Directed by Shinji Aoyama. 102 mins. Starring Kosuke Toyohara, Mickey Curtis, Jun Kunimura, Taro Suwa, Akiko Izumi, Eiko Nagashima, Yasuaki Takiguchi, Sakai Toshihiro, Yuna Natsuo, Yoichiro Saito, Ken Mitsuishi and Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Wild Life (or WiLd LIFe as some reviewers insist the movie should be called, replete with 'funky' deliberate typos) is a very, very, very strange piece of cinema indeed. With this spoof of bog-standard yakuza eiga genre movies, auteur/director Shinji Aoyama appears to be adding to his reputation as a parodist which began when some critics branded his unusual, brilliantly weird and innovative movie EM-Embalming a pastiche of medical horror genre movies - a label which doesn't necessarily elevate his status in my reckoning, to be honest, and one that threatens to lessen his importance as an interesting recent figure in Japanese arthouse cinema.
Visually, it's a stylish although conventionally shot film - there are no breathtakingly stunning visuals, but it's solid and well-crafted work. Everything looks very slick - great cinematography which is usual for Aoyama's works, and there are some interesting touches that lift certain scenes otherwise lacking in colour or visual interest. For example, within the first few minutes of the movie there's a scene when the lead character and his boss are both making statements to a detective, but instead of having two juxtaposed similar shots, Aoyama has the camera rotate around the detective, changing between the two characters to deliberately disorientate the viewer, and there are lots of similarly unique and innovative shots that are used to good effect. The interesting framing and camerawork is clever and pleasing and the whole piece never looks anything but glossy.
The quality of the acting is also very competent: Mickey Curtis, as the pachinko parlour owner Tsumura, is extremely charismatic and continually steals the show from Kosuke Toyohara, playing the hero and central character Sakai Hiroki. Jun Kunimura displays his always deft sense of comic timing and plays his role as a vicious, crisp-chomping yakuza in a very enjoyable way indeed.
However the soundtrack is cheesy, to put it mildly, and litters the piece with musical stings and the aural equivalent of huge flashing arrows pointing to a giant sign that says "SPOOF!!!!!! SPOOF!!!!!", which is vaguely condescending, slightly irritating and just... not funny.
And that small complaint aside, onto the big one with no further ado. Easily the most infuriating thing about Wild Life is its fragmented, disjointed and unnecessarily convoluted plot. I definitely got the feeling that Aoyama was trying to impress a sense of the central character Hiroki's confusion and disorientation on the audience by chopping up the story's timeframe with an impressive and extensive selection of flashbacks, flash-forwards, ludicrously short intertitles and all kinds of gimmicky tricks. However, it serves to disconnect the viewer from any kind of personal involvement in the characters or the plot, if they are continually trying to puzzle out what's actually happening at any given moment.
And while we're at it, I have to mention the fact that the storyline itself is so brain- warpingly baffling that you tend to find yourself exclaiming "Eh????" loudly on a great many occasions - all of which don't really help the viewer to get a satisfactory insight on what the hell is supposed to be happening. It's not merely non-linear, it's absolutely non-self-explicatory. If you're not concentrating very, very, very hard, you're going to end up feeling more bewildered and dizzy than someone who's just stepped off the Xtermntr 30-loops-in-a-row ride at Alton Towers for the ninth time. If you are concentrating very, very, very hard, you're still going to feel pretty bemused, but you'll have a headache too to add to your woes.
The strangely disassociated and mellow pacing and feel of the movie doesn't exactly help, either: you don't get a sense of the chaos and confusion you should be experiencing from events taking place onscreen - instead, you get a sense that Aoyama is trying to convey Hiroki's own dispassionate and curiously calm personality - displaying his own feelings about what's happening, giving a rather odd sense of contrast rather than stirring up the audience with exciting music and super-speedy cuts a la MTV. Again, it's a thoroughly unusual way of doing things, but for me it detracted from the emotional tenet of the movie and again confused matters which frankly didn't need any more confusion heaped on top. If it's supposed to be an action thriller, it ain't very thrilling.
However, that's not to detract from some of the comedic elements of the movie. There are a few genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, mainly from the delightfully pathetic drunken gay cop character, which do at least inject a little light-heartedness into proceedings, replete with silly sound effects et al which almost makes you wonder if Aoyama hasn't watched a few too many Police Academy movies. And the fact that Kiyoshi Kurosawa has a little cameo as a sharp-dressed high-ranking cop did give me a grin too, particularly since Aoyama and Kurosawa had not long since worked on Kurosawa's slasher flick Guard from the Underground together.
This is as much of the plot as I could possibly pull together and decode, so if certain details aren't quite right, please give me some slack on this - my mind was doing somersaults throughout the first half of the movie ;-)
The action revolves around the employees of a pachinko parlour, and the yakuza surrounding this particular pachinko parlour, which is not only caught right in the centre of a vicious turf war, it's also in the way of the Ozawa gang's plan to build the biggest and best pachinko parlour that the Kanto region has ever seen.
