Sunday, May 15, 2011

REVIEW: Abraxas

アブラクサスの祭 (Aburakurasu no matsuri)

Released: 2010

Naoki Kato

Rie Tomosaka
Kaoru Kobayashi
Manami Honjo
Ryouta Murai

Running time: 113 mins.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

Naoki Kato, who learned about filmmaking from such venerable figures as Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano at the Tokyo University of the Arts’ Graduate School of Film and New Media, has created something truly special with his sophomore feature "Abraxas." In some respects, it is like a Bergman film set in the world of Buddhism, as it is centered on spiritual and personal crisis. Yet it distinguishes itself quite clearly by integrating another element: punk rock. From this unlikely mix comes a surprisingly touching narrative replete with skillfully presented universal themes.

In the first scene we meet the main character, Jonen: an angry young rock musician with a face hidden by strands of greasy-looking hair. After he gives a violent performance, the film cuts to years later, dropping in on a very different person. Now bearing a smooth, shaved head and clad in robes, Jonen serves as a monk at the temple in the small town where he lives with his wife and young son. Under medication, he struggles with depression and is frequently overwhelmed by the dark thoughts that cloud and clutter his mind. During a speech for a room full of high school students, he rashly voices his belief that there is no hope for their futures before rushing to a piano to pound on the keys. As foolhardy as that stunt is, it also points the way to his chief obsession and possible salvation: music. Jonen soon approaches Genshu, the temple’s minister, with a request to perform a rock concert, which draws mixed reactions from the community. Some people whole-heartedly support the monk while others vehemently oppose it. In any case, Jonen enthusiastically prepares for the event, drawing from it - and the act of making music - an irreplaceable sense of fulfillment.

As Jonen, actual musician Suneohair is a real treat to watch. There are many serious instances in which his feelings of despair and futility overcome him, but thankfully they are often dispersed by bursts of spirited happiness brought about by his love for music. Whether running around town putting up posters for his concert (in a great visual gag, virtually covering every available space), singing a song with his son or sneaking into a classroom to play the piano for an audience of schoolchildren, he himself seems to become a child, complete with a mischievous sense of humor. In the hands of a lesser actor, the character might have been too annoying, unlikable or unbelievable, but somehow Suneohair makes all of Jonen’s emotional extremes work, delivering a sincere and fascinating performance in the process. But he is far from alone, appearing as just one member of a very talented ensemble cast of actors who populate Jonen’s community. Some of the more memorable characters include Tae (Rie Tomosaka), Jonen’s strong-willed wife who spends just as much screen time sparring with her husband as she does supporting him; Genshu (Kaoru Kobayashi) and his wife Asako (Manami Honjo), who also do what they can to help him; Yohei, a good friend who owns a rice cake shop; and Yohei’s teenage son, who wonders if he himself will ever be able to break free from the town.

Besides being very well acted and well written (it was based on a novel by Sokyu Genyu, an actual Buddhist monk), "Abraxas" roundly succeeds as a superbly crafted viewing experience. The plot unfolds at a perfect pace, humor and tragedy are capably balanced, character and theme development are given properly thorough treatment – essentially, from this film you can easily appreciate Kato’s considerable skill as a filmmaker. Every now and then, he delivers a sequence of especially striking impact, one of them showing Jonen and Tae lost in a dark realm of mirror reflections as they converse with one another. Another one showing Jonen locked in an intense musical confrontation with the sea perhaps stands the highest among the film’s many musical sequences, if only for the raw, elemental beauty of its concept and grace of its execution.

"Abraxas" was shot in Fukushima Prefecture before the region was struck by both the terrible earthquake of March 11th and the drawn-out nuclear crisis that followed. To see the film is to get a revealing glimpse of the quiet, peaceful setting, particularly since the locations are put to such good use. Jonen’s struggle to find peace through his music is intensely personal, yes – but it also unfolds within the public sphere of community as well, thus making the various townsfolk invaluable figures in his story. The final outdoor performance confirms as much, portraying the gathering of (at that point) beloved characters brought together by the unifying force that is Jonen’s yearning for purpose. Similarly, viewers will find themselves at the same scene after having been led by the confident guidance of a gifted filmmaker who understands what is necessary for doing a good story justice on the screen.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog


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