Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Love & Peace (2015)

As an outsider to a given country's popular culture, it's easy to see some unusual trends when you do dip your toes into said culture. One of the stranger aspects I've encountered in the Japanese movies and television shows that I've actually seen is the story line of someone--usually a child--having a beloved pet turtle that everyone around them conspires to force them to get rid of, particularly parents and authority figures.

The Gamera series sees this happen twice  in the original series alone, in Gamera The Giant Monster and Gamera The Super Monster, and there's the truly inexplicable "Grow Up, Little Turtle!" episode of Ultra Q. Naturally, Sion Sono's Love & Peace is another film that follows this bizarre pattern, though it does so in a way that is far closer to a feature-length Ultra Q episode than a Gamera film.

However, even that doesn't describe this film adequately. This is a rock and roll romantic fairy tale with living toys and a kaiju-sized turtle at its heart.

It's also disturbingly fitting that I saw this film the day that David Bowie passed away.
Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a loser. Once upon a time, he was an aspiring musician, but nobody came to his concerts. It's now the summer of 2015 and he has become a clerk at a company that sells parts for musical instruments. (The compnay has the English word "Piece" in its name, which can only be intentional) Everybody laughs at Ryoichi--his coworkers, fellow commuters, and even the talking heads on television take time out from talking about the 2020 Olympics in Japan to point and laugh at him or interview people on the street about how much of a loser he is.

Even automatic doors and elevators think Ryoichi is beneath contempt. The only person or object that doesn't mock him mercilessly is his mousy coworker, Yuko Terajima (Kumiko Aso). One day, when Ryoichi is doubled over from stomach pain, Yuko not only pulls off the "Hazardous Waste" sign a coworker stuck to his back, but offers him a blister pack of pink pills to ease his stomach. Ryoichi doesn't take them, but instead keeps them as a treasure--one of the only forms of affection he has received in ages.

Exchanging Pepto-Bismol is probably how most office romances start, really.
However, that's all going to change in a way that Ryoichi--and everyone around him--could not possibly see coming. One day, while eating lunch alone on a rooftop, Ryoichi sees a strange man selling little turtles out of a dingy little tank and goes to investigate. Upon sighting an adorable, smiley turtle that looks up at him with what seems to be a smile, Ryoichi buys it on the spot.

"And when you grow to 99 centimeters, you'll take me to the dragon's palace, right?"
Taking the turtle home, Ryoichi tries to think of a name for it while playing his guitar for the turtl'es amusment--and then overhears the talking heads on TV going into the street and asking if anyone knows what "pikadon" is any more. Most think it sounds like a kaiju, but after Ryoichi decides that it's a perfect name for his turtle, the hostess explains that it is a reference to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--"pika" for the brilliant light of the atomic explosion and "don" for the booming sound it created.

Well, it's as good a name as any for a turtle and Pikadon seems to like it. Ryoichi shows Pikadon the pills Yuko gave him, explaining that they're his treasure--and then he gets a strange idea and places the turtle on the board for the game of Life. To his delight, Pikadon takes him to fame and fortune as he follows the game board--only to decide on utter destitution at the last fork in the road. Undeterred, Ryoichi decides to build a miniature city around a progression of goals that leads to the big finale, playing a concert at the new Nippon Stadium. He places Pikadon on the goals, shouting, "Kaiju Pikadon," as the little turtle follows the path all the way to the edge of the stadium. Truly, Ryoichi has found the key to his success in Pikadon.

I have no idea if any of the band posters in his apartment are real, but I kinda want to listen to The Fuck Bombers.

Unfortunately, Ryoichi's happiness and success in life are about to take a dive. After several days of happiness, during which even his neighbor notices that he and the turtle are inseparable, Ryoichi decides to bring his pet to the office in his pocket. All seems to be starting off promisingly enough, since with Pikadon with him even the doors and elevators seem to acknowledge Ryoichi. However, he doesn't hide the turtle well enough and Yuko sees Pikadon.

