‘Bakemono Moyo’/’Mukidashi Nippon’

Young Ishii doesn't skip a beat

by Mark Schilling

Still only 24, Yuya Ishii has not only made four feature films in a blazingly short time, but had them screened in his own section (hard to call it a retrospective) at the 2008 Rotterdam Film Festival. Also, at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival, he received the first Edward Yang New Talent Award — a prize for the most promising young Asian filmmaker.

Aren’t you hating him already?

But Ishii is less the second coming of Orson Welles, a prodigy blessed by the movie gods with genius and studio backing, than an industrious self-starter with talent who scraped together ¥4 million with four pals for his first feature, “Mukidashi Nippon (Bare-Assed Japan).” That won the Grand Prix at the 2007 Pia Film Festival — and launched him on his so-far fabulous career.

“Mukidashi,” which screens at Cinema Rosa in Ikebukuro from May 31 to June 6, and “Bakemono Moyo (Of Monster Mode),” another Ishii film that can be seen at the same theater from June 6 to 20, are comically shambling productions that examine the lives of losers, misfits and other socially marginal types. The view is not, as academics like to say, “privileged,” but intimate and familiar, as though Ishii has shared the same hand-to-mouth, zero-prospects existence as several of his principals.

In “Mukidashi Nippon” the hero is Taro (Yuichi Toyone), a sullen teenager who drifts after graduating from high school, until he rents a ramshackle house and adjacent field for ¥20,000 a month. He moves in with Yoko (Rumi Ninomiya), a pretty former classmate he has a crush on, and his pudgy, no-account father, who has been fired from his job and is on the outs with Taro’s long-suffering mother.

Bakemono Moyo
Director Yuya Ishii
Run Time 93 minutes
Language Japanese
Mukidashi Nippon
Director Yuya Ishii
Run Time 91 minutes
Language Japanese

For Taro, who begins the film frantically masturbating in his room (where his kindly, senile grandfather discovers him and pats him encouragingly on the back), this odd setup is both heaven and hell. Heaven because he is close to Yoko, who agreed to live with him as casually as if she were going out for coffee, and hell because his obtuse Dad horns in at every opportunity, even laying out his futon smack in between Taro’s and Yoko’s.

There is also the little problem of survival. Taro at first insists that he will live by raising vegetables in the field, but farming proves to be slow, muddy, back-breaking work. He finally joins Dad as a traffic-control guy on a road-construction site, but ever the rebel, he defiantly swings his wand in circles instead of, in officially approved fashion, side to side in a V. Will he ever grow up?

That question, found in so many seishun eiga (youth films), is not Ishii’s, however. Instead he is more interested in the absurd collusion between the ideal (Taro’s adolescent dream of a sexual and vegetarian paradise) and the real (as represented by Dad — Taro’s role model for his probable future as a loser).

‘Bakemono Moyo” is in the same vein, though the cast, beginning with former Takarazuka star Rei Ohtori, is more professional, and the story, which features a dead-child narrator (a la Alice Sebold’s “Lovely Bones”), is more ambitious.

Otori plays Junko, a housewife who has become delusional following the death of her son, Kiyoshi. Her salaryman husband, Kiichi (Satoshi Shiomi), humors her in her belief that Kiyoshi is still alive, while carrying on an awkward affair with an OL (Ayuko Ikawa) who has long had designs on his person.

Yoko becomes acquainted with a mentally challenged man (Katsura Tonbo) in a melon costume who peddles melon bread together with his sharp-tongued aunt.

Seeing that the poor sap is besotted with her, she decides, on an impulse, to run away to the seaside with him in his melon-bread truck.

Junko, we see, is not only escaping from her philandering husband but seeking closure for the loss of her son. That is, there is a method — as well as a goal — in her madness.

As Junko, Otori balances the comically loony and emotionally wounded sides of her character with poise and assurance, though “Bakemono” itself is a hit-and-miss affair with the air of a student production shot on the fly. As in “Mukidashi,” there are funny comic bits and good dramatic ideas, but little sense of momentum or cohesion.

Still, Ishii is in touch with his audience — I imagine them as scuffling freeters (careerless people) who have opted, temporarily or permanently out of normal life — in a way that more polished young directors are not.

He gives us a new definition of Beat — not a play on “beatitude,” as Jack Keouac defined it, but a reflection of a generation beaten down by a long recession and lowered expectations. And given the way things are going in the world, Taro had better tend to his garden.