Sakai Hiroki is an ex-boxer who works as a "nail master" - a technician who fixes the little pins in pachinko machines - for the parlour owner, Kenzo Tsumura (Mickey Curtis). The parlour is losing money hand over fist, despite all Hiroki's efforts to improve it with new machines and new technology. However, the yakuza are starting to lean hard on both Hiroki and Tsumura, and worse still, there is a mysterious and shady character hanging about in the wings, Mizuguchi, who it transpires is an old friend and colleague of both Tsumura and Hiroki, and who's gotten himself involved in some very dodgy dealings. This is shown by the fact that neither Tsumura nor Hiroki can go anywhere without getting beaten up by someone's gang of thug sidekicks.
In the midst of all this, Hiroki meets up with Tsumura's beautiful daughter Rie (Yuna Natsuo) who develops a killer crush on him. Not only is she crazy about him, but so is the young gay detective Higuchi, who has been giving them police protection since the yakuza started to muscle in on the pachinko parlour's territory.
Events surrounding Hiroki are sliding into madness and bewilderment: not only are the yakuza tailing him because they think somehow he was involved in Mizuguchi's dealings - which include blackmail of an extremely dangerous character to the tune of 50 million yen by the by, having in his possession an extremely incriminating videotape which clearly implicates somebody very important in some dreadful business - but also because they want the parlour gotten rid of so they can have a corner on the market.
Add to this the fact that the elusive Mizuguchi seems to have connections to everyone - to the gay cop, to Rie, to the mob, to Tsumura's beautiful fiancee Junco who is a club hostess alongside Mizuguchi's girlfriend Catherine - and because of his massively extended network of colleagues and friends who are all interconnected, and thanks to his suicidal criminal acts bringing the gangs into every aspect of everyone's lives, everyone who knows Mizuguchi is caught in a lunatic web of complicity.
Hiroki struggles to uncover the truth by tiny degrees about why he and his colleagues and friends are being systematically destroyed due to someone else's insanity, but will he be able to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Mizuguchi and the videotape, and save everyone caught up in this mess?
Wild Life is undoubtedly an interesting, groundbreaking, unique and clever take on both yakuza genre movies and a startling attempt to rewrite the whole concept of 'moviemaking' in general; but is it an experiment which has succeeded or failed?
I don't know that I can say for certain, or even have a strong opinion about it, to be honest. As a whole work, it inspired little but ambivalence and confusion in me, although some of the comedy elements did work well, and it was undoubtedly awfully clever of Aoyama to shift the dramatic emphasis and dynamic from the conventional central character to a shadowy peripheral character about whom the viewer never really gets to find out much until the last twenty minutes of the film.
Additionally, the plot's lunatic skewing from one timeframe to another would be enough to test most people's patience to its limits. It appears to work in perfect reversal to most movies: convention would normally dictate that a film's plot is unravelled into all the composite elements that lead to the initial situation, and follows the consequences of that situation. In this case, it works backwards: we're presented with all the elements through the progression of the film, working up to a point where the threads are drawn together to form a cohesive explanation. And personally it hurt my brain to try and put all the minutiae together into something meaningful.
Something of the smug and knowing smirk that Aoyama displayed in both this movie and EM-Embalming may well also give his viewers a sense that they're being mocked, which is bound to alienate some people. There are monologues made to camera that are so melodramatic and risible they wouldn't make it onto a Christmas novelty record, among other unsubtle parodic elements like daft sound effects, flying beer cans that knock people out and inappropriate arse-scratching, and it's hard not to feel a bit peeved when the entire premise seems to be one big joke on the audience.
Certainly there's an awful lot to take on board all at once and it's a film which definitely requires more than one viewing - it's not a movie you can watch in a casual way, you have to be sure to dedicate all your attention to it or you'll become hopelessly lost even before the denouement finally unravels... but whether you end up caring about what the end reveals when the loose ends are all ravelled back up is anyone's guess. Brave, mad, idiosyncratic and bewildering - but ultimately unsatisfying.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 5/10
Violence: 3/10. Some well-placed punches and a couple of mob beatings is about the extent of it
Sex: 2/10 - and that only because everyone in the movie has a crush on the hero ;-)
Laughs: 6/10. Points off for the "humorous" music-hall-style sound effects make the final score about 3/10, though
Confusion: there aren't enough points in the world for this one, the zeroes would fill the whole page
Mysterious Envelopes: countless
Red Herrings: countless and smelly
Taro Suwa/Ren Osugi Count: just the one
Buckets of Blood: a thoroughly unsatisfying
Films in a Similar Style: EM-Embalming, any formula yakuza movie as long as you chop it into bits and then put the bits randomly back together with sticky tape
*** Um... Experimental ***
This film is being released by Artsmagic in 2005.
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.artsmagicdvd.com/ and http://www.artsmagic.co.uk - Artsmagic very kindly provided this movie to us for review, and are due to release the DVD in 2005
http://pears.lib.ohio-state.edu/Markus/Review/Films97/Wild.html - a very positive and insightful review by Aaron Gerow
http://www.movieweb.com/dvd/news/news.php?id=8047 - another enthusiastic review, this time from Movieweb
http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=249789 - a short synopsis at the New York Times