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Survive Style 5+

Japan (2004), 120 minutes
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Vinnie Jones, Hiroshi Abe, Yosi Yosi Arakawa, Sonny Chiba, Reika Hashimoto, Shihori Kanjiya, Ittoku Kishibe
Reviewer: Vance Aandahl
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rating: 5

Occasionally a single moment in a movie will surprise us with so much revelatory force that we stagger sideways, and then, when we look up again, blinking in astonishment, we see the whole movie in a new light. Two famous examples are the shower scene in Psycho and the epiphany at the end of Citizen Kane when the name Rosebud can be glimpsed on the burning sled of long-lost childhood. My personal favorite is the cruelest scene in the history of cinema, that terrible, heartrending moment at the end of City Lights when the blind flower girl, her sight restored, sees the shabby little tramp for the first time, and not knowing who he is, ridicules him. Chaplin trudges away, his shoulders sagging, his expression a tragic mask of resignation, sorrow, and despair. More recently, the emergency tracheotomy scene in The Princess And The Warrior stunned me with its sudden visceral intensity, its high romance, trembling intimacy, and raw sexual energy.

During the 114th minute of an oddball multi-genre Japanese film with the inscrutable title of Survive Style 5+, such a scene hit me so hard it was like getting flattened from a sixth-story window by the Rosetta stone. My guru and spiritual advisor the Divine J-Rod had given Survive Style 5+ a wildly enthusiastic recommendation, and because films recommended by the Divine J-Rod always end with a knockout punch, I should have known something strong was coming. I should have braced myself for the impact. But I didn’t.

Who knows why? Perhaps the film’s glossy, candycane-bright, TV-commercial esthetics put me off my guard. The production design is so artificial it makes the sets used on Sesame Street look naturalistic. Intense no-shadows-allowed lighting supersaturates every indoor scene, revealing the polished perfection of the carefully contrived interiors, some of which are as extravagantly furnished as a Martian boutique. I haven’t seen such a molten overflow of unnatural colors since that day last summer when I was tripping on acid and Little Deuteronomy put Moxie’s crayolas in the microwave. Survive Style 5+ has five different story lines, each of which is broken into a sequence of short episodes, and many of these episodes have the brevity and the look and the feel of a TV commercial or a music video. They can be enjoyed as self-contained vignettes showcasing the clever camerawork, clever editing, split-second timing, superimposed graphics, slick gimmickry, punched-up punchlines, and hip, energetic explosions of music that we’ve come to expect from those curious filmmakers who are required by their employers to pump out little dramas that are only 30 to 60 seconds long yet have the power to entrance millions of morons into buying merchandise and services they don’t need.

None of the above is surprising. Survive Style 5+ is director Gen Sekiguchi’s debut feature film, but before it was released last year, he was already an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, renowned for creating the most artistic, inventive, original, and entertaining commericals in Japan, if not the whole world. He and his longtime screenwriter Taku Tada have won numerous prizes for their commercials, including the Silver Lion at the 2000 Cannes International Advertising Festival.

An interesting characteristic of TV commercials is that they have no rules or limits. Anything goes. Horses play football. Cowboys herd cats. Lizards sell insurance. Realism and fantasy, in all their modes and styles and degrees, have been blurred together in so many commercials that we now take advertising surrealism for granted and view it as ordinary. In Survive Style 5+ Sekiguchi freely and stylishly intermingles a bizarre assortment of elements, events, and themes, some of them nonsensical, some deadly serious, including (but certainly not limited to) several murders, a hypnotic spell that cannot be broken, gay love, familial love, two levitations, an existential questioning of man’s purpose in life, a gluttonous feast during which a single diner consumes what appears to be 50 or 60 pounds of food, an attempted suicide, a corpse that keeps coming back to life, a number of brutal beatings, a young boy’s unconditional faith in his father, a scathing satire of the advertising business, the transformation of little green plastic Army men into full-sized enemy soldiers, the anxiety and hysteria that result from work-related burnout, a non-fatal stabbing in a sauna, a near drowning in a bathtub, the use of severed limbs as high-speed projectiles, the fine art of knowing when to exercise parental authority and when to relax and be friends with one’s children, the fine art of knowing how to open your mouth and exhale a jet of dragon flame at your husband, a love/hate relationship that won’t die until after it’s been killed seven or eight times, and a singalong in which a wholesome family of four enthusiastically shout out filthy English-language lyrics whose meaning they obviously don’t understand. Not to mention the fact that Sekiguchi has also inserted four or five imaginary commercials at key intervals in the story. All of this is presented in the context of Christmastime in Tokyo, with oodles of Christmas decorations and Christmas-carol music. Bizarre!

The cast of characters is equally disparate. An unkempt, milk-guzzling killer, who appears to be fabulously wealthy, is played by superstar dreamboat Tadanobu Asano with his usual mixture of supercoolness and innocent boyish charm. A vile, egomaniacal, sadistic hypnotist (played with loathsome flamboyance by Hiroshi Abe) mocks and humiliates the audience members he invites onto the stage during his hit TV show “Viva Friends!” A London hit man (played with insane ferocity by English soccer star Vinnie Jones) asks everyone he meets, “What is your function in life?” If he doesn’t like the answer, he repeats his question over and over again, more and more angrily, until finally he goes into a blind rage and attacks the person he’s questioning. When three comically inept teenage burglars break into a house, instead of locating the valuables and making a quick getaway, they sit on the floor playing Indian poker, bragging and lying, giggling like children. A woman ad exec named Yoko (played with a nice blend of toughness and vulnerability by Kyoko Koizumi) hangs by her fingertips on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Her job is to generate good ideas for TV commercials, but she’s reached a point where the only ideas she can think up are ones that are too dark and offensive. The most endearing character is Kobayashi (played with quiet dignity by Ittoku Kishibe), a homely salary slave who loves his family, who treats his children with gentleness, kindness, understanding, and generosity, and who suffers a nasty fate he does not deserve.

Overwhelmed by the sheer richness of its incongruous elements, critics describe Survive Style 5+ as psychedelic and Kafkaesque. I can’t argue with that. At one and the same time, it is a freakshow of carnage, a goofball comedy, and a philosophical meditation – lovely and life-affirming. Life-affirming. The word leads us back to that astonishing moment in the movie’s 114th minute that blew my socks off with its revelatory impact. I won’t describe what happens during this moment. To do so would be to give away too much. I will only say that this is a moment that’ll truly astonish you, that’ll shiver your nerve endings with a delicately nuanced frisson of esthetic pleasure, that’ll wrench your gut with a catharsis worthy of a Greek tragedy, that’ll illuminate your brainpan with the radiance of spiritual enlightenment and make your spine shudder with a good old-fashioned cheap thrill. Yes, this is a moment when chickens soar like eagles, when meekness is reborn as the mythical Phoenix, when sanity itself dissolves into wonder, awe, and wild surmise. For one shining moment of madness, we realize and believe. We know it’s actually true. Love will find a way.