Thursday, May 5, 2011

Movie Review: Kichiku Dai Enkai (1997)


                                           There are those occasional impulses that lead one to explore some of the lesser regarded tenets of human nature. And it likely can be said that there are certain films often lumped in with the often maligned (often deservedly so) horror genre, that are less exercises in mere scares, but more brutal examinations of our more incomprehensibly destructive behaviors. In recent years, it has come in the forms of either our often shallow torture-centric output, or even in France's little horror wave. Films that almost revel in some kind of past-the-threshold manner, nearly stripping away seemingly every last taboo in the name of shock. But how often does it all come from a place as raw & ghastly as Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's 1997 festival favorite, Kichiku Dai Enkai? Having seen it only once years before, I felt it strangely calling me back to give it perhaps another look to see how its effects may have subsided in a post-SAW, post- MARTYRS world. Which isn't to say that this film even ranks amongst those as cinematic kin. In fact, I'm still not sure where to peg the film as it seems to be a product of an amalgam of factors. Being made by third-year university student, Kumakiri, the film has the distinction of being released as the embers of Aum Shinrikyo were continuing to cool down, and Japan's intense post-Bubble navel gazing was at an all-time high, while a horror boom the likes few had ever seen was just waiting in the hall. Even now, an intense display of violent emotions set amidst the student uprisings that befell much of the country in the 1970s seems like a bizarre choice, lest it be considered a form of protest.

But as it is, it's a mystery how many were up in arms over the film as some kind of blood-spattered tirade against Leftist political leanings during that era. There's far too much evidence (or lack thereof) to suggest that the creative choices visualized here were meant as satirical target.

So how to describe this film? We are first off, introduced to the confident and charismatic Aizawa, a young political leader who is now serving time in jail for his group's often violent actions and protests. The crime he is in for specifically is never mentioned, but he has now bid goodbye to cellmate Fujawara who has just been released, giving him instructions to meet the rest of his gang of radicals in the city, as well as to meet with the group's current leader in his stead -his girlfriend, Masami (Sumiko Mikami).

And off the bat, we see that the Aizawa-less group is in near anarchy with criminal activity on the rise, and the mostly male crew at the sexualized mercy of the promiscuous, and clearly unstable Masami. Whether it be robbing the local post office, or smuggling in weapons, it seems that her controls are of the most base level, and are on the verge of collapse as it is clear that certain members are unhappy with affairs as they are. And with Aizawa nearing release, it seems as if the group may finally experience the order, and activity it once exhibited in the film's opening footage. However, as loyalties begin to waver, and Masami's methods become less and less sound, it is clear that no real agenda exists, except for casual sex with troubles members in the means to allay their doubts, and late night parties.

So when Aizawa is found to have committed suicide in his cell, the remaining tethers to rational begin to tighten and snap once erstwhile member, Yamane admits to wishing to join another group after reporting Masami to the police. It is here that the film's slow first half suddenly descends into unrivaled madness, as Masami and her all-too-willing crew allay vengeance upon Yamane, and anyone else Masami sees fit to hurt deep within the nearby forests. And this is where the film's clearly no-budget trappings, camerawork, soundtrack, acting, and editing truly show their teeth. With the camera leading the viewer into an often schizophrenic verite haze, we are privy to some pretty grotesque acts that may even make some of the more gore-leaning viewers cringe.

And again, none of this works without Mikami's performance as the ever crumbling substitute leader. She plays the whole role as if on a fiery ledge, never aware of just how far she will go until it's all too late. The character is in no way sympathetic, and yet, it implies years of systematic trauma that it becomes frightening just to contemplate what led to her disposition. The majority of the film's performances are relatively flat, and yet the cast clearly is giving its all, as if this is that one-time dream shot of a project. Sometimes subjecting themselves, and each other to some truly horrific acts that have to be seen to be fully believed. Also worthy of note are the at-times impressive gore effects that perhaps feel even more potent now than ever. With no access to CG-blood, or anything of the like, the film's ugliness is tactile, and unflinching. And even then, the film seems to be a vision of apocalypse, a vision of habit & base impulse gone amok, with even basic humanity slipping away at the seams, until nothing remains.

The sheer energy of the direction makes this feel exhausting to imagine the hell cast and crew went through just to get the film in a can. So when some folks complain that the film never gets around to explaining the doomed political group's platforms, or their ideologies, I'd have to say that despite the clearly amateurish production, the film's internal dynamic seems less interested in this, and moreso into how groups like this stay together, despite the nothing happening. Which is perhaps what Kumakiri was truly targeting. Systems of leadership, one-upmanship, and order based on mere habit. Which would explain the drawn out, and dare I say it, explosive finale. The young director seemed to have it in for keeping matters as they are "simply because". Kichiku is a bare knuckles demand for real reasons, and a warning to those just letting it be. 

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