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Movie Review: Survive Style 5+
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Moview Review - Survive Style 5+

A movie review written for a magazine writing class. Fall 2010.

Japanese filmmakers must be aware of the way that their works are often viewed by the world at large. Google "weird Japanese movies" and you'll instantly be supplied with dozens and dozens of titles, all of them described as bizarre, to put it politely. And while it's true that Japanese cinema is a virtual treasure trove for gorehounds and fans of the absurd, once one gets used to storytelling style and material of these movies, it all starts to blend together. After all, once you've seen a man propel himself through the air with the pressure of the blood spouting firehose-like from his severed limbs (Tokyo Gore Police) and a murderous businessman with the head of a koala (Executive Koala), it's hard to be too surprised by whatever else you find, whether it be geishas trained as cyborg assassins (Robo-Geisha) or a wrestler fighting a crime syndicate to retrieve his wife-turned-zombie-mermaid (the aptly titled Oh! My Zombie Mermaid).

I first started my weekly hobby of watching (often terrible) Japanese B-movies when I realized that I shared a fondness for these awful movies with a friend of mine who lived in Australia. Once a week or so, we would each procure the most ridiculous, absurd and gory-sounding movies we could find, then shriek at each other through instant messaging about how hilarious (and, often, hilariously bad) they were. Most of the movies we watched would prove to be entertaining enough while they lasted, but few were good enough for us to remember for too long. The only thing I remember about Meatball Machine is a lot of screaming, and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl has been reduced to a vague memory of lots of bloodshed between young girls in too much stage makeup.

But there are always exceptions. We originally watched Survive Style 5+ (directed by Gen Sekiguchi, written by Taku Tada) only because we saw that it starred the talented Asano Tadanobu, whom we share a massive crush on for his performance as sadomasochistic yakuza leader in Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer. Since then, we've watched this film at least five or six more times. It's a strange movie, to be sure, and is often listed beside gems like Visitor Q and Panty Mask on "Top 20 Weird Japanese Movie" lists, but it also holds a strange and undeniable charm that makes it stand out from its often-dubious neighbors.

Survive Style 5+ is the weaving together of five different stories, each dealing with different characters: 1) a man who attempts to kill his wife several times, only to find her alive and well and bent on revenge every time he gets home after disposing of her body; 2) an outrageous advertisement director and her hypnotist boyfriend; 3) a loving family of four soon to have a messy run-in with the hypnotist; 4) a trio of thieves of whom two are sexually confused and 5) a loud and existential British hitman and his translator.

The uxoricidal man, arguably the main character, is played with a quiet, understated charm by the aforementioned Asano Tadanobu, with his silent wife played by gorgeous actress-and-model Reika Hashimoto, alongside a cast of mixed bignames and newcomers; veterans of Japanese cinema may be familiar with names like Kyoko Koizumi, Jai West and Sonny Chiba. And of course, filmgoers who are hungry for some small speck of familiarity may find it reassuring to hear that the British hitman is played by none other than Vinnie Jones.

The above explanation doesn't sound too far from the blurb for any surrealist ensemble film, but viewers of Survive Style are very quickly introduced to the fact that the world the film takes place in is absurd down to its very core. After all, a movie starting with a man explaining that it was inevitable that he kill his wife, and breaking the fourth wall to speak to the viewer is starting off on a rather strange note. Other viewers of the movie have described it as "a cartoon starring real people," and that description may not be too far from the truth. The movie is packed with all manner of absurd happenings carried out by characters who seem all but reasonable, and the movie seems to operate on its own special brand of logic. Everything in the movie does ultimately make sense, but only if you're able to suspend your disbelief and accept the realities of the world presented on-screen.

The strongest suit of the film, however, is probably not its absurdist plot, but rather something right there in the title: style. The set and costume designers must have had a field day with this movie, because every image, every place, every scene is exploding with color from its kinetic typography opening sequence to its last panoramic scene. In a day and age where too many filmmakers rely on digital color correction to lend their movies a unified feel (The Road, for example, was full of desaturated colors while The Matrix and its sequels were all tinted a very distinct green) or fall back to the common orange-blue color contrast (most often used between the fleshtone of the actors' skin and the blue of sky) to make colors pop, it's refreshing to see a movie embrace the visual impact that the full range of color can lend to a film. The only other movie that I can easily recall using color in this manner is Tarsem Singh's The Fall -- and while the two movies differ radically in narrative style and content, both are artful with their use of color to captivate the audience.

Not that the movie is without its flaws, though. The character of Yoko the advertising director seems to be a bit of a stand-in for the director Sekiguchi, who is well-known for his work with unique and colorful commercials. The various commercials she imagines are so over-the-top that they do tend to break the flow of the story somewhat, and her rant about the tendency of commercials to sacrifice impact for technobabble seems like it comes from the mouth of Sekiguchi. Film critics who insist on a cohesive ending to any ensemble piece may also find much to complain about, as the five different storylines don't exactly fuse into a single ending, but rather only brush up against each other briefly before going on their merry ways. Character backstories are sparse to nonexistence, and even names are rarely given -- a viewer must very quickly learn to go with the flow, rather than trying to make sense of the smaller details.

But maybe it's okay. The movie isn't a serious rumination on the human condition or an information-heavy drama, after all.

How does one even categorize this movie anyway? It could probably most easily be forced into the category of black comedy, but it contains elements from a variety of other genres including action, science-fiction and maybe even a little bit of romance. As the five different parties go about their lives, their stories bump into each others' in a way that is strange but believable in the movie's context. And while SS5+ isn't exactly a kid-friendly affair, the sex scene isn't very sexy and the violence (despite the character roster including two murderers and a woman scorned) isn't overindulgent or flamboyant. Clearly the movie's aim isn't about being a violent spectacle or a parade of general weirdness, but to tell the story of different people's attempts to survive their strange and inevitable lives.

And though I dare not spoil the movie's ending -- a bizarre but completely captivating scene that just wouldn't be the same if you knew it was coming -- I can say almost for certain that it's a heartwarming and uplifting end to a film about the absurdities of life.

Survive Style 5+ isn't a movie to watch if you're looking for something serious and linear with heavy consequences; this isn't some dark reflection on the human condition. Rather, it's a good-natured, colorful romp through the highs and lows of life, discussing the colorful ways that people deal with the world, and thoughtfully touching upon more complex subjects like life, death and love without lecturing the viewer. If you've got two hours to spare and won't mind dealing with some reality-bending shenanigans, then you could do a lot worse that SS5+ -- you'll be in for one hell of a ride.