Survive Style 5+ Review
For several years Survive Style 5+’s director Gen Sekiguchi and Screenwriter Taku Tada have dominated the Japanese commercial scene via their unique brand of quirky and energetic advertisements. After picking up several awards, including the Silver Lion at the 2000 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, Sekiguchi set up shop with Reinbach - a production company with which he developed his first major feature. Survive Style 5+ is just one of the latest films to continue with Japanese New Wave sensibilities; a recent time in which expressionism in Japan seems more predominant than ever. Sekiguchi, like directors Katsuhito Ishii and Kankuro Kudo, who have both seen recent years through with a bang, takes no liberties in storytelling; he’s a visual director first and foremost, and as he proves with his debut feature conventional narrative goes out of the window in favour of poetic movement, bizarre collisions and a surreal sense of humour that’s enough to scream out the kind of style that he’s aiming for. It’s certainly something that freedom has ultimately allowed him to sew the seeds of success with.
The film’s title derives from five interweaving tales, each one focusing on the lives of those whose existence isn’t quite so “normal”.
The first is Aman (Asano Tadanobu) who has just killed his wife (Reika Hashimoto) and has returned home after burying her in a forest. Or at least he thought he did. When he steps inside his house he finds his wife ready and waiting, fully breathing and in tip top condition. It doesn’t take too long for his confusion to subside before he takes another stab at finishing her off. Yet again she returns. A strange cycle ensues, one that appears to be endless, but perhaps the problems in this relationship can be tackled with a little soul searching. Next is Yoko (Kyoko Koizumi) - an advertising executive who finds inspiration around every corner in her daily life. But she’s shallow and fails to win over her clients and neither does her hypnotist lover Aoyama (Abe Hiroshi) grant her a great deal of respect - unless he has a good five minutes in the sack with her. Meanwhile salary man Tatsuya (Ittoku Kishibe) has just secured some exclusive tickets for himself and his loving family to see Aoyama perform his popular stage act. However, when Tatsuya is called on stage he falls victim to one of the hypnotist’s tricks, which unfortunately cannot be reversed in light of a bizarre and tragic event; soon his family is to be handed the ultimate test in taking care of him. And while all this is going on three no good crooks: Tsuda (Kanji Tsuda), Morishita (Yoshiyuki Morishita) and J (Jae West) are scouring the suburbs seeking out homes to rob. But it soon becomes apparent that there’s more to this friendship than they thought, as Morishita and J begin to exchange some awfully lustful glances. Finally, a British hitman (Vinnie Jones) and his translator (YoshiYoshi Arakawa) arrive in Japan, where they’re soon to be hired in taking care of some tricky business.
Survive Style 5+ has the distinction of containing several stories in one feature, though rather than being a collection of short pieces each is in fact linked by a coherent theme, even if Sekiguchi’s rampant directing threatens to deviate from this on more than one occasion. The plot is entirely episodic and not unusual from a structural standpoint; the non-linear style in which the director chooses to play out events is one that’s become rapidly popular in contemporary cinema: multiple strands that manage to connect in a seamless manner and tie up several plot points whilst retaining their own individual identities. Clearly the director’s expertise in crafting enticing and lively short commercials aids him in creating a series of events that are amazingly frantic, drawing those of us in via its quick-fire rounds and challenging the viewer to stop and catch their breath or pause for thought, in fear of being engulfed by its hectic approach. As one story pauses and the next begins Sekiguchi builds up a great sense of wonder and the feature becomes excessively ludicrous, breaking down conventional barriers by displaying playful, comic-like outward appearances that almost defy explanation. I mean how do you make a great deal of sense in trying to sum up a character that can fire her hands at people as if they were projectiles? Or a man who becomes hypnotised into thinking he’s a bird - who eventually learns how to fly?
Well that’s where we have to dig a bit deeper in order to uncover its overall merits. Survive Style 5+ thrives on allegory and metaphorical devices. Underpinning every action is some form of social critique or moral encompass, whether that be taking sharp satirical stabs at commercialism, defining family values, exploring taboo issues such as homosexuality or searching for one’s place in the big wide world. It all boils down to finding your true self; being accepted in an ever changing society; finding that the simplest of communication can repair seemingly doomed relationships, but above all surviving life and all of its daily ups and downs. Granted, these thematic traits are not exactly new things in regards to Japanese cinema of recent years, but director Sekiguchi proves to us that we can approach these subjects and get a message across in any number of stylistically unique ways. Certainly Survive Style 5+’s vibrant display of modern pop culture references helps toward widening its stance and appealing to a broad age range, furthermore its manic façade masks it enough so that we’re not pummelled with overbearing sentimentalities. Its form of expression is very real, simply being lined with surreal aesthetics in tandem with its poignant inner essence; choosing to express itself here with prevailent life affirming phrases and situational shifts. And while all of that might sound deadly serious the case is that more often than not its simply riotous fun. Japanese films of its ilk tend to offer extremely broad ranges of humour and Sekiguchi’s debut, while hard to categorise, does more than enough to raise plenty of laughter, particularly within two thirds of its run time. But it never forgets its task at hand and as such it gradually conforms to a steadier, light-hearted feel, which is where it then takes stock of all that’s happened and leaves us to ponder its existence. It becomes quite reminiscent of other features that have taken similar steps in reaching a meaningful conclusion, such as the darkly tinged Party 7 or last year’s Yaji and Kita.
