The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー, Koki Mitani, 2008)

Magic Hour PosterIf there’s one thing you can say about the work of Japan’s great comedy master Koki Mitani, it’s that he knows his cinema. Nowhere is the abundant love of classic cinema tropes more apparent than in 2008’s The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー) which takes the form of an absurdist meta comedy mixing everything from American ‘20s gangster flicks to film noir and screwball comedy to create the ultimate homage to the golden age of the silver screen.

In classic style the film opens with a bunch of goons chasing a scantily clad club owner out of a hotel window. Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has been hitting the jackpot with the boss’ girl, Mari (Eri Fukatsu), so the two are about to be given a new set of kicks in the latest fashion – cement. Luckily Bingo overhead some of the other guys talking about looking for another gangster, Della Togashi, so he quickly starts talking about him as if he were a long lost friend. The boss, Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida), gives the pair a reprieve on the condition Bingo tracks down Togashi and brings him in within five days. Slight hitch – Bingo had never heard of Togashi before today and has no idea where to start. Finally, with the help  of some of his bar staff he hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part, seeing as no one knows what Togashi looks like. However, the actor, Murata (Koichi Sato), plays his part a little too well and gets hired to work for the gang all the while thinking it’s just a movie! Pretty much everyone is getting a little more than they bargained for…

If you’re thinking that the oddly American looking 1920s street scene looks a little fake and everyone seems to be overacting like crazy, you wouldn’t be wrong but like everything else there’s a reason for that. What originally looks to be the primary setting for the film is a strange bubble which seems to co-exist with the modern world only its filled with people straight out of The Public Enemy or Scarface who think cement shoes is an efficient way of dealing with traitors. Murata, by contrast, is from our world and is completely oblivious to the strangeness of this movie gangster sound stage universe.

Murata is fixated on the Casablanca-esque final scene of his favourite movie in which a dyed in the wool tough guy entrusts the love of his life to a loyal friend before heading off to face certain death. His own career has not been going particularly well and even if he originally turns down Bingo’s offer as working with a first time director on a film where there’s no script sounds pretty fishy to begin with, circumstances soon find him throwing himself into the mysterious leading role with aplomb. Indulging his long held gangster dreams, Murata becomes the archetypal movie hit-man. He’s giving the performance of his life but has no idea there is no film in the camera.

The “Magic Hour” of the title refers to the twilight time near the end of the day when the light is dying but the conditions are perfect for making a movie. Mitani doesn’t fail to remind us we’re watching a film with constant exclamations of “just like a movie” or “doesn’t this look like a film set”. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be – but somehow it all just works despite its rather arch, meta approach. By the point we’ve hit Mari sitting on a crescent moon to give us her rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (we’re back to The Public Enemy again) we’ve hit peak ‘20s though we scarcely mind at all.

Though he is indeed sending a lot of these classic ideas up, there’s real love here particularly for those golden age Hollywood movies with their wounded tough guys and beautiful chorus girls in need of rescue. Mitani adopts a primarily theatrical tone which meshes well with the absurdist, artificial atmosphere but always makes sure to leave us a fair few clues in the way of laughs. However, probably correctly assuming we know these films as well as he does, Mitani doesn’t give us the typical narrative that would almost write itself (or allow Bingo to write it based on his own trips to the motion picture house). The “bad” guy turns out to be not so bad, the “hero” wasn’t who we thought he was and none of our central guys winds up with a girl. Beautifully silly yet intricately constructed, The Magic Hour is another comedy masterpiece from Mitani which is filled with his characteristic warmth, mild sentimentalism and plenty of off-centre humour of the kind only Mitani can come up with.


The Japanese DVD/blu-ray release of The Magic Hour includes English subtitles.

 

Snakes and Earrings (蛇にピアス, Yukio Ninagawa, 2008)

91+iM1s07LL._SL1500_When 21 year old Hitomi Kanehara’s Snakes and Earrings (蛇にピアス, Hebi ni Piasu) was published back in 2003 it took the coveted Akutagawa prize for literature and the country by storm. Its scandalous depictions of the dark and nihilistic sex life of its outsider youngsters outraged and fascinated enough people to get it onto the best seller lists and earn a cinematic adaptation from Japan’s top theatre director Yukio Ninagawa in only his second foray into the world of moving pictures. However, Snakes and Earrings is perhaps that rare instance of an adaptation which clings to closely to its source material as its detached, emotionless and straightforward approach end in something of a miss fire.

Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) is a typical “gyaru” – for those of you reading from the future, this is an “ultra feminine” fashion trend which encourages young women to barbie doll it up to the max. It’s a little strange then when she catches sight of young punk Ama (Kengo Kora) in a nightclub and becomes fascinated with his forked tongue. In actuality, it’s the tongue she falls for, not the guy, but the two become a couple and she moves into his apartment. Before long she too gets a tongue ring and becomes determined on splitting her own tongue as well as getting herself a large tattoo. That’s how she meets Ama’s tattooist friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who becomes equally fascinated with Lui. Lui trades sex with Shiba in return for designing her body art and the two begin an illicit, sado-masochistic affair behind Ama’s back but even after Lui’s tattoo is completed it only sends her further into a spiral of nihilistic self annihilation.

Snakes and Earrings opens with a beautifully shot near silent sequence which pans across the skyline of modern Tokyo picking out the neon lights and advertising boards that proclaim it as a city which belongs to the young. Even when we’re with Lui inside the nightclub, the sound remains muted as young men and women dance to music that we cannot hear – even when Lui spots Ama it’s only the visuals that hang until he comes over and talks to her and we realise she’s had her headphones in the entire time. This sequence is neatly echoed at the film’s conclusion but is, however, something of an anomaly when it comes to the prevailing style of the film which is relentlessly detached and straightforward in approach.

Lui – short for “Louis Vuitton” remains something of a cypher. She’s torn between her two lovers – the punkish dope Ama who would kill for her and the cold, sadistic Shiba who would kill her given half the chance. She doesn’t seem to know what she wants or who she is and quickly loses herself in alcoholism and self disgust. It feels as if there should be more to this – a critique of the emptiness of modern life or the dehumanising effects of the city but all there is is a great nothingness. Perhaps that’s the point, there is nothing to Lui – not even a real name. She possesses no clearly defined identity and therefore does not exist. This is a fine idea, on paper, but does leave a great gaping hole where the protagonist ought to be.

Lui’s two love interests, the oddly vibrant Ama and the restrained Shiba represent two sides of the same thing as Lui is torn between pleasure in pain and pain in love. Kengo Kora does what he can with a thinly defined role which often feels more like a plot device than anything else. Arata Iura fares a little better with the meatier role of Shiba who is accorded more screen time but the film remains resolutely cold and distant. In a minor instance of distraction, Shun Oguri and more prominently Tatsuya Fujiwara turn up as bit players in the roles of two street punks who get into a fight with Ama which is, frankly, baffling.

Though opting for simplistic, straightforward compositions much of Snakes and Earrings is beautifully captured even if deliberately alienating. As in the book, even the frequent, semi-explicit sex scenes are shot in such a matter of fact way as to render them totally neutered, devoid of any kind of sensation. Ultimately, Snakes and Earrings finishes as a noble failure, neatly echoing its heroine’s nihilistic mindset whilst simultaneously failing to engage.


The Hong Kong DVD/blu-ray release (as well as the Japanese blu-ray) of Snakes and Earrings includes English Subtitles.