Film / Reviews

'Chiwawa': An enigma wrapped in a riddle

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Edie Sedgwick was an Andy Warhol “superstar” and Bob Dylan muse who died at age 28 after bouts with mental illness and drug addiction — and has had a long afterlife as a legendary 1960s “it” girl.

She is an inspiration for “Chiwawa,” Ken Ninomiya’s flashy, hyper, tragic film about a party girl who becomes a murder victim: Sedgwick is the name of the Tokyo bar where the title character and her circle hang out. The film, however, is based on a 1996 manga by Kyoko Okazaki and tells the story of a girl who wants to be popular and loved, but ends as an enigma wrapped in a riddle.

Her contradictions are reflected in the film itself, which jumps back and forth in time in a blur of images: the by-now familiar approach for replicating the delirium and fragmentation of a drug trip. But the narrative follows the more conventional path of centering on an amateur investigator — a circle member played by Mugi Kadowaki — who tries to unravel the truth about Chiwawa.

Chiwawa (Chiwawa-chan)
Rating
Run Time 104 mins.
Language JAPANESE

This storytelling style, with its self-advertising cool, began to grate around the five-minute mark, but as I soldiered on, music-video posturing gave way to sharp observations of the characters and their phantasmagoric world, as false fronts peeled away. I wanted to know more, though the film was stingy with clear answers.

But given its subject — a troubled, secretive woman who emerges from obscurity and descends into darkness — grasping her reality is like dissecting a soap bubble with pliers.

She is Yoshiko Chiwaki (Shiori Yoshida), who calls herself “Chiwawa” after the Chihuahua dog and as a joking reference to her short stature. “I’m the same height as Mr. Bean,” she burbles to new acquaintances at a club. “But my boobs are huge!” Just as this crowd — friends of her new blonde-haired boyfriend, Yoshida (Ryo Narita) — is sizing her up as an airhead, a friendly server tells them about a ¥6 million bundle of cash at a nearby table. On impulse, Chiwawa grabs the loot and runs out the door. The others follow and miraculously make their escape. Agreeing to share this windfall, they proceed to party like there’s no tomorrow.

Told linearly, this sequence would feel like the opening to a featherweight heist movie, but Ninomiya, who wrote the script, intersperses glimpses of the characters’ near future, including Chiwawa’s murder.

Yoshida turns out to be a serial seducer, while Nagai (Nijiro Murakami), a callow would-be photographer, falls secretly in love with Chiwawa; Yumi (Tina Tamashiro), a bubbly type, becomes Chiwawa’s best friend, and Katsuo (the single-named Kanichiro), a cool-headed sort, comments on the changes of partners and shifts in allegiance.

But the one most motivated by Chiwawa’s death to solve the mystery of her life is the earnest Miki (Kadowaki). Like Chiwawa she lived the high life, but knew early on that the party had to end.

We also encounter Sakata (Tadanobu Asano), a middle-aged photographer with steely eyes who strips away Chiwawa’s cheery facade to reveal the insecure woman behind it. Is it too convenient and even sexist that he becomes her lover right after they meet? Perhaps, but it also fits. And Chiwawa, as always, remains elusive.

Proving again that someone can be “it” without anyone knowing what “it” actually is.