While angels eavesdrop discreetly in “Wings of Desire” or spoil lovers’ dates in “The Adjustment Bureau,” a celestial tea server descends to Okinawa, slurps ramen, becomes a celebrity and fights predestination with riotous gusto in the fantasy romance “Chasuke’s Journey.” Enjoying a surge of creativity since his 2009 misfire, “Kanikosen,” Nipponese helmer Sabu is in his most fun-loving element, stirring Okinawa’s magical folk art into a Capraesque yarn that flirts with ideas of fate and self-determination, but really just revels in a rich tapestry of human experience. Full of whimsical twists and high-octane action, this festival-friendly lark could generate lively ancillary biz.
The maverick helmer has cut loose in recent years, shedding some of his bone-dry irony for the gentler dramedy of “Bunny Drop,” or the deeper emotional resonance of “Miss Zombie.” Adapted from Sabu’s yet unpublished debut novel and shot exclusively in Okinawa (where he has been residing for three years), “Chasuke’s Journey” ostensibly recalls his earlier cult classics with its yakuza shenanigans, as well as an elaborately interlocking plot dotted with strange encounters and life-changing coincidences. But whereas the hapless protags of dry noir-comedies like “Unlucky Monkey” or “Hardluck Hero” are depicted as bearing the brunt of God’s mischief, his latest work is more life-affirming, with characters facing misfortunate with a come-what-may attitude. It’s as if the Okinawans’ famously sunny disposition had rubbed off on him.
Sabu imagines heaven as a Confucian study where white-robed scholars bend over flowing scrolls, busily composing “screenplays of life.” Every brushstroke determines the actions and hence the destiny of the “characters” they’re assigned to. A tea server who overhears the writers’ heated debates on how to plot people’s lives, Chasuke (Kenichi Matsuyama) becomes fond of an angelic, speech-impaired girl, Yuri (Ito Ono), but a nasty brain fart by the supervisor sentences her to an imminent fatal car accident. Chasuke is sent to Earth to save her by the other writers, who promise to lend him a hand by transmitting signs. He has until 8:50 p.m. to avert the tragedy.
In a more conventional, clock-ticking treatment, the tension would mount as the protag rushes to the aid of the damsel in distress. However, Chasuke’s fateful encounter with Yuri yields an unexpected outcome. Sabu seems to take delight in digressions, letting Chasuke fall in with a bunch of losers — antique-shop owner Junichi Taneda (Ren Osugi), ramen chef Joe Hikomura, TV variety-show host Pon (Hiromasa Taguchi) and local mobster Kuroki (Susumu Terajima). If these are indeed signs from above, they’re not of much help, their own lives being the product of lousy scripts. Yet, through Chasuke’s snarky narration, their backstories come engrossingly to life, and much amusement can be derived from their animated banter.
The couple’s furtive romance never quite takes off, thanks to a plot detour that finds Chasuke impulsively donning costume wings and becoming a miracle healer. What follows is the most cliched part of the story, spiced up only by electrifying bursts of violence. And then another twist unveils Chasuke’s past, culminating in a side-splitting conversation in Tosa dialect with his wacko sister, Chako (pop idol Tina Tamashiro, exquisitely cute), whose background is one surreal script.
Sabu might have branched out from his crime thrillers in his previous four films, but he still hasn’t lost his flair for kinetic action. Here, he reinvents his signature single-take sprinting sequences by planting them in the thick of Okinawan dances. D.p. Daisuke Soma (“Miss Zombie,” “Tokyo Tribe”) brings high-speed momentum to chase scenes that rip through ghostly arcades and alleyways; at a climactic dance, his camera evokes the eerie, mythical dimension of the ancient rituals with trance-like intensity, delivering a visual tour de force that renders the ridiculous ending unabashedly moving.
The message the film proffers — that in life, you must write your own script — is as simple as it is cheesy. But by mixing in elements both meta-cinematic and metaphysical (probably in a knowing nod to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life”), Sabu also sends up the randomness and egomania of the creative process, as when the writers engage in spats that could make or break a mortal’s future, every implausible plot contrivance serving as a sly dig at lousy screenplays.
An actor best suited to giving intense, studied performances (“My Back Page,” “Norwegian Wood”), Matsuyama, just shy of 30, looks well past the age of playing the boyish dork; though by no means unlikable, he might have better nailed the airy-fairy nature of his role had he strained less to be expressive in every shot. And for all the potential of a dialogue-free courtship, fueled instead by looks and body language, he and the bland Ono generate no chemistry. Other veterans, like Terajima and Osugi, coast along with waggish charm.
Craft contributions are resourceful and imaginative. Production designer Michitoshi Kurokawa and costume designer Yukiko Nishidome abandon all restraint, unleashing an explosion of kaleidoscopic colors and dapper fashions that define the retro Ichibangai shopping arcade and Makishi market, where most of the action take place. Naoichiro Sagara’s dexterous editing gives the illusion of impromptu filmmaking, while Junichi Matsumoto’s merry score weaves in Okinawan folksongs to boisterous effect.
Berlin Film Review: 'Chasuke's Journey'
Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 12, 2015. Running time: 105 MIN. (Original title: “Ten no Chasuke”)
(Japan) A Shochiku, Office Kitano release of a Bandai Visual, Shochiku, Office Kitano production, in association with Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau, with the support of Okinawa Prefecture. (International sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Produced by Shozo Ichiyama. Executive producer, Masayuki Mori. Co-executive producers, Kazumi Kawashiro, Tadashi Osumi, David Atlan-Jackson.
Directed, written by Sabu, based on his novel. Camera (color/B&W, widescreen, HD), Daisuke Soma, editor, Naoichiro Sagara; music, Junichi Matsumoto; music supervisor, Shin Yasui; production designer, Michitoshi Kurokawa; costume designer, Yukiko Nishidome; sound (5.1), Michitoshi Yokozawa; visual effects supervisor, Shinji Ohagi, Yoshikazu Fujii; line producer, Asuka Matoba; assistant director, Jun Shiozaki.
Kenichi Matsuya, Ito Ono, Ren Osugi, Yusuke Iseya, Hiromasa Taguchi, Tina Tamashiro, Susumu Terajima. (Okinawan dialect, Shikoku dialect, Japanese dialogue)