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ASIA EXTREME: J-Quirk and The New Surrealism

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If one were to survey Japanese films that have been distributed in America over the last thirty to forty years, certain patterns would form. Works from the great masters, historical epics, dramas, monster movies and of course horror have certainly been well represented for decades. But one genre that’s severely lacking is comedy. In 1985, Juzo Itami’s noodle-western TAMPOPO became a smash hit, playing to sell-out crowds for months. However, since that time there haven’t been many Japanese comedies to find their way into the cultural zeitgeist, but that’s not for lack of material.

Japanese cinema is certainly no stranger to comedies, but many in the 80s and 90s were perhaps too culturally specific to be considered for international distribution. However, in recent years there’s been a notable shift in the type of comedies coming out of Japan. Black, quirky, and outright surreal efforts are appearing more frequently, and are even finding success with critics and audiences alike. What’s both disappointing and quite surprising is just how few of them are finding their way to our shores.

One truly black comedy that has found a following outside of Japan is Takashi Miike’s THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001). A remake of the Korean film A QUIET FAMILY (1998), it’s an intentionally campy portrait of a small family-run inn, and the many guests that keep winding up dead, which include a famous sumo wrestler and his underage girlfriend. Miike, naturally, takes it one step further, turning it into a musical zombie thriller. Imagine a cross between THE SOUND OF MUSIC and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD with a claymation volcano thrown in for good measure. Readily available on DVD, and well worth seeking out.

Even more outlandish than Miike’s musical is Gen Sekiguchi’s SURVIVE STYLE 5+ (2004), a candy-colored über-stylized quirky comedy in which seemingly disparate but equally absurd narrative threads eventually convene into something that almost makes sense. A pastiche of several genres, the film features UK tough-guy Vinnie Jones as an existentialist hitman who asks “What is your purpose in life” to anybody who will listen, and Tadanobu Asano as man who repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, murders his wife. Combine that with a woman who wants to kill a hypnotist and a salaryman who believes he is a bird, and you’re left with a remarkably funny and impressive debut feature that manages to sustain its humor and madcap pace for nearly two hours.

As wonderful as the above two films are, 2005 saw the release of a genuine masterpiece of the surreal and the absurd, created by a team with unlimited imagination: FUNKY FOREST: THE FIRST CONTACT. Directed by Katsuhito Ishii (THE TASTE OF TEA), along with contributions from Aniki and Shunichiro Miki, this two-and-a-half hour fever dream is nearly indescribable. Imagine if you were in Tokyo, completely wasted at two in the morning, quickly cycling through a series of bizarre TV channels….that’s the essence of the experience of watching this film, but what of the content? Stand up comedians screaming at each other, three extremely unlikely brothers strumming a guitar, dancing, and eating Snickers bars, babbling hot spring vixens, and a series of imagined creatures that have a distinctly Cronenberg-esque feel to them. But for a film with so many segments (and nearly just as many asides) that continually jumps back and forth in no discernible pattern over its generous running time, there is a harmony and flow to it all, though to say why would be impossible. This is surreal genius on the level of Monty Python and Bunuel. Available in a wonderful 2-DVD set, this is an absolute must-see.