Every morning at 9 a.m., the garrisons from two towns on opposite sides of a river gather on the banks and start shooting at each other. Nobody remembers what they’re fighting for, but it’s all very civilized. The rival forces even sound an alarm before they commence hostilities.
For the soldiers, it’s just another day of work. As Ichiro Tsuyuki (Kou Maehara) blandly explains to a new recruit: If you get through about 50 bullets in the morning and 80 in the afternoon, you should be fine.
Like the other characters in Akira Ikeda’s “The Blue Danube,” Ichiro gives off the aura of an android in need of a software update. He and his fellow residents march everywhere in single file and speak in affectless tones, oblivious to the way their conversations keep going round in circles.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||105 mins.|
That seems to be the default mode for the director’s films, of which “The Blue Danube” is the fourth, though it’s the first to get a theatrical release in Japan.
His earlier “Ambiguous Places,” which screened at Tokyo International Film Festival in 2017, showed a clear debt to the deadpan comedies of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki and, especially, the absurdist cinema of Sweden’s Roy Andersson (“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”). “The Blue Danube” doesn’t mess with that formula, but ties it to something that almost resembles a plot.
As rumors swirl about a powerful new weapon that the other side is developing, Ichiro gets called away from the front lines to join the garrison’s marching band. When he takes his trumpet to practice by the river, though, he finds himself duetting with a player on the opposite bank (no prizes for guessing what tune they pick). Could music bring these two tribes back together?
This sketch-like narrative takes a while to emerge, and much of the film unfolds in more episodic fashion. Ichiro reports for work, has lunch at a restaurant where the owner (Hairi Katagiri) doles out rice like she’s dispensing favors, and witnesses the injustices perpetrated by his superiors, including the town’s absent-minded mayor (Renji Ishibashi) and his feckless son (Naoya Shimizu).
There’s a real bite to the humor, which treats tragedy and drudgery as interchangeable, though Ikeda stops the film reflecting too directly on Japan’s own history by removing it from any identifiable context. While the costumes and settings suggest the early 20th century, there’s a sense that the story — much like its characters — exists at one step removed from our own.
“The Blue Danube” makes good use of a handful of period locations and some understated CGI, but its modest charms get stretched thin in places.
Then again, even boredom has its uses, and some of the funniest moments are the most interminable. Ikeda takes delight in conversational dead ends, forcing characters to keep repeating the same exchanges without ever reaching a resolution. His cast, which features a number of experienced comedians, is more than up to the task.
Although it drifts in places, the film snaps into focus during its closing stretch, which suggests Ikeda may be an heir to the anti-war sentiments of the late Nobuhiko Obayashi. It leaves little doubt that we are all destined for the same fate, but some might approach it with more decency than others.
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