Here’s a metaphor for you: Takashi Miike has become the David Bowie of Japanese filmmaking. Just when you think you’ve got him pinned down, he metamorphoses on you into something entirely different. There’s the Miike that gave us the reprehensible Ichi the Killer, the transcendent Bird People in China, the wild and heedless Dead or Alive trilogy, the hallucinatory Gozu, the doubly hallucinatory Izo, the touching Sabu, and so on. He tries a little of everything, in every way imaginable, but that doesn’t mean he always pulls it off.
Mark Schilling has pointed out that Miike’s view of his work is that it’s all part of the same ongoing continuum. To him, there’s no division between the “silly” and the “serious” stuff; it all comes from the same place (that is, from inside him). I’ve been watching his movies for long enough to see how the earlier, kookier material connects to his more recent, ambitious work — yes, even the allegedly kiddy-grade stuff like Yatterman and Great Yokai War. But just because he sees the connections on his side doesn’t mean we do, and sometimes the results are just muddled.
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A is at the same time Miike at his most adventurous and daring, and his most pedestrian and unsatisfying. It’s a highly stylized story of a relationship — possibly sexual, possibly not — between two young men in a prison for delinquent youths. Ariyoshi (played by the impossibly handsome Ryuhei Matsuda) worked in a gay bar, but murdered a patron who took him back to a hotel room for what we presume was some too-rough trade. The tattooed and lanky Kazuki (Masanobu Ando) cozzens up to him, and before long they’re hanging out and musing about life together. They spend a fair amount of time in the surreal backlot of the prison, where a rocketship launch platform and a ziggurat both ascend to outer space and heaven, respectively. Outer space or heaven are both about as realistic goals as escape in their world.
Then Kazuki is found dead with Ariyoshi’s hands around his throat, and the gears of a detective story begin to grind. The detectives on the case don’t buy Ariyoshi’s confession, and begin to dig deeper. Actually, they’ve been digging deeper since the start of the film; the “murder” (yes, I’m not giving away much by putting it in quotes like that) is what opens the film, more or less, and the movie plays fast and loose with chronology as it leaps backwards and forwards and sideways.
The movie's secondhand plotting is nowhere nearly as impressive
as its inspired set design and visuals.
The visualization and the filmmaking are grand-master grade. At this point Miike seems comfortable in most any genre you could throw him into, and I admired the movie’s ingeniously spare, theatrical set design and use of CGI. What’s less impressive is the underlying story, which is duplicitous: the story we are promised, and the story we get, are — well, light-years apart. At least one plot element, a detail involving the prison warden, involves a coincidence that’s so groaningly improbable it wouldn’t pass muster in a romance novel, gay or straight. And the ending is little more than an anti-narrative throwaway: there was no real crime, you see, it’s all point-of-view and semantics.
John Updike has a rule — one of several, actually — for would-be critics: “Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” I’ve tried to apply that rule, both here and elsewhere, although here I can’t help but feel Miike took a truly interesting story and traded it up for one that was far less interesting. What’s more enthralling, the yearning of a heart or a fancy meditation on the nature of reality? Maybe they both are, but what about when you get the latter packaged up to look like the former?