Summer TimeMachine Blues Review
There’s something to be said about director Katsuyuki Motohiro’s style of filmmaking; he’s undoubtedly one of the most energetic film directors currently working in Japan, and yet his body of work isn’t staggeringly huge. Having worked his way up through television during the mid 90s and securing a smash hit with TV detective drama Odoru Daisosasen he went on to debut with his feature length film Bayside Shakedown in 1998, a continuation of the aforementioned TV show, starring the ever likeable Yuji Oda. Space Travelers followed in 2000, starring Takeshi Kanashiro, which saw a trio of thieves hold up a bank in an often funny, though ultimately tragic and poignant picture. Motohiro continued to focus on the Bayside Shakedown movies between 2003 and 2005, both of which proved to be as big a hit as the original, taking the Japanese box office by storm. Having invested so many years in his ever popular franchise he’s found time to move on with 2005’s Summer TimeMachine Blues. While he retains several familiar traits he comes up with a film that’s refreshingly different from his previous efforts, not to mention different from a multitude of teen comedies leaking out of Japan and the rest of the world.
Summer TimeMachine Blues, with it’s play on words style title and high spirited nature sees it reminiscent of recent hits such as Waterboys, Swing Girls, Survive Style 5+ and Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims, with a touch of Grasshoppa’s feel good factor from independent productions such as Frog River and A Taste of Tea. Indeed it belongs amongst the best in post millennium Japanese independent cinema, and as far as Motohiro goes he’s made perhaps his most personal film to date. Though Summer TimeMachine Blues isn’t based on any of his original concepts, having been adapted from a Europa Kikaku play, they being a theatrical group, it has a very charming quality that recollects childhood innocence and memories of our best times growing up.
The film takes place during the Summer of 2005, where on a sweltering day five members of a local Sci-Fi club - Takuma (Eita), Masaru (Yoshiaki Yoza), Shunsuke (Daijiro Kawaoka), Atsushi (Munenori Nagano) and Daigo (Tsuyoshi Muro) - entertain themselves by clumsily playing Baseball out on the club’s field. When they get back to the club they meet up with friends Haruka (Juri Ueno) and Yui (Yoko Maki); exhausted and in need of a bath, an accident sees their beloved air conditioner remote control fizzle out after being doused in coca-cola. Just then a time machine appears in their club house; where did it come from? Is it Mushroom boy’s? It’s probably just a joke they think, but upon closer inspection it turns out to be the real deal. Suddenly the notion arrives that they can travel back in time by one day and save the remote control from disaster, thus being able to enjoy their prized air conditioner once more. But they soon learn that they must be careful as not to do anything that might alter the course of the future. A simple enough task soon turns into a series of difficult events as the group try to avoid themselves in the past, while befriending a strangely familiar face of the future.
Motohiro has a knack of making the viewer feel like a part of his movies, and none more so does he succeed than here. By discreetly manipulating his images he gives off a sense of realism with his sizzling summer portrayal, as waves of heat permeate through the entire picture; close ups and distance shots recall the days that are impossible to forget, and the times when you were desperate for a longing breeze or an infinite supply of water. The fact that all of this takes place during just one day, in a largely confined space makes this all the more an intimate film, whereby identifying with these kids and their surrounds isn’t so much of a difficult task. But first and foremost, Summer TimeMachine Blues isn’t all about bittersweet sentiments and the days of longing, it’s a comedy film, and a pleasantly light-hearted one at that. In an age where most teen comedies’ prime directive is appealing to its demographic audience by supplying crude humour, Motohiro embraces the simpler, gentler kind of approach that is all the more amusing because it doesn’t try too hard in bettering anything before it. Summer TimeMachine Blues is all about fun, the kind that can be achieved without the need to gross out and shock the viewer, or supply endless rounds of expletives, in fact this film has absolutely none of those qualities, and it’s all the better for it.
Furthermore Summer TimeMachine Blues isn’t concerned with providing digs at social classes or political factions, or anything else that might worm its way into many a Japanese film. It’s care free, embodying the very mentality that we, as schoolchildren, once had ourselves. It’s a film in which simplicity would win above all, if it wasn’t for its loopy, convoluted time travel ramblings. But I use the word “rambling” affectionately. There’s a sense that the director understands his material, and that of Makoto Ueno’s script. In fact it all makes perfect sense in the end, even for the less scientifically minded. However the pace at which Motohiro delivers his time travel pieces might do more to cause dizzying headaches than the breakdown in time travel rules itself. But one can’t knock the director for having the utmost enthusiasm and kinetic keenness in delivering a magical little tale that deals with a simple remote control. At one point the viewer begins to think if such an inanimate object is the star of the film, recalling such examples as the equally charming, South Korean comedy Break Out, featuring one man’s search for his lost lighter. But of course it isn’t, proving to be more of a gateway into the personality of the owners themselves. Moreover, despite the seemingly scientific based approach, Summer TimeMachine Blues isn’t really a science fiction film, per se. It contains elements from several genres which automatically sees to it that it isn’t so easily confined to a specific genre, much like Jeong Jun-hwan’s Save the Green Planet from 2003. This turns out to be its strength, and in a rare occasion it’s a film that does know exactly what it wants to be.
