Film / Reviews

'Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san': YouTube comedy series makes it to the big screen

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

What is the future of films in Japan? Bigger spectacles backed by media conglomerates? Maybe at the top end of the industry. At the lower end, though, indie filmmakers have to find other ways to draw audiences and finance films. Crowdfunding helps some get made, while ceaseless and creative PR on social media helps others get the word out.

Daisuke Ono’s quirky comedy “Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san” suggests another strategy. Based on Ono’s original script, the film began as a series of 17 short videos on YouTube’s AlphaBoat Stories channel, with the first going online in June. The 87-minute film is a director’s cut of that series.

The obvious objective was to create a viral sensation with a boost from lead Honoka Matsumoto, a 21-year-old actress who caught a career break with a role in the 2017 hit NHK drama “Hiyokko.” The sensation has yet to materialize, but the film is a rough-cut gem that takes satirical aim at everything from pushy, devious media types to desperate, uninhibited YouTubers like the title heroine, who is constantly coming up with bizarre stunts to grab attention.

Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san (Asutoraru Abunomaru Suzuki-san)
Rating
Run Time 87 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Jan. 5

Given the film’s origin as a series of blackout skits, the plot is unsurprisingly thin. But its twist climax packs a comic punch as well as coming to a charming and funny conclusion. Some scenes lean too heavily on flat-out hysteria or affectless irony but there is also usually a cryptic observation or goofy sight gag that prompts a laugh — and the thought that Ono, who won the Tama New Wave Grand Prix at the 2017 Tama Cinema Forum festival for his comedy “Urufu na Shishi,” has discovered a rich new comic vein.

His heroine, Rara Suzuki (Matsumoto), lives in a small town in Gunma Prefecture with her patient mom (Mayuko Nishiyama) and reclusive younger brother Ruruo (Taketo Tanaka). With zero recreational options beyond playing pachinko and shopping at department stores, she has become a YouTuber to keep from going crazy, though from the online evidence, including her plastic-flower eyepatch and air of perpetual boredom, Rara is decidedly odd.

Nonetheless she attracts the attention of a reality TV show director (Kotoha Hiroyama) who descends on the town with a script already in her head. No fool, Rara invents backstories for her Mom, Ruruo and herself that play to what she imagines are the media’s preconceptions, from her mother’s fake past as an abandoned, indebted single mother to Ruruo’s nonexistent suicidal tendencies.

We soon learn that the truth is more prosaic, if hardly encouraging for Rara: She has a twin sister, Riri (Matsumoto again), who attained the show biz dream Rara had nursed since childhood. After passing a talent agency audition, Riri departed for Tokyo and a career in acting, leaving Rara behind. When she arrives back in town with a fiancee in tow, the stage is set for a sister-versus-sister showdown.

On camera in every scene, Matsumoto gives us glimpses into Rara’s vulnerabilities hidden underneath her deadpan hipster armor. She also brings Riri to life as the more conventional twin who is still akin to Rara in eccentricity.

In the end, “Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san” finishes with a flight of inspired and improvised lunacy. “Astral” indeed.

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