The films of Sabu — the pseudonym of actor-turned-director Hiroyuki Tanaka — are typically about guys on the move, be it as a troubled soul on a journey (“Blessing Bell”) or a crook on the run (“Unlucky Monkey”). The object is usually laughs, though Sabu has also forayed into the serious (“The Crab Cannery Ship”) in a two-decade career.
His latest, “jam,” is another absurdist comedy, albeit one that dips into heart-warming drama and sharp social commentary. But its structure — three separate, yet convening, storylines, all set in a small provincial city — is something new, as is its backing by LDH, a talent agency that represents boy band Exile and its various sub-groups. Not surprisingly, the cast is heavily populated by LDH talents.
The script is a Sabu original, though somewhat lacking in originality: Watching the film at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, I was mentally name-checking Rob Reiner’s horror-thriller “Misery” and the “Lone Wolf and Cub” samurai series.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||102 mins.|
Also, the gags are on the silly side, while the brawls and other action scenes aspire to violent realism but end up looking transparently fake, perhaps deliberately so (With Sabu it can be hard to tell.) Nonetheless “jam” is a fun ride with an unexpected and clever final destination.
It begins with an enka (Japanese ballad) singer, Hiroshi (Sho Aoyagi), performing for a small-but-devoted band of older female fans in a rundown hall. At a meet-and-greet session later, one woman opines that Hiroshi should change his set list, while another defends his choices, a little too fervently for everyone’s comfort, including Hiroshi’s. Later, as he is wending his way home, the zealous fan, Masako (Mariko Tsutsui), steps out of the shadows to offer him home-made soup, which he dutifully chokes down.
Next we see an ex-con, Tetsuo (Nobuyuki Suzuki), pushing an elderly lady in a wheelchair down a deserted shopping arcade. He has, we learn, just revenged himself against the fellow gangsters who put him behind bars. But the survivors are planning payback.
Then we meet Takeru (Keita Machida), an earnest young guy driving an ancient Nissan President Sovereign — once the car of choice for elite bureaucrats and executives. He is searching for folks to help, in the belief that doing three good deeds a day will help awaken his comatose girlfriend. Hiroshi is soon in dire need of his assistance.
The fates of all three heroes finally intersect, though on the way the film takes detours to describe events in their pasts and glimpse into the near future. Despite twists and turns, their stories are easy to follow, with its most entertaining and enlightening being that of Hiroshi and Masako.
One reason is that Hiroshi’s repertoire — specially composed tunes with lyrics by Sabu — is the real, overripe enka deal. Another is Aoyagi’s on-key performance as Hiroshi: Crooning and communing with fans, his boredom and desperation come blazing through.
Meanwhile, Tsutsui plays Masako with a fine-tuned blend of comic craziness and scary determination. Yes, she may be referencing Kathy Bates, who played the mad fan in “Misery,” but she succeeds in making Masako sympathetic, with a little help from a bullet and a windshield.
Minus her the movie would be something like dry toast without the — dad joke alert! — jam.