To-ri is the sort of production I love to discover: a showcase for a number of different works not created for the sake of commercial success, but simple artistic expression on the part of the creators. One of the great liberating possibilities of digital technology is that it’s now become much easier to create a movie that is exactly what you want it to be, without spending tons of money, and without requiring that it be released in theaters to recoup its cost. The final product can be released directly to DVD or even downloaded. This doesn’t guarantee that the best of the best will find an audience — what would? — but it makes it a lot less difficult for a filmmaker to find an audience at all.
To-ri (the title means “Bi-rd”) seems to have been made in this spirit: it’s not a commercial project, but a set of short films compiled and directed by Tadanobu Asano. Asano may already be familiar to readers of this site — he’s been described the Japanese Johnny Depp, a heart-throb actor who has also starred in projects high in both artistic and commercial value: Gojoe, Electric Dragon 80.000 V, Maborosi, Away with Words, Distance, Zatōichi, Party 7, Ichi the Killer, Bright Future, Gohatto, and dozens more. The films he appears in are usually never less than interesting, and while To-ri does not star him (except in one scene as a corpse, interestingly enough) it forms what I took to be a fascinating cross-section of his tastes and interests as a filmmaker.
The first segment, “Bird”, was created in collaboration with musician Yamataka Eye, he of the infamous noise-and-nonsense band Hanatarash and the slightly more famous art-punk outfit the Boredoms. Eye (as he’s commonly known) is also famous for creating childlike collage-drawings that are published in very short-run editions — either printed with some of his records or offered as art objects — and “Bird” consists of a number of his artworks animated digitally and set to music. The soundtrack is credited to “Kujun”, one of the performers for Gojoe’s astounding score and possibly a member of Asano’s own band Mach 1.67 (who supplied music for Electric Dragon — see how all this fits together?).
“Bird” is the shortest but at the same time the most rewarding of the five films on the disc. In only a few minutes, Eye and the animators take a basic idea and give it life, and make the music and images complement each other wonderfully. It’s tempting to think about something like this stretched out a little longer, but it would need an actual story before it could be expanded to a feature-length item. As it stands, it’s a neat little curio that takes on additional level of fascination if you’re already a fan of any of the people involved.
The second film, “Kokoro no Ken” (“Heart of the Sword”) is the most straightforwardly narrative of the five segments, and even that’s not saying very much. Set in a bleak wintry forest, it deals with two figures — a man and a woman — trying to compel themselves to commit ritual suicide. There are a number of reversals of theme throughout — such as the larger question of who is really trying to get whom to do what, and for what reason — and the ending is fittingly abrupt, if wholly inconclusive.
What’s most frustrating about this one is the gap between what’s promised and what’s actually delivered. I might be expecting too much there, though — as a mood piece, with its dreamy photography and unsettling silences (no one says a word during the whole thing), it works far better than as anything like an actual story. Again, if Asano made a whole film like this, it might be fascinating, and I wonder if this is merely a dress rehearsal for something larger and more definitive.
Part three, “ATO”, is basically an MTV collage-edit: a bunch of skater / graffiti-artists bring their gear to a truck parked in a lot and work their magic on the side of the vehicle. If you know nothing about graffiti or skater culture (especially the urban-Japanese incarnation of same), it’s not likely to tell you anything you don’t already know; if you do, then it’s going to be similarly thin. It’s fine as a mood piece, though, even if Asano obscures some of the most interesting stuff about what these people do through a haze of effects and tricky editing.
The fourth part, “Tsudzuku Nijin” (“Two Men, Continued”), would probably have worked a lot better with English subtitles. It’s nothing more than a documentary recording of a manzai team, a two-man comedy troupe that’s peculiar to Japan. Come to think of it, it might have been difficult to put subtitles on this sort of thing at all; manzai is one of those things that depends heavily on regional humor, puns, double-talk, and other highly untranslatable tropes to work. That said, it might be interesting to see someone attempt to do justice to manzai as an art form for an English-speaking audience, but that would ostensibly be a whole project unto itself.
The fifth, “or”, combines music by a member of the Silent Poets with gorgeous, backlit imagery of a dancer performing on the beach. Like the first segment, what we see is strong enough that there doesn’t need to be any explanation or justification for it. The package as a whole works best when it’s like that, when what we see is reason enough to invest our time with it. To-ri is not easy to find — I tracked my copy down in a used Japanese bookstore chain — but if you’re a fan of Asano and his less orthodox projects it’s more than worth a look.