Friday, April 17, 2009
NIPPON CONNECTION `09 REVIEW: Serial Dad
Komori Seikatsu Kojo Club
Running time: 108 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
I often make morbid jokes about how if I have to sit through another full day meeting of Powerpoint slides and catered sandwich trays that I'd be forced to shoot someone, or that riding the subway at the peak of rush hour fills me with a murderous rage. Trust me, though, it's only me joking, or venting, or both. I'm as gentle as a lamb and I think that most people who joke this way are. With the pressure of modern urban living seemingly being compunded year after year I sometimes think it's a miracle that we don't see more shooting rampages and such on the news. Thank god we don't, and thank god that it's in part due to the safety valves that we've set up as a society to cope with the petty annoyances and gross injustices of daily life: Sports (both as competitors and spectators), video games (often violent, but still), and of course the movies. While we can't snap and take our pent up anger out on the world the characters in films can and do. Some of the most famous examples of this would be Michael Douglas' angry white male gone ballistic in Joel Shumacher's "Falling Down", everyone's favorite caped crusader "Batman", and of course the patron saint of going postal, Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver". Save for the Dark Knight Ikki Kamashita pays tribute to these icons of middle-class male rage in his 2008 pitch black comedy "Serial Dad".
Komori, played by bulldog-faced actor Arata Furuta, is truly a man at the end of his rope. The stress of running an office filled with employees who'd rather text on their cell phones than work, a mountain of personal debt, and a punishing daily commute on the legendary crowded Tokyo subway has left him plagued with nightmares and stumbling along like a zombie in his waking life. Even his young daughter Mika asks her mother if daddy might have cancer. That's how beaten down he looks. It doesn't help at all that Komori must deal with a pair of women who ride the same train line and accuse him and other innocent male commuters of being train gropers. Once the daily papers start reporting that men accused of groping have been committing suicide out of shame Komori's pent up rage boils over. In one terrible and decisive moment he actually kicks one of the womn in front of an oncoming train. Shocked and sickened by his actions he tells himself that it must be another one of his nightmares, but this is something far worse. Komori has officially lost it as is evident when he's not only visited by a vision of a Japanese Travis Bickle, complete with mohawk, but also Jesus Christ who presents Komori with a symbol of his liberation: a .44 Magnum. This is bad, and surely insanity and agony are just around the bend... or are they?
Despite this rather gloomy and disturbing synopsis you have to remember that "Serial Dad" is a comedy, a very dark, but very funny, over the top comedy. The hyperactive oompah music that runs over the opening credits and Takanobu Kato's loopy, in your face cinematography reinforce this right from the get go. Katashima and screenwriter Jiro Yoshikawa (working from a novel by Hikaru Murozumi) follow Komori after this first violent outburst and try to turn the absurd laughs into a statement about the sorry state of the world and the cult of personality, but they aren't entirely successful .
You see, Komori doesn't get nabbed on the platform after killing this woman, nor is there a cat and mouse played out with police, in fact he walks away scott free and proceeds to buy a real gun and ammunition on the black market. With gun in hand Komori's life is transformed. One of the founding ideas of Hollywood and American culture in general is that once some is heavily armed they can take absolute control of their destiny, and "Serial Dad" lampoons this by not only having Komori's home life (and sex life with his wife Taeko) turn a 180, but his work life as well. A night out for drinks with his sullen employee Kitazawa (Shugo Oshinari) has Komori relating a story he loves about a ticket-taker that worked at the train station he used to travel through each morning. This ticket-taker would greet every rider with a cheery "Ohayo gozaimasu!" and would spread happiness to everyone who met him. The stark contrast between this simple kindness and the selfishness and disregard that Komori believes is rotting Japanese society from the inside out has him wondering aloud if people who take advantage of others, people who are cruel and intentionally hurtful shouldn't be brought to justice... at gun point. And surprise, surprise! Kitazawa agrees wholeheartedly! Not only that, but the two decide to team up to to start executing those they feel are particularly loathsome, starting with the staff of a karaoke bar who blackmail their clientelle.
Right away you know this is going to get out of hand, and soon Kitazawa has blabbed the ticket-taker story and Komori's idea of vigilante justice to the office tramp, Oikawa (Chiaki Kuriyama) who in turn tells two more of Komori's employees, who tell two more, an so on and so forth until the whole office is compiling rosters of offenders and Komori has been reluctantly elevated to the position of "Chairman" of the newly dubbed K.S.C. or "Komori Saviours Club".
Watching Komori's nervous breakdown and subsequent re-empowerment being taken up by a group of zealous followers brought back strong echoes of another example of righteous Hollywood rage, David Fincher's "Fight Club", while the aforementioned cinematography that has the camera peaking up at Komori from his plate of breakfast, shows him literally walking in place as the world progresses around him or the flowers and images of Mt. Fuji that acompany his rebirth brought to mind the giddy camera work in animator Hideaki Anno's debut live-action film "Love and Pop". Because of these similarities though I was half expecting that "Serial Dad" was going to slowly tun serious and begin to question the consequences of the K.S.C's actions, which it does, but only briefly before veering back into cartoonish comedy, albeit cartoonish comedy puntuated with some very uncomfortable scenes of violence. Do I see "Serial Dad" getting picked up by a Tokyo Shock or a Synapse Films for a North American release? Certainly. On the whole it is a very funny film, but one that never really embraces it's full potential to become an insightful social commentary.