Sunday, November 27, 2011

TOKYO FILMEX '11 REVIEW: Tokyo Playboy Club

東京プレイボーイクラブ (Tokyo Pureiboi Kurabu)

Released: 2011

Yosuke Okuda

Nao Omori
Ken Mitsuishi
Asami Usuda
Yasushi Fuchikami
Sakichi Sato

Running time: 92 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

In the back alleys of Shinjuku are thousands of bars, clubs and dives promising infinite pleasures. One of these, the Tokyo Playboy Club, offers "Boobies, Boobies... Fondle, Suck..." but behind this enticing sales pitch is a tiny corner of the city that is filled with violence, rage and the occasional laugh. The club's doorman Takahiro (Yasushi Fuchikami) is tasked with dragging drunk and horny men in off the street. The pay for this job is low and Takahiro is in need of much more serious cash. It turns out that Takahiro has gotten a girl pregnant, something that his live-in girlfriend Eriko (Asami Usuda) knows nothing about. What is Takahiro going to do? On a night when his boss Seikichi (Ken Mitsuishi) leaves the club in Takahiro's hands the young doorman takes off with all the money from the club's safe. Big mistake, especially because Seikichi has brought an old friend, Katsutoshi (Nao Omori) on to work security at the club. Katsutoshi is a bloodthirsty psychopath, so between him and the club's yakuza backers Takahiro, and his girlfriend Eriko, find themselves drawn into a fight for their lives. A plot worthy of any classic yakuza film, no? Yet 24-year-old director Yosuke Okuda, famous for his indie "Hot as Hell" series of films, manages to only deliver on some of the promise of this lean, mean plot.

Okuda has long been the B-boy wunderkind of Japan's indie scene, a young man who has synthesized violence and dark humour into his own ticket into a world of criminals, hard-done-by women and losers. I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Okuda's laughs and bloodshed formula, but you have to give credit where credit is due -- Okuda is doing something that most young Japanese filmmakers seem to feel is of secondary importance -- he's trying to entertain the audience. There is infinite energy in "Tokyo Playboy Club", a respectable amount of laughs (although many a little misplaced), and like Okuda's main influence, Quentin Tarantino, there is some very effective use of music during key scenes. That being said, "Tokyo Playboy Club"ends up suffering from many of the same pitfalls as the work of his peers in the Japanese indie film scene.

There is not a lot of effort on Okuda's part to satisfyingly take us from point A to point B with his characters, and so many questions are left unanswered. Why would Eriko agree to be sold into service at the Tokyo Playboy Club for Takahiro, an unfaithful and uncaring boyfriend? Exactly what kind of friendship or history does Seikichi share with the sociopathic Katsutoshi (although Nao Omori's compelling performance is the heart of the film)? Why does Takahiro get off scot free, and physically intact, after stealing the money from the club? Instead of tying up these loose ends Okuda, like a lot of young indie filmmakers, puts his energy into sometimes ingenious but ill-explained action.

One huge issue that is left unexplored is how obviously unsuccessful the Tokyo Playboy Club of the title is. We are treated to some truly funny banter amongst the trio of hostesses who work at the club, but we never see them with male clients. It appears that the Tokyo Playboy Club has absolutely no clients at all. Exploring this dead end club with an ensemble cast could have been truly interesting. Instead, the men who should be visiting these lovely ladies are off taking care of other concerns.

One of the most incongruous things about the male characters in "Tokyo Playboy Club" is their overbearing and infinite anger. Most times when Katsutoshi, Takahiro, Sekichi or any of the other main male characters in the film open their mouths it's to yell, growl and threaten. This being at heart a yakuza film this kind of alpha male posturing is par for the course, but again, we find ourselves wondering what has gotten everyone so damn angry. When we first meet Takahiro he's handing out leaflets in front of a hostess bar, and he goes on a rant to a young unemployed salaryman about the haves and have-nots of today's Tokyo. Had Okuda followed through and carried this thread of righteous anger through the rest of "Tokyo Playboy Club" a lot of the questions about the motivations of these characters may have been answered. Sadly this early promise gets lost in the recycled tropes of the yakuza eiga genre.

It doesn't seem that a top notch cast, crew and big budget that Yosuke Okuda has been able to make a smooth transition from indie filmmaking to a mainstream release. Maybe a few more years honing his filmmaking talent and channeling his obvious energy and anger will see Okuda take us on a truly satisfying cinematic journey. Until then, though, we'll just have to wait.

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