There's an old adage about a good craftsman never blaming his tools. While some filmmakers act as if they couldn't possibly create their vision without cutting-edge tech and effects (not to mention a nine-figure budget--I'm looking at you, James Cameron), Jun Ichikawa took to the streets of Tokyo with a video camera and crafted two interesting and at times beautiful films: "Buy A Suit" and "Tokyo Rendering." The latter is little more than street scenery shot with a static point of view, but with a twist--prose poems are superimposed over the action. Some of them are stoic, some strange, and some quite funny; Ichikawa juxtaposes a bustling Tokyo street scene with the caption "Why did you come to this village?", which draws outright laughs. It's light fare even at 27 minutes, but the humor and novelty sustains a viewing. "Buy A Suit," however, isn't just an exercise. It's a gentle, 47-minute swan song to a directorial career full of tales of human drama.
The film follows one day in the life of a young woman (Yukiko Sunahara) as she arrives in Tokyo to see her brother after a 5-year absence. She tracks him down to discover that he's living on the streets in a blue tarp and cardboard shelter, eating garbage and philosophizing about how people only care about themselves. The story, such as it is, is secondary to the relationships we see play out in a handful of scenes: Sister and brother's friend have lunch; Sister and brother reunite; Sister and brother eat a snack; Sister and brother meet brother's ex for dinner. Before discovering his homelessness we learn that the brother was a kind of math prodigy who a college friend describes as "maybe too smart," which prefaces his behavior and situation quite elegantly. When the brother is interviewed for a "man on the street" news segment, Ichikawa occasionally cuts away to the sister sitting nearby, watching. She doesn't see the vaguely frightening ranting of a street person, but rather the eccentricity of a family member, and it's reflected in her soft smile. The characters don't reveal much of themselves, but rather hint at a backstory through dialogue and expression.
Shot on the street with live sound (and all that entails), "Buy A Suit" is a strange addition to Ichikawa's filmography in that, at first blush, it's so unpolished technically. Tonally, it's wholly part of the larger canvas Ichikawa started painting in 1987 with "Bu Su," but the choice to film it on video lends the story an immediacy I wasn't quite prepared for. Using the noise and crowds of the street and working within the relative confines of a video camera's optics, "Buy A Suit" is cinema--video?--verité start to finish, right down to the use of amateur actors in all the roles. I didn't recognize any faces in the film, and subsequent web searches haven't revealed long dorama resumes for any of the featured players. It's a shock, because the four principals are so good, and the director relies on them for so much of the film's impact. Everyone is pitch perfect. Ichikawa uses environments to place the viewer right in the story. For example, a static shot of two people talking in an outdoor café is framed from atop a neighboring table, with a coffee cup looming in the foreground of the frame. Chatter, street noise and the tinkling of spoons on saucers forces the viewer to sharpen their hearing to catch everything said, and the entire experience is somewhat voyeuristic. Long shots are broken up by cutaways to the many small events here and there on any city street, with dialogue switching to voiceover before the shot returns to to actors. The usual narrative tools afforded a filmmaker--different angles of the actors, closeups--are eschewed in favor of a fly-on-the-wall approach that lends the film an unexpected intimacy. The film demands your full attention and rewards it with acting so naturalistic that it recalls the best documentary style filmmaking, but in a fictional setting. Rather than view the video camera's capabilities as a limitation, Ichikawa used them to his best advantage and told the story in a way which would be impossible by more conventional methods. The film is simultaneously riveting and calm.
That Jun Ichikawa's final film would be a quiet, personal drama about a woman and her brother isn't surprising; No other director drew more comparison with Ozu, and no other director better earned that comparison. What is something of a shock is that Ichikawa chose to shoot and edit the story himself on high-def video, rejecting a professional lifetime spent perfecting his craft on sets with crews, DPs, lighting designers, etc. If Ichikawa wanted the DIY excitement of shooting on video without the financial burden or watching eyes of a studio, well good for him. "Buy A Suit" proves that a true cinematic storyteller can tell a story without bells and whistles. What the film lacks in technical polish it more than makes up for in narrative interest.
Note: The "Buy A Suit" DVD includes both features.