Friday, March 5, 2010
REVIEW: Soul Odyssey
蒸発旅日記 (Jôhatsu tabinikki)
Running time: 85 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
I've said it many times before - The infamy of Shuji Terayama's 1971 experimental film "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" has made it very hard to see the rest of his cinematic works heree in North America. I do think that statement's true because for most film fans what they know about Terayama is that "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" includes some very questionable scenes of simulated sex with minors. The thing is though, that wioth the advent of downloading enough people are being exposed to Terayama's other, much less controversial films, for the very first time; visionary films like 1971's "Throw Away Your Books, Go Out into the Streets! ", 1974's "Pastoral" To Die in the Country", and his final film, 1983's "Farewell to the Ark". For film audiences hungry for bizarre films from Japan I think it's a little more complex a problem than "Terayama made faux kiddie porn" to explain the scarcity of these other films on North American DVD. I think what lays at the root of this scarcity is the fact that most North American Japanese film fans prefer the equally surreal and confounding work of Seijun Suzuki or Takashi Miike at his "Gozu" and "Izo" level of art house strangeness. These filmmakers are weird, yes, but they also have offset this weirdness with other films in their filmographies based in genres we're familar and comfortable with - yakuza films, horror films, action films. In Terayama's case his particular brand of film weirdness was delivered with a healthy dose of socio-sexual politics and straight ahead leftist revolutionary zeal, the kind of thing Europeans embrace while us North Americans just seem to end up feeling alienated by. Why am I going off on this rant? Because in 2003 director Isao Yamada, a devoted fan of Terayama decided to make a film almost in tribute to his cinematic hero. The thing is that the result "Soul Odyssey" is a softened, somewhat uncomfortable mix between the intellectual Teryama and the willfully oddball Seijun Suzuki.
"Soul Odyssey" is based on the work of gekiga manga artist Yoshiharu Tsuge. His best known works, like 1968's the fever dream tale "Neji-shiki (Screw-style)", were published during the late 60's and early 70's in the alternative manga magazine Garo. Like Terayama, Tsuge's manga have been translated into French, but are hard to find here in North America, but if you've seen Teruo Ishii's 1998 screen adaptaion of "Neji-shiki", titled "Screwed", you have a pretty good idea of just how surreal Tsuge's imagination is. Similar to "Screwed" "Soul Odyssey" follows a nameless protagonist (like Tadanobu Asano's "Screwed" character he's a manga artist) as he takes a train out to the country with a dual goal in mind - to meet Shizuko (Kinue Fuji), a young woman he's arranged to marry; and to disappear. Are these two very different goals one in the same in this man's mind? It seems so; the English translation of the original Japanese title for "Soul Odyssey" is in fact "Disappearing Travel Diary". Once this young man gets to the village and his soon to be bride... well, it's very hard to explain in a neat A to B way. Our manga artist is both attracted to this young woman and strangely repelled by her. When not engaging in uncomfortable conversations with Shizuko he spends his time buying cigarettes from a mysterious female vendor, and taking long soaks at the local public bath with a boy who may be a ghost of his past. And there are two escaped mental patients who take him fishing. There's also an old man (played by veteran actor Takahiro Tamura) who is search for a specific tombstone. Oh, and I almost forgot, our protagonist frequents a local strip club, and when I say "frequents" I mean very frequently.
Obviously "Soul Odyssey" isn't a narrative heavy film, which is perfectly fine. Those of you who are fans of Terayama and late Suzuki films will be used to that. The idea of adapting Tsuge's work in the style of Shuji Terayama seems like the perfect match, and whether or not it was Yamada's goal to soften Terayama's sting a little with a bit of Suzuki he certainly got two men involved in "Soul Odyssey" that fans of both these director will immediately recognize. First is Henrikku Morisaki, the longtime production designer and assistant director (and adopted brother) of Shuji Terayama. Here Morisaki acts as Yamada's assistant director. Yamada also hired legendary art director Takeo Kimura who worked with Seijun Suzuki on some of his best known film - "Tokyo Drifter", "Story of a Prostitute", "Elegy to Violence", "Zigeunerweisen", and "Pistol Opera" to name only a few - plus he worked on such contemporary classics as Mitsuo Yanagimachi's "Himatsuri" and Kei Kumai's "Sandakan No. 8". With that kind of behind-the-scenes star power one would expect an instant cinematic masterpiece, but sadly what Yamada delivers is a deeply flawed gem of a film.
First let's cover what makes "Soul Odyssey" a gem. I quickly run out of superlatives when I try and explain the visual beauty of so much of this film - vibrant, jaw-dropping, phantasmagorical, dream-like - all of these and more apply to what Kimura has delivered in terms of the look of the film. He even includes little visual jokes like the obviously German Expressionist-inspired café named "Caligari's". In terns of visual quality "Soul Odyssey" is a near equal to the works of Terayama and Suzuki, but that quality doesn't extend to the narrative and characters, and that brings us to the deeply flawed aspects of the film. I know I may be contradicting myself when I say that the narrative and characters don't come through during "Soul Odyssey". I could barely outline a narrative in my above mini-synopsis. It's absolutely true that there is no traditional narrative to be had here, but even the most surreal of films, and I can count Terayama's "Pastoral" and Suzuki's "Pistol Opera" among those, at least have some kind of internal logic no matter how obscure and tangential. That's missing to a great degree in Yamada's film. The biggest reason for this is just how flat and featureless his characters are. This may have more to do with the Yoshiharu Tsuge source material than Yamada's direction, but even in the most "Alice in Wonderland" scenario characters should display some glimmer of personality. Unfortunately Yamada's actors function as beautiful mannequins, and I particularly mean Kinue Fuji and the other woman who play strippers in throughout the film.
In a strange way all the striptease scenes in "Soul Odyssey" make a great deal of sense. The film gets its audience excited and sitting unblinking so we don't miss any of the beauty on display, hoping that at any moment Yamada will reveal the scene, shot or moment that will push us into some kind of ultimate cinematic climax, but that climax never comes. More often than not I found myself wanting specific shots to be still photographs (like our protagonist lounging in his room at the inn), or wishing specific scenes could have been better taking out of the context of Yamada's pseudo-narrative entirely and put on a loop as a hypnotic piece of film art in a gallery (like Shizuko rolling underneath a vibrant read blanket). All the visual nods to Terayama's films - the backward clocks, the black clad villagers, the dwarfing of human figures in wilderness - were more annoying to me than reassuring or enlightening. In the end the thing that "Soul Odyssey" best illustrates is that for all his cultivated strangeness Shuji Terayama had the skills of a master dramatist and filmmaker, one who could take the most contradictory and bizarre material and make it absolutely riveting. Even with his obvious love for Terayama, and the help of legends like Henrikku Morisaki and Takeo Kimura on board, Isao Yamada can't equal his cinematic hero's skill.