Now, Yuko thinks nothing of it, of course. She's a good person, it's a cute turtle, and as far as she's concerned it's nice that Ryoichi has a pet. However, Ryoichi's tormentors in the office realize she's noticing something at Ryoichi's desk and they promptly begin taunting him mercilessly, even his boss. In a panic, Ryoichi flees to a public bathroom and tosses Pikadon into a toilet--and flushes him away. He instantly regrets it, and is haunted by that last look on the turtle's face, but it's too late.

Ryoichi wanders the streets in grief. He see the turtle vendor and falls to his knees, screaming for forgiveness when the man innocently asks how his turtle is doing. Worse, Ryoichi sees a long-haired guitarist (Eita Okuno) performing on the street and tearfully accosts the confused man when he sees that the guitar's base depicts three elephants atop a turtle that looks a lot like Pikadon.

And where is Pikadon in all this? Well, I doubt you'd ever guess this, but the little turtle has just washed up into a little sewer alcove that is home to some unique denizens. No, they aren't also turtles. Rather, Pikadon makes the acquaintance of an animate, talking doll named Maria (Shoko Nakigawa), a talking plush cat named Sulkie (Inuko Inuyama), and a talking robot named PC-300 (Gen Hoshino). The three living toys share their lair with an entire menagerie of other animate toys, as well as talking dogs, cats, and other animals. They all eagerly greet their new friend, but realize he can't speak yet. However, Papa (Toshiyuki Nishida) can fix that.

No, he's not this film's version of Fagin, but now I kind of wish he was.
Papa is a mysterious, frequently drunk old man who has the ability to make magical candies that can bestow speech upon animals and life upon inanimate objects. Pikadon wasn't the only new arrival, since there was also another toy robot--the others lament that it was smashed beyond repair, but Papa is determined to fix it. It takes him most of the day, but before he's ready to sleep the toys and animals beg him to give Pikadon the talking candy. Papa finally relents and feeds a glowing orb to Pikadon before heading to bed, since it will take until the morning for it to take effect.

The Spice is life.
Yet, it doesn't take long for a different effect to take hold. While mourning for his lost Pikadon, Ryoichi begins strumming on his guitar--and suddenly, he begins to have the notes to a song in the lost turtle's honor. Pikadon begins to glow strangely, as Ryoichi wanders the streets and begins to see lyrics for the song appear in the signs around him. Soon, he has a full song written--and in the morning, Papa and the others awake to find that Pikadon has grown into a dog-sized turtle that contently "la la la"s the melody of Ryoichi's song.

Pikadon is a rare beast--the intentionally cute kaiju that is actually cute.
Papa is despondent, for he realizes he mixed up and gave Pikadon a "Wish Candy." The others are furious and jealous when they realize that Papa had such a thing and never shared it. But Papa explains to the them the trouble with wishes--if he gave them all wishes, wouldn't they just go right back to the masters who abandoned them? And wouldn't they gladly grant the wishes of said masters, too? It would never end, Papa explains, for none of them understand how greedy humans can be. Look at Pikadon--if he's already grown so big, who knows how big he will become by the time his master's wishes are all granted?

Well, Papa is right, because Pikadon's wish-granting is just beginning. While mourning on the street, Ryoichi gets recognized by the guitarist, who turns out to belong to a band called Revolution Q (Dai Hasegawa as the bass player, Yukimasa Tanimoto as the drummer, and Izumi on keyboards). The band are driving around in their van when the guitarist spots Ryoichi and they effectively kidnap him and take him to a park where they're playing a gig. The guitarist riles the crowd up by telling them how insane Ryoichi goes whenever he sees his guitar, which represents how ancient people viewed the world.

As part of the lark, the guitarist puts the confused and weeping Ryoichi up to the mic and gives him a guitar and tells him to play a song for the audience. Well, Ryoichi goes ahead and plays the song and the crowd eats it up--and among that crowd is a record producer (Miyuki Matsuda), who was scouting Revolution Q, but she's found what she really wants in Ryoichi.

Before Ryoichi knows what hit him, he's being ushered to a recording studio to meet with that producer as well as a manager (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) and being told that he is going to be "Wild Ryo," the front man for Revolution Q. Then the producer says she loves the anti-war, call for peace message of his song--but wouldn't it be better if it was called "Love & Peace" instead of "Pikadon"? Ryo's barely processed that when the manager tells him that not only should he quit his job, but by the end of the year he should announce he's going solo from Revolution Q.

