Wild Life and An Obsession(Artsmagic, 8.30.2005 and 10.25.2005)
On the heels of their release of Shinji Aoyama's wild and creepy horror film EM: Embalming, ArtsMagic turns their attention to two works more indicative of Aoyama's freewheeling aesthetic, his 1997 crime thriller Wild Life and another police procedural from three years later, An Obsession. In both the Aoyama interviews and Jasper Sharp's commentary tracks, it is pointed out that his filmmaking career was inspired by the '60s films of Jean Luc Godard.
A fan of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now as a teenager (when he was an aspiring musician), he rightly deduced that filmmaking on that scale in the more fiscally responsible Japanese film industry was pretty much impossible, so he kept his filmmaking ambitions on the back burner until he saw Godard's Breathless and he suddenly found a style of filmmaking that not only suited him, but could be produced on the kind of modest budgets most Japanese filmmakers worked with.
Godard's shadow looms long and large over Wild Life, an episodic thriller with a fractured timeline and a story that seems only vaguely interested in the standard elements of the crime thriller genre. Divided into chapters that are named from either song or book titles (a technique that brings to mind Weekend and the pop culture filled dialogue of Band of Outsiders and Alphaville), Wild Life tells the story of a pachinko-parlor robbery and its reprisals within the yakuza underworld in a non-linear fashion that isn't fully clear until the very end of the film (and even then it really helps to watch the film more than once in order to pick up all the details and put them into place).
Our attention is held by Aoyama's affection for his characters and our desire to figure out just what the hell is going on in this soup sandwich of a story. Like Godard's films, Wild Life isn't for everyone, but those who appreciate films that require a little more effort on the part of the viewer will find plenty to reward their efforts.
The shadow of another master, Aoyama's fellow countryman Akira Kurosawa, hangs over An Obsession. A very (and I mean very!) loose remake of Kurosawa's Stray Dog, An Obsession follows a police detective as he hunts down the man responsible for the shooting of his partner. While the idea of an old master being remade by a younger, arty upstart can lead to dubious results (think Gus Van Sant's ill-advised remake of Psycho), An Obsession sidesteps a lot of these traps by almost completely changing the story.
The post-war black market setting of Stray Dog would, of course, not really work in a thriller set in contemporary Japan, so Aoyama wisely sets his film in a modern underworld of cults and yakuza heavies. He also moves the shooting of the partner right to the start of the film and, as a result of these changes, the film stands as its own original piece of work and not really a remake at all. The theme of culture oppressing youth and the struggle of men for identity in postwar Japanese culture is kept more or less intact in the new story, however, and I have a feeling even Kurosawa might have been impressed with Aoyama's "cover" of his motifs.
An Obsession is also much less formally experimental than Wild Life and, as a result, it may be more accessible to viewers who are on the lookout for a well-made thriller. It also marks a kind of turning point in Aoyama's career, since his next film, Eureka, marked a newer phase of experimentation that has been his style as his career has moved into the 21st century. With these two releases and the earlier release of EM: Embalming, ArtsMagic makes the early work of yet another Japanese director intent on breaking convention available to Western audiences and, for those that might find Takashi Miike a little too extreme for their tastes, Shinji Aoyama is an interesting alternative. -- Christopher Hyatt