Friday, August 14, 2009
REVIEW: Girl Sparks
ガール・スパークス (Gaaru supaakusu)
Running time: 94 minutes
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Yuya Ishii is a machine. That's the only conclusion I can come to when I look at the 25-year-old's already extensive filmography. In 2005, shortly after graduating from the Osaka University of the Arts Film Program (whose other alumni include Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, Ryuichi Honda, and Nobuhiro Yamashita) Ishii and four friends pooled their resources to make "Bare-Assed Japan", the comedic story of a 20-something slacker who rents an old farmhouse with his girlfriend and father. "Bare-Assed Japan" ended up winning the top prize at the 2007 Pia Film Festival, but Ishii didn't wait for this recognition to keep powering ahead on his career path. By the time the folks at Pia were handing him his well-deserved trophy he'd already and a second feature film in the can, 2006's "Rebel Jiro's Love" and in quick succession after that came "Of Monster Mode" and the subject of this review "Girl Sparks". Four feature films in only three years! It's a feat that makes most people, including me, a little embarrassed at their mere mortal output. "Girl Sparks", Ishii's third film, perfectly captures his rough, earthy humour and bare bones aesthetic, thus being a great entry point for any film fan who's just being introduced to this one man film industry.
High school student Saeko (Ayuko Ikawa), the anti-heroine of "Girl Sparks", is in her own words "disgusted". Disgusted by her school guidance counselor who keeps badgering her to decide what she'll do with herself after graduation. Disgusted by her young male classmate's obvious crush on her, as well as her teacher's barely concealed desire for her. Disgusted by living out in the middle of nowhere, by her boring routine, by her menstrual cramps... everything grates on her. Nothing "disgusts" Saeko more, though, than her father who runs a small factory that manufactures nails and screws. Dad is crude, uncouth. He drinks milk from the carton, picks his nose, and his personal hygiene leaves a lot to be desired. Despite his assertions that an occasional, quick rinse (the kind that the samurai used to take, he says) is enough to keep him smelling like a rose the reality is that he stinks. It's this, and the fact that at home Dad feels it necessary to wear eye shadow and lipstick to be not only a father but a mother to his daughter, that has Saeko literally running out of the house every day. What can save her from this dreadful, dull, and "disgusting" existence? Head to Tokyo, a city that neither Saeko or any of her friends have ever been to? Or better yet daydream about a global apocalypse, which Saeko does frequently by imagining missiles hurtling on deadly trajectories through the sky.
"Girl Sparks" takes the normal teen angst and cranks it up to new highs, or lows depending on how you view the film. Unlike so many young filmmakers whose work can become tedious, pretentious, and sullen, Ishii's vision revels in slapstick, potty jokes, sight gags and general absurdity. This is filmmaking that comes from the tradition of a filmmaker like Shohei Imamura who would often say that his films weren't about the refined and reserved "samurai class", but the peasants and low lifes, the people he viewed as being the heart of Japan, or better yet Ishii's comedic take on life can be seen as an extension of a lightning fast, provocative manzai comedy act. How else could you view the confrontation between Saeko and her father outside the family bath, dialogue being batted back and forth like pro-tennis players, as Saeko tries to get dad to admit that he crapped in the bathtub. Takeshi Kitano, along with his partner Kiyoshi Kaneko, built a career on this kind of low brow humour in the 70's as part of the manzai duo, The Two Beats. A straight man and a buffoon, jokes that would shock an audience and expert comic timing that would have them laughing in spite of themselves. Ishii does more than crib Kitano's comedic style in "Girl Sparks" though. His camera takes a similar viewpoint by lingering on a shot both before and after a scene takes place. It's that pause that lets the punch line sink in and it's another example of how Ishii utilizes everything from onscreen talent to editing to ensure he has his audience chuckling.
While a film like "Girl Sparks" might be a bit too crude, both in content and execution, for some, let's say "genteel" audiences who are used to the idea of Japanese films as being all samurai honour and Ozu-esque domesticity, all us amongst the great unwashed will have a great time laughing at Ishii's deliberately low brow humour. Lord knows he's worked hard, very hard, at perfecting it.