120 min., 2004
Directed by Gen Sekiguchi
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
My rating: ★★★
What is your function in life?
Survive Style 5+ is a movie consisting of five intertwined stories, largely unrelated but somehow all held together by the antics of a murderous but not very competent British hit man played by former footballer Vinnie Jones. The result is a film that is breathless, relentlessly frenetic, surreal, extraordinarily colorful, and very, very funny.
The movie cold opens with a man explaining that he is a killer. This man turns out to be Aman Ishigaki (Tadanobu Asano), who is burying his recently-murdered wife (played with great energy by Reika Hashimoto) out of the back of his Buick station wagon. “When was it,” he asks, “that I first thought of killing my wife?” Standing at the gravesite he sees her twitch, so he beats her with the shovel a while longer for good measure. But after burying her and returning to his house, he finds his wife waiting there. He is very confused. So are we.
The film reminds me of the 2012 film Cloud Atlas, which has the a somewhat similar comic-book visual style and interlaced, loosely connected stories. But unlike Cloud Atlas, which suffers significantly from its own internal view of itself as Literature and Art, the director Gen Sekiguchi does not even attempt to take the material seriously (how could he?), and the result is more of a fun romp than a long, self-indulgent film like the one Cloud Atlas turned out to be. And somehow, the writer, Taku Tada, manages to take all of this and keep it organized and consistent; despite being fantastic and surreal, the film has its own internal logic and nothing in it comes off as being random, unnecessary, or out of place. The stories do hold together in a cohesive whole, and while the whole film does come off as fantastic and weird, nothing comes off as out of place or included just to be bizarre.
In all, there are five increasingly improbable stories incorporated into the film. These stories of the man trying to kill his wife, who repeatedly returns from the dead, an hypnotist and his man chicken, an advertising executive who dreams commercials straight out of Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected, three young thieves discovering their path in life, and, of course, the British hit man. Vinnie Jones goes through the film yelling (through his Japanese sidekick translator, played by the very funny YosiYosi Arakawa) at everyone to tell him what their function is is life—probably to find justification for not killing everyone he sees.
But the real treat of the film is actually the story that starts out seeming to be the least interesting. The stereotypical boring, straight salaryman Kobayashi (Ittoku Kishibe) takes his family to a hypnotist’s show, where we find not only that the hypnotist is the real deal, but also that Kishibe is actually a gifted comic actor with an impeccable sense of timing. He then spends the rest of the film chicken-walking and yelling “Bawk! Bawk!” … expressively, hilariously, and with a great payoff at the end of the film.
Visually, the director Gen Sekiguchi follows the comic book model for sets and colors; actually, the visuals kind of remind me of the over-the-top palette, sets, and models in Speed Racer (another film by the Wachowskis? Hmm.) Both Yoko (the advertising executive, played by Kyoko Koizumi) and Ishigaki live in fantastic, brightly colored houses painted with 60s-hippie imagery, and the three young thieves drive around in Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine – a Volkswagen Bus decked out bright red on the outside and with flowers and beads on the inside. Even the Kobayashi’s suburban house turns out to be brightly colored when we finally see it in daylight.
Unfortunately, not all of the film can keep up this great level of energy. Some scenes drag. One recurring segment has a pair of girls talking at a restaurant; unfortunately they have little to say and it takes several appearances before they connect to the interlocking story. Perhaps the film overall could be improved by some cuts here and there. And I’m not sure what to make of Yoko. I think perhaps the filmmakers wanted her to come off at least to some extent as a character that is doing good work that is simply not respected. Both Sekiguchi and Tada are also work in advertising; it’s likely that Yoko reflects some of their own difficulties pleasing their customers, and therefore they viewed her with sympathy. But the “real” commercial she presents is so ridiculous and over-the-top that, like the company president, I would have had a hard time taking her at all seriously.
Probably the oddest thing, though, is the moral of the movie. A movie like this having a moral is a bit strange, but there’s definitely a moral center. It’s a weird reversal of the Rolling Stones saying “you can’t always get what you want.” This is a movie that says that you can get what you want, but when you do you might find out it’s not what you needed after all.Have You Read...?