Police detective Terayama and his partner Nomura mobilize after a remote mountain shack is blown up by remote control. Definitely not a high profile target the duo puzzle over why such hi-tech methods were used in its destruction, and as they investigate they are pulled deeper and deeper into the world of eco-terrorism while we in the audience delve deeper and deeper into the psychology of the young man behind the bombing, a gaijin named Alan whose hatred for modern life and the pollution it spews into the air is compounded by his day job as a worker on the Island of Dreams, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay where all the refuse of the city is piled. With daily headlines about global warming and shadowy terrorists haunting us almost on a daily basis the plot of Tetsuichiro Tsuta's "Island of Dreams" couldn't be more contemporary, but in terms of execution the 25-year-old filmmaker's feature debut couldn't be more retro.
It's easy to see why "Island of Dreams" picked up the Audience Award at this year's Pia Film Festival. Instead of following the route of so many of his indie filmmaking peers and shooting a low-key and laconic look at modern Japan on digital video Tsuta chose to look to the past for his style and his methods, a choice which charmed those attending the fest. Shot on black and white 16mm Tsurata and his crew developed the film stock and spliced together the footage by hand, something that of course was done for decades, but in the age of pixels instead of celluloid and home editing software like Final Cut Pro is becoming rarer and rarer. It isn't just a loyalty to traditional filmmaking methods that sets "Island of Dreams" apart though. Tsurata has publicly stated that he's been profoundly influenced by Japanese masters like Akira Kurosawa and Kaneto Shindo and the films they produced in the 1960's, in fact Tsurata, who also penned the screenplay, includes nods to Golden Age Japanese filmmakers throughout "Island of Dreams" by having the shack explode on "Mt. Kurosawa", locating the chemical plant targeted by Alan in "Ozu", and having police chase careen through the dark towards "Naruse".
In the era of Quentin Tarantino, post-modernist cool, and a general climate of film geekdom bold-faced cribbing of motion picture history has almost become the norm, so much so that it's become harder to find a film based on actual experience as opposed to a movie based on a movie based on a movie. It's a phenomena that in small doses can be revitalizing, but I'm sorry to say that due to sheer volume it's a style that I've grown tired and suspicious of, but from the opening title sequence that could have been pulled directly from an early Kinji Fukasaku or Yasuzo Masumura film I sensed nothing but love and respect from "Island of Dreams" and its director. That and boundless ambition. For an established filmmaker to take on the stylistic legacy of Kurosawa, or any of the directs I've mentioned so far, would be enough of an accomplishment, but for a nascent filmmaker in his early 20's and with virtually no budget to create such a fully-realized homage to his cinematic heroes... well it's an almost superhuman feat.
Does "Island of Dreams" consistently live up to its forebears? Of course not. The devotion to its retro feel sometimes slams up against the plot, like when Terayama performs a Google search as part of his investigation. The characterization of Terayama and Nomura is fairly shallow and while Tsurata has obviously got a keen eye for setting up dramatic shots there are many instances where he could have benefitted from better lighting. There were times I found myself hoping that he would name drop "Shinya" or "Tsukamoto" during the drama because there where scenes, especially a frenetic stop-motion journey down a river that immediately brought to mind Tsukamoto's early grainy, gray aesthetic. Under the circumstances, though, the Tsurata gets a lot more right capturing the feel of his noir mystery than he gets wrong.
"Island of Dreams" is a love letter to Japanese cinema, one through which contemporary audiences can revisit and rediscover the classic films of decades past. It's also the first of what will hopefully be many films from an obviously talented young man, one who unlike so many filmmakers of this generation understands the power of the most basic film vocabulary. We can only hope that his work will one day be as accessible here in North America as the legendary filmmakers he admires