bravura camerawork sometimes gives us two temporalities in the same shot (a technique also used in Two Punks). We move in and out of different points in the tale like on a narrative roller coaster. It is like witnessing a fine pachinko machine at work.
But Wild Life, as its name implies, is by no means a cleanly ordered film. Frankly, those watching probably don’t know quite what to make of it. While the tension and violence of an action thriller are present, they are mixed with a comedic use of kitschy music from the forties and fifties and bizarre characters who just don’t seem to take this all seriously.
However, our uncertainty over what to expect next–whether to laugh or work up a cold sweat–is, in fact, the joy of watching Wild Life.
We also don’t always know if the clues we are given are crucial to the final solution. Aoyama throws a lot in our way which may or may not be significant–such as the mysterious intertitles (“Bigger Than Life,” “As Time Goes By”) vaguely related to other movies, or the ominous shots of a pachinko machine graveyard. In the Hitchcockian tradition, he seems to enjoy leading us on the wrong track.
Aoyama is playing with us, and we should sit back and enjoy it. The pleasure of Wild Life is in seeing professionals at work. The loyalty of the fastidiously skillful Hiroki, who surrounds himself with clocks and always maintains his daily routine, reminds one of the hero of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, and his romantic side of Hammett’s Nick Charles. The whole cast is also a joy to behold, particularly Toyohara and the scene-stealing Kunimura.
But in the end, the true master we are beholding is Aoyama Shinji. Wild Life is his cinematic funhouse, a grab bag of movie tricks and film allusions that is sure to thrill any true film buff. Having been invited to more than a dozen foreign festivals and with his fourth film already in the making, Aoyama’s future is bright–only I think he’ll keep us guessing as to what will come next.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 3 April 1997, p. 8.
Copyright 1997: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow