Film / Reviews

'Diner': Maybe find another place to eat

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The aesthetic of photographer and director Mika Ninagawa is gaudy to the nth degree. She crowds blood-red roses into her frame like crammed commuters in a rush-hour train. When she makes it rain, her actors may as well be standing under Niagara Falls.

This may seem un-Japanese to some, but the flip side of monks peacefully raking leaves on quiet temple grounds is raucous festivals with colorful floats. Also gaudy are the manga that explore the ero (erotic) and guro (grotesque) in various combinations — and have served as sources for Ninagawa’s two previous films: “Sakuran” (2007) and “Helter Skelter” (2012).

The director’s latest, “Diner,” is based on a novel by Yumeaki Hirayama that has been turned into a popular manga by Takanori Kawai. Ninagawa, who co-wrote the script, takes both sources to dizzying heights of decadence and theatricality. That is, if a theater could cram its stage with massive bouquets of flowers, glittering profusions of glassware and heaps of rich, diet-defeating food, such as a towering hamburger dripping with juice and stabbed through with a giant knife, suggesting voluptuary pleasures beyond the table.

Diner (Daina)
Rating
Run Time 117 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens July 5

All of these rich, multicourse visual meals are in the service of a thin story centering on Bombero (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a volatile, glint-eyed former hitman who is the chef and proprietor of a diner (actually an over-decorated bar and restaurant) that caters exclusively to professional killers.

What kept me from falling into an over-stuffed doze, however, was Kanako Oba (Tina Tamashiro), a sad-eyed young woman who has been the butt of jokes all her life about her name (which can be read as “obaka na ko” or “idiot girl”). Through a series of traumatizing events, she is dragooned into working as Bombero’s only waitress, living in fear of her life from her temperamental boss and his psychopathic clientele.

But as exploited as she may look in her frilly, short-skirted uniform, Kanako stoutly rejects the alternatives Bombero offers: abject obedience or instant death. Knowing that eight other servers who preceded her met early ends (Bombero keeps their photos on the wall as a reminder), she pushes back and persuades her boss, a master chef, to teach her his craft. Might romance be in the air?

Before that question is answered, Kanako and Bombero have to deal with a parade of hungry, dangerous guests, invited and uninvited. Some, such as the boyish Skin (Masataka Kubota), appear to be sympathetic types, while others, such as the growth-stunted Kid (Kanata Hongo), are disturbingly bizarre. The most formidable, though, are top dogs in a yakuza gang, including the elderly, deadly Coffie (Eiji Okuda), the slinky, explosive Maria (Anna Tsuchiya) and the cool, implacable Bureizu (Miki Maya).

The action scenes are flagrantly derivative (spot the John Woo reference here, “The Matrix” reference there) though the borrowings are delivered with a meta wink. And, like manga and anime characters, the killers survive huge explosions and dodge hails of bullets with nary a scratch.

The film’s only reality principle, in fact, is Tamashiro as Kanako. Despite her fawn-caught-in-the-headlights look of fright and confusion, she proves to be plucky, resourceful and, for all the cartoon horrors visited on her, reassuringly human.

A bacchanalia of the senses that threatens to end in stupefaction and silliness, “Diner” becomes a cracked ode to feminine power.

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