Survive Style 5+ is also an extremely beautiful film, featuring arguably the best set design of any 2004 feature. Its visuals maintain their magical lure through to the very end: like a crazy pop-up book it leaps out at the viewer and offers many a surprise as Sekiguchi tugs on the cardboard-y bits that makes everything pop up and down and jiggle from side to side. Only his is the coolest pop-up book ever. The film seems to thrive on a primary colour scheme: reds, greens and yellows dominate the surroundings by thematically linking these bizarre tales, in addition to utilising modern trends and kitsch fashions which flesh out each character’s eccentricities. There’s nothing particularly subtle about the way in which the director stages his visuals and colour schemes. Here he’s working in the world’s largest sand box and like a giddy child he’s only too happy to get his fingers covered in paint and his hands full of those large plastic balls that we’ve all enjoyed rolling around in at some point in the past. But when coupled with Survive Style 5+’s beguiling humour it becomes an experience that almost defies explanation. By becoming immersed into the world of these characters one then becomes privy to the surreal lyricisms as they gradually open up.
And to lead the way we have an amazing cast of top grade lead and character actors, including scene stealer Abe Hiroshi as an egotistical womanising hypnotist; Asano Tadanobu playing a victim of his own nefarious crime; Kyoko Koizumi tearing up the house as a commercial executive and Ittoku Kishibe as a pitiable salary man. Further excellent support comes from familiar faces such as Shinichi (Sonny) Chiba, the burglar threesome of Yoshiyuki Morishita, Kanji Tsuda and Jai West, YoshiYoshi Arakawa and Reika Hashimoto. I don’t like it when I have to talk about films with huge ensembles, particularly when they’re as good as this. But perhaps the biggest “What the fuck!” moment to grace the screen comes in the form of Vinnie Jones as an assassin who employs the service of a translator (played by Arakawa). It begs the question what, why and how? And after scratching your head perhaps you’ll just stop caring. Jones is Jones; he doesn’t so much act, but yell a lot with the film’s signature “What is your function?”
And at the end of it all perhaps that is the very question that director Sekiguchi begs of us all. Who are we and where are we going? Our paths may lead in separate directions, many will cross each other and it’ll no doubt be a long and bumpy slog. The answers to our troubles or status in life may not lay over the horizon, but inside us already. Maybe we just need that little extra push in order to find them.
Manga Entertainment ports over Geneon’s Japanese release as Survive Style 5+ makes its debut in the west. I’ve decided to offer a comparison between both versions.
Rather shockingly Geneon’s Japanese R2 release is an interlaced effort. While it generally looks pleasing it sadly conforms to combing and ghosting. So in that respect Manga’s standards conversion release is no worse off. In fact it’s nigh on identical to its Japanese counterpart (I suspect ever so slight contrast boosting for the UK disc: see lesser detail in Kyoko's hair and sleeve whiteness). Presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 aspect ratio Survive Style 5+ is given worthy attention to detail in regards to its vibrant colour scheme, which plays a vital part in setting the overall tone of the film. Dark scenes are handled equally well, with solid blacks and good contrast levels, though sadly edge enhancement lets things down a little and proves that its use in trying to sharpen an image continually proves to be futile, as here we see an image that appears slightly soft regardless, though perhaps close to its original source. When will these companies learn though? A spot of aliasing creeps in now and then, but overall it’s a nice looking transfer which is free from ugly artefacts and major compression woes. Below is a comparison between the UK (top) and the Japanese (bottom) releases:
Survive Style 5+makes great use of the surrounds, so it’s nice to see that Manga has offered a wide choice of audio tracks. Provided on the disc is Japanese DD2.0, 5.1 Surround and DTS 5.1 Surround. So let’s get straight to the good stuff. There’s not a great deal to separate the 5.1 Surround and DTS Surround tracks, save that the DTS option offers a meaty bass, which livens up some action scenes and punctuates James Shimoji’s terrific score very well, not to mention some of the great songs that feature in this eclectic mix. The film has that live-action feel about it through and through and so complimenting the fast paced visuals is an abundance of well steered surround effects, from simple ambient noises that appear in almost dead silence at times, to heavier action oriented scenes, which makes this a pleasurable listening experience.
Optional English subtitles are included on the disc and from what I can gather they too are ported over from the Japanese edition. While I haven’t gone through both with a fine tooth comb I find that there are a couple of rare structural errors present on the Manga disc too; nothing worth worrying over, just the ocassional blank word to fill in, which is usually something simple to complete a sentance. Otherwise the translation does read very well throughout, with a nice white font and good timing.
Unfortunately the bonus features section is fairly light. It would have been great if Manga had ported over the deleted scenes featured on the Geneon release and even more of the TV and cinema blurbs. Still, it’s not all bad: at least we have a couple of bits here to enjoy. Running for 28 minutes the “Making of…” is an enjoyable piece that goes behind the scenes and reveals how much of a fun shoot the process was. Gen Sekiguchi talks a little about starting up his first major film and briefly touches upon the story now and then. Interviews with all of the major cast members can be heard off screen, while we watch them perform in various scenes, generally having a laugh throughout. Each actor talks about why they approached the role and what made the filming so unique to them.
A trailer for the film is also included, in addition to “Manga Attacks” – a montage featuring some classic Manga releases and some more recent ones.
Survive Style 5+ was one of Japan’s biggest treats of 2004; a Day-Glo explosion that exists on its own plane, fuelled by modern trends, retro eccentricities and a wonderful ensemble that truly bring to life its underlying social themes. I’m somewhat surprised to see the film get a UK release; Asian comedy films in general, away from some martial arts features and teen sex comedies, are often overlooked in the west, so it’s very welcoming to see Manga take a chance on this one. Whether or not it does well for them remains to be seen, though I suspect it may struggle as a more obscure title in their anime-laced catalogue. Nonetheless it has a very universal appeal about it: it may be dressed up in Japanese clothing but it has a warm hearted nature that should resonate with the wide audience it so rightly deserves.