It’s a rare and wonderful thing when you see a film by a first-time director, made by people with no money and no moviemaking experience — and yet the passion they feel for what they do makes those limitations meaningless. The movie becomes both a receptacle and a transmitter for their energy, and you in turn become a receptacle for that energy as well.
I am not, however, talking about Lost by Dead, which leaves you feeling like a receptacle for something you flush away. It’s one shade off from being a full-blown spoof of bad indie filmmaking, but no: the director, Masato Tsujioka, was dead serious and completely earnest about making a gritty, downbeat noir in Tokyo’s underworld using a minimal budget. What he ended up with better resembles one of those dismal things on YouTube people Twitter about to each other with subject lines like Amateur Night in Japan?
The story, such as it is. Akira (Tsujioka)’s the singer in a Tokyo indies band whose rise to fame is cut short when his girlfriend Mari kills herself. Akira’s friends all blame him for it. His response to all this is to sulk a lot, bash his head against the wall, do drugs, and ruminate endlessly about what could have been. Yes, it’s his fault he cheated on her, and his fault that she got pregnant and he told her he didn’t want the baby, etc. — all information that’s dumped into our lap in a series of hammily-acted, badly-scripted flashbacks. Eventually he gets mixed up with a bunch of drug-dealing punks, and after entirely too much screaming and running around there’s a brutal showdown in one of those abandoned factories whose main products appear to have been rust and greasy water.
Every single element of the production seems to have been calculated to be as obnoxiously cheap as possible. All the dialog was looped in postproduction with what sounds like a $10 Radio Shack microphone, the kind that buzzes like a kazoo when you put your mouth too close to it. The voices are either panned to the extreme left or right, so it sounds like the characters are hollering at each other from opposite sides of your living room. The Foley effects sound like they were taken from a video game. Yes, some of this I can ascribe to budget limitations, but then there are the endless total lapses of taste. To wit: The movie’s idea of Akira being in a drug warp is to have the lead actor giggle and drool and run around while the words “STOP THE DRUG” (in English) appear onscreen and flash really fast.
Somewhere in the middle of this mess, a part of my brain did its best to separate out the story from its execution. I thought: With the same budget and the right people, this could have worked. What was missing was any sense of how to make use of these things intelligently. The other year I saw Late Bloomer, which was about as technically advanced as this film, and yet was spellbinding in every respect. The folks behind the camera there had some clue about how to put everything together — how to build tension, how to hold an audience’s interest, how to create sympathy where you might normally only find revulsion.
As is the case so often with such dismal films, the story behind it is more interesting than anything on screen. Tsujioka was a model and actor who landed a role in Shinya Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet, and was then inspired to make this film. That’s where it clicked for me: what we have here is a bad clone of a Shinya Tsukamoto film, made without a clue as to why his movies were made the way they were, or how. And oh god, how baldly revealing Tsujioka is in that interview: “We all didn’t know how to make a film.” It shows. Or, “If no one wants me, I thought, then I will make a film for myself and whoever else wants it.” Well, not me.