If The Rise and Fall… was promising but poorly-produced, Mr. Hide’s Donju (Dumbeast) was a promise made good, and then made great. A true visual tour-de-force with eye-popping cinematography and a playful engagement of the macabre that is reminiscent of Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris, it begins its story of the search for a prize-winning author gone missing with a literal bang: an epically animated train-crash. A crazed monster charges us down, charges down the train on which an editor is rushing towards the Sumo town where Deko (the lost author) originated. As the train comes to a halt, the beautiful editor is thrown forward, in high definition and slow motion, only to be cushioned by the shockingly ample stomach of the ice-cream-eating passenger across from her, her glasses flying apart as she is knocked back into her seat and two tasteful and highly-saturated rivulets of blood exit her nostrils to give her something that strongly resembles a mustache. Once this standard is set, we are never disappointed — Mr. Hide continues to deliver visually-stunning irreverence for the remaining 106 minutes of the cinematic experience.
The basic plot of Donju consists of the repeated attempts of Deko’s childhood friends Okamoto, a policeman, and Eda, the owner of a hostclub gone somewhat to seed, to kill the author in order to prevent him producing more chapters of his serialized novel, the titular Donju, which is a recounting of his two friends’ younger exploits and misdoings. Despite the many ingenious ways they attempt to ポロス(porosu, a play on the verb for to kill, 殺す, korosu) Deko, he is himself so strangely stupid that he seems to never realize what’s going on. Chronologically, the film interlaces the inquiries of the editor with live-action and animated flashbacks, until the two trajectories of the present and past finally coincide (I won’t reveal how — this film comes highly recommended, so I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum).
Visually, the use of lighting is exquisite — beyond the pleasingly-crammed frames that fill the film, there are also clear shifts in light quality and style of shooting that guide the viewer to the mood or time period that Mr. Hide is trying to evoke as the film jumps about temporally. And attention to detail in props and characterization gives the humor and pathos of the piece a puzzle-like interplay of layers of things to be discovered — Deko’s fanny packs and bowties, Eda’s quirkily consistent consumption of milk instead of beer, Okamoto’s cellphone with its Imperial flag design and foxtail charm twice as long as the phone itself, Junko’s exquisitely patterned wafukukimono. In the post-screening talkback, Mr. Hide described his intention that the different characters represent different facets of Japanese society today — together, this crazy bunch of Sumo town residents makes up a sort of microcosm of Tokyo, and it is precisely through his attention to detail that this is carried out. The Americanization of Eda comes out in his milk-drinking, the traditionally Japanese characteristics of Okamoto are apparent when we see his cellphone, if only for a moment. Through these subtle (although I hesitate to call much about this film ‘subtle’…) cues, Mr. Hide deftly creates that visually-alluring heterogeneous microcosm of Japan, opening up that heterogeneity to social commentary and larger thematic considerations.
Mr. Hide himself is intriguing, a wildcard of sorts. A mysterious comedian who never removed his sunglasses during the screening, and who every time he was asked to speak, read “Guten abend, ich comme auf Japan” haltingly from where he had written it on his hand. He himself characterizes a globalization of Japan that we can see reflected in the heterogeneous microcosm of the film — born in Dusseldorf, educated in Japan and America, simultaneously a Japanese and a global citizen.
Like The Rise and Fall…, the gender roles in Donju are quite fascinating, particularly in how they are revealed in more subtle ways: how the sumo scenes are shot, or the institution of the host club itself and the attitudes of characters towards, or even the 3 second nod to the notoriously promiscuous photographer, Araki. In anticipation of many more films to come this weekend that treat on this subject, I can feel a nice (BIG) analytic post brewing…
Tadanobu Asano, who has gained fame in Ichi the Killer and as Mamoru Arita in Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s haunting Bright Future, also does a fantastic turn as Deko. But beyond its great cinematography and engaging script and performances, Donju raises some deeper questions about human relationships and the afterlife through the ever-useful mode of humor — what kind of world do we live in when two men will go to any means to kill their friend, but when the killers are lovable and laughable? Perhaps Donju is a ghost story, and Deko’s hilarious persistence to live speaks more deeply to a persistence of man — to stay alive in the truest sense of the word, through his connections with his fellow men.
My Personal Ratings for the film…
If you were in attendance, weigh in below!