With the whole time travel scenario left to play out the director has the difficult task of maintaining a strong narrative. That’s always a difficult aspect with any time travel movie, and these are the ones that come under the most scrutiny. As a nod the director references a classic of the genre - Back to the Future, and reels in some hokey sci-fi nerds to explain the ins and outs and rights and wrongs, which demonstrates the kind of tone he’s trying to achieve. Donnie Darko has the recent distinction of being one of the most complex time travel movies ever made, and you’d think it would have to slip up somewhere, yet it doesn’t. Similarly Summer TimeMachine Blues methodically lays out the groundwork, effortlessly explaining every paradox it needs to, while keeping simple enough for the viewer to come away satisfied with the notion that they don’t have to spend hours working everything out. But more than that it also deals with a simple little tale of love, in which the main protagonist Takuma has a more difficult time in understanding women than he does in travelling through time. Though this aspect is initially played out as more of a side story it eventually comes together to tie up a pleasant twist, although said twist is all too easily identified at a crucial midway stage; I wonder then if this is intentional, or if the director himself makes a slight error of judgement. By the end the film’s final scenes aren’t so much of a shock, but they’re gracefully handled and bring with them a nice sense of closure, leaving us safe in the knowledge that everything for these characters is going to turn out alright.
After the introduction of the main cast it’s immediately apparent that many of these faces are up and coming talents, with only a few having some solid credits to their name, mainly the likes of Eita, Juri Ueno and Yoko Maki, while the rest of the actors are largely made up of the Europa Kikaku troupe, and friends of the director who are making their screen debuts. Clearly the transition from stage comedy to film poses no problems, and nor should it in hindsight. There’s a great amount of comfort within the group of performers, and for obvious reasons; the choice to cast them proves to be the safest bet and they use this to their advantage, making the viewer truly believe that these people are indeed lifelong friends. In the end Summer TimeMachine Blues’s success relies on its cast members and effectively drawn script, which ensures it as being one of 2005’s most overlooked gems.
Summer TimeMachine Blues is available to own through Toshiba Entertainment in two editions: a regular, and attractively priced single disc edition and a three disc special collector’s edition, which comprises of two amaray cases and an extra slot for the separately released stage play that sadly comes without subtitles. The box itself is nothing special, being a simple, black sleeve that houses the cases. The first disc in this collector’s edition is exact to the single edition release, which means you get a couple of nice extras to boot, although profiles are in kanji. I should warn the reader that as with just about all Japanese releases the extra features do not come with optional English subtitles. I shall then recommend the first press limited edition for those simply wanting to check out the film, which can be purchased here for approximately £14.
Summer TimeMachine Blues is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is almost as perfect a DVD release as you could wish for. The colour palette here is absolutely striking, with greens looking as lush as any I’ve seen on digital disc; an important factor considering almost all of the action takes place outside. Flesh tones are equally natural looking, and detail is just wonderful, with barely any softness, even for wide shots. The only thing that really mars this transfer is the use of Edge Enhancement, with everything else appearing to be spot on, including black levels and contrast.
The main audio track is a simple Japanese DD2.0 Surround job. It does a surprisingly good job in giving the film a solid workout. There aren’t many opportunities for it to go crazy, aside from the actual sounds during the time machine sections, or during several catchy musical numbers. Everything else is handled very well, with dialogue having nice directionality.
Optional English subtitles are included and these read fine, with no noticeable errors; a very thorough job which pays off nicely.
The first disc contains cast and staff profiles, two trailers, a TV spot and finally a director and producer commentary.
On disc two, titled “Time Machine Disc”, you’ll find the bulk of the extras, starting with a making of featurette (19.20). Location shoots (20.15) follow next, and then a look at how the accident scene was achieved (12.22). After this is a production diary that follows the main cast from the beginning of the shoot in 2004 to the eventual wrap up in 2005. It shows some happy and emotional moments, giving off a real sense of a family unit (15.10). A stills gallery comprising of forty-six photos precedes a six minute movie countdown. Next up are cast and crew trips (38.08) that sees everyone visit a theme park and then onto a little camping where they rehearse their roles. A promo tour (20.07) rounds off the disc.
Disc three, entitled “S.F. Club Disc” features a video commentary from the S.F. Club set, with actors Eita (Takuma), Yoshiaki Yoza (Niimi), Daijiro Kawaoka (Shunsuke) and Tsuyoshi Muro (Daigo).
Summer TimeMachine Blues is yet another successful film in Katsuyuki Motohiro’s small body of work. It’s a charming and very funny film, filled with a sense of innocence and naivety which has long been forgotten, save for a small group of directors who still try to preserve such qualities in their films. I feel that Summer TimeMachine Blues may well be overlooked by most of the world, as has all of Motohiro’s prior work, which means that this director is bound not to receive the recognition that he so rightfully deserves. Should this prove to be the case it would indeed be a great shame, but I hope that he continues to steadily progress and entertain his fans for many more years to come.