Ryo needs to sleep on it, so the manager happily shows him that they've painstakingly recreated his dingy little apartment as a compartment in the nice waterfront flat he now has, courtesy of the record company. (The reveal is a great exchange, where the manager first says they moved it all and then laughs and admits they actually just paid a lot of money to recreate it from scratch) Well, the next morning Ryo gets a rude call from his boss for being late, sees that he did not dream his sudden success, and decides he will go ahead and be Wild Ryo after all. We don't actually see him quit, but we do see him offering flyers to his incredulous former colleagues--and a stunned Yuko,

"Actually, all my boyfriends have been rockstars. I just seem to be the type they go for."
Well, "Love & Peace" is a hit, all right. It rockets to the top of the charts and even Pikadon and his new friends hear it in their lair, and they even sense that the song is meant for the turtle. But Papa was right about the way wishes pile up--because soon Wild Ryo needs a follow-up hit and Pikadon has to play his muse again. And wouldn't you know it, playing the muse means he gets even bigger...

"Yes, it's adorable, but I still think maybe we should run!"
I had no real idea what to expect of Love & Peace going in, even based on the strange promotional materials for it. I knew it would be odd and I knew it would be silly, but I didn't expect just how odd and silly--and I certainly didn't expect it to be so moving. You might be a bit confused as to what I'm referring to, since I deliberately only touched on it briefly in my synopsis, but I'm referring to the B-Plot about the toys in the sewer.

While the film is having a lot of fun with a magic turtle and luckless nerd suddenly becoming a rock god, it also tells a story about the abandoned and the cast off. It tells this story with toys that were outgrown and pets that stopped being sufficiently cute. On the one side you have gentle, hopeful Maria who believes that surely her owner never meant to misplace her; on  the other side you have the aptly named Sulkie, who is bitter and spiteful of the owner who got tired of playing with him. Yet, for all Sulkie's bitterness, it's he who has the surprising capacity for warmth and compassion, and it is he who becomes closest to the turtle that can't even speak to him.

And the story behind Papa is truly strange and yet perfectly fitting that I would just come right out and spoil it--especially since it's a delightful selling point for the film--except I think it is best experienced firsthand.

Oh, and I did say this was a kaiju movie in there somewhere, too, didn't I? Well, yes it is. And the kaiju set-up pays off delightfully. Not only do you have Toru Tezuka, the mad game developer from Gamera 3 in a cameo as a possibly mad scientist, but the kaiju sequence in this film is one of an unfortunately rare breed: the parody that realizes you don't always have to tear something down in order to mock it.

This is a kaiju rampage that is hilarious, but it's not hilarious because "hur hur, rubber monsters and cardboard buildings and toy tanks are so stupid." No, this is a really well-realized sequence, with really good effects--that is hilarious because it's an adorable giant turtle rampaging through a city. One of the jokes is that there haven't been any casualties because Pikadon is so slow that everyone can easily get out of his way. And it culminates in the glory that is a giant turtle tearing through a skyscraper to the tune of "Ode to Joy."

If that doesn't warm your cold, dead heart, then I pity you.

I must also give serious praise to Hiroki Hasegawa as Ryoichi and Kumiko Aso as Yuko. Aso is thoroughly engaging as the person who saw the potential in a loser before anyone else, and the film never forces her character to have to change to match Ryo--it just accepts that if she wants him, she deserves him exactly as she is, even if he's the biggest pop idol in Japan. And Hasegawa is amazingly charismatic and constantly convincing in his role, which is a hard thing to pull off when your character has to be believable as both a gigantic loser and, well, David Bowie.

I hope Bowie saw this movie and loved it, seriously.
If you get the chance to go see this film, I highly recommend it. It was my first theatrical viewing experience of 2016--even if the Chicago Cinema Society's showing of it was technically more a screening room than a theater--and I could not have picked a better choice.

And let me tell you, it warms my heart that subtitlers no longer feel it is necessary to translate the word "kaiju."