I’ve had such a hard time figuring out how to describe Love Song for Rapper that I’m tempted to say, see the movie and we’ll talk about it after. It’s a crude, scruffy, handmade movie with no name recognition that came totally out of nowhere and ambushed me with its charms. It’s also darned near impossible to review, because it doesn’t anchor itself in any of the typical reference points a movie would use. I would tentatively call it a black comedy, but that would be at the expense of the movie’s genuinely sweet and heartfelt feeling; and if I called it a family drama that would ignore the major detours it takes into surrealism and David Lynch-ian left-hand paths. The only other film I have seen that compares even remotely to it is Christopher Doyle’s Away with Words, which also mixed surrealism and comedy.
Love Song for Rapper gives us a family living in modern Tokyo, a mother and two sons. One of the boys is an aspiring comic artist, and spends most of his days holed up in his room drawing and painting page after page of his masterwork. The other’s a minor-league baseball player, and like his brother, nothing exists for him outside of his little ambition. He plays, he comes home, he stuffs his face with cola and chips, and only deals with his brother as a nuisance and an obstacle. These scenes are hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, like the one where the ballplaying brother angrily denounces Mom for spoiling his sibling — only then in the same breath to demand a new pair of running shoes.
Two brothers, one an aspiring manga-ka, the other a baseball player, each stuck in their respective worlds.
The artist is just as unhappy for different reasons: he feels singled-out, picked on, unable to connect with anyone. He eventually strikes up a relationship of sorts with a young woman, and they’re happy together, but he’s still rather inept when it comes to women. For tips on this he goes to a local guru / vagrant, who also sells on-the-spot batting lessons to his brother for 100 yen each. The vagrant’s all too happy to sell the artist brother sex tips for 100 yen each, too, and as funny as the scene is, that’s just the setup — it backfires again later in a way that has to be seen to be believed.
This is the key to the movie: it’s not about plotting, but tone and feeling. One scene in particular encapsulates the movie’s cheerful lunacy: The artist brother goes to a tenant of theirs to collect rent, only to h a ve him run around like a lunatic and threaten to poison the town’s water supply. Even nuttier is a scene where the baseball brother hops on his bike, pedals frantically after someone else, then runs over a bird and spends the next hour digging a grave for it and leaving a crushed Coke can as a marker. This grave, amazingly, comes back into the story as a fairly major plot point — inasmuch as a movie this freewheeling could be said to have anything like a formal plot.
Love Song for Rapper is a product of the boom in near-underground digital video cinema production taking place right now in Japan. For a country with an incredibly avid moviegoing audience, the state of noncommercial filmmaking there has always been badly documented — not just for outsiders, but for natives. For one, filmmaking’s expensive no matter how you slice it, and in a country as expensive to live in as Japan, it’s doubly painful to try and make a movie with no budget. DV has ameliorated some of that — all you need is a DV camera and a computer, and neither are that expensive or hard to deal with anymore.
The biggest problem with DV, of course, is that you trade off image quality for convenience and ease of use. The film’s muddy photography and tinny sound are likely to alienate people who’re looking for polished Hollywood product. But it’s been assembled with care and attention; it may not look like an A-list feature, but it treats itself with the seriousness of one. It works despite all of its technical limitations, and every now and then they find a way to make its crude DV imagery look striking. The occasional bit of computer graphics and stop-motion animation also come into play, and while they’re very simplistic too, they serve the movie’s needs.
These are the sorts of films I respond to most strongly. They don’t have to be made on a lot of money — in fact, the size of the budget or the production values often have nothing to do with what draws me in. It’s the handmade, I-did-this feel of the whole thing that’s most endearing. Most movies are extruded by the yard and shrinkwrapped to order, to borrow a phrase, so it’s always a relief to find something that was cobbled together by an individual instead of hammered out by a committee.
Hard information about Love Song for Rapper is incredibly difficult to come by. The film doesn’t even have an IMDB entry as of this writing, but from what I can tell it was directed by a fellow named Sho Fujiwara, who made this as his first feature-length production. And it’s his baby all the way through, from the funky animated opening credits to the indescribably bizarre Grand Guignol tragedy ending, which manages to be gory, sad, touching, glum, and bittersweet all at the same time. It’s just that kind of movie.