Plot Outline: A reworking of the plot for Akira Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog”, this Shinji Aoyama film tells a far more disturbing and dark story. Saga (Ryo Ishabashi) is a police detective who is set to watch over a big wig due to assassination attempts – but something goes wrong and the man ends up dead. Saga and his partner chase the culprit, who then shoots Saga under a dark bridge. Saga bleeds while his partner chases the shooter, but alone under this dark bridge is another. A man with wooden sandals, who ends up taking Saga’s pistol. When he wakes up in the hospital, Saga’s wife has left him, his pistol is missing and eventually – murder is committed. Saga, though retired now, vows to find his gun and set his life straight. Standing in his way is a slightly offbeat young man named Shimano, suffering from life threatening Leukemia; he seems to have no fear of death, and a strange taste for wooden sandals
The Review: It seems to me, just seeing the name Ryo Ishibashi during the credits for just about any film is enough to garner my attention these days. He may not always know you off your seat, but nine times out of ten, you can almost be guaranteed the project is good and that he will deliver a strong performance one way or another. Seeing Shinji Aoyama, brilliant director of “Wild Life” credited as the man in charge… well, good things are pretty much destined to happen. With the slightly macabre F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that opens the film, “Of course all life is process of breaking down, but…”, One can almost touch the ambiguity. I am always thankful every time Artsmagic sends me one of these discs to review, films not many of us would get to see otherwise, and even whole collections from obscure foreign directors such as this one. I hate to sound like such an infomercial for the company, but the prospect of checking these difficult to find and wholly original films fills me with excitement and I can’t help but want to say thanks. Within the film, quite unlike any of Aoyama’s other work that I have witnessed, there is a switching of gears from possible-supernatural thriller to tightly handled character drama, and that chaos helps give the work even more life. Interestingly enough, An Obsession doesn’t really seem to indicate that is an Aoyama film right off the bat. Visually I could see it at times, but much of that offbeat quirkiness (not to mention his… well, quirky characters) that generally adds to the delight of his movies is nowhere to be found. This is both something to be celebrate on one level, as change is always good, but also helps the film feel like it’s something less than what it could have or should have been.
If anything I’d say the film plays like an early Kiyoshi Kurosawa directed picture, which shouldn’t be surprising since Aoyama studied under this new ‘master of suspense’, by way of the dark and ugly. Aoyama proves himself quite adept at the world of creepy cinema during the many just downright spine tingling moments during this film’s running time. Which is of course quite odd that this sort of movie should have such moments, but that is Aoyama for you. Mixing genre expectations into something different altogether is just what I’ve come to expect from his work. What An Obsession does though is entirely different from what I’ve seen before. It’s as if he took the average police drama and crossed it with a supernatural thriller (though this isn’t a supernatural film), and made it as serious as those two genres are within themselves, something I just did not expect from such an often highly humorous director. That doesn’t really take away from An Obsession which is a delightfully dark work from this director, I know, odd to say after my complaints so far, but I was very happy to see Aoyama spread his wings even further and branch out into different fields. It’s certainly different from his other work and may not be the most indicative of his style, but An Obsession shows him successful in more than just a self-aware, post-modern setting. I imagine this sort of film helped prepare for the likes of EM Embalming, and in my opinion Aoyama shows a real eye for tension and how to sustain it. At times, the soundtrack alone was enough to genuinely creep you out, the use of an industrialized soundscape, slowly amplified, is inspiring in how effective it is. What can I say, it works.
There’s a point in An Obsession where it becomes seemingly difficult to keep an understanding of where the plot is going, and this could have been from the early subtitles attached with my original screener copy of the film or simply my own dim-wittedness, but character motivation becomes clouded at times and being that the film is so ambiguous it’s easy to look over because by the end you’ll have many question to roll around in your head due to all the symbolism and odd questions put forward about the nature of love and its mystery. The film, on the outside seems as if it will be your average “one step ahead of you” thriller, but it’s so much more than that. To the point where that title doesn’t even seem remotely applicable. That’s not to say this film is completely without fault or I cannot criticize it because no matter how interesting it is to see the director go this route, there’s still not much of a comparison between this direction he has taken and that of his other work. It might simply be a preference matter, thus making me biased, but I am not as blown away by this more “serious” work – though you would expect it to be more powerful. Although it certainly carries a lot of weight, I don’t see it as memorable as Wild Life or EM Embalming. That would be my highest complaint, possibly also my cheapest I have written, but there just seems to be wasted opportunity here. I’m not sure, but I just know Aoyama’s darker humor would have eased the film along, or at least to have felt that light hope usually so vibrant in his films. Not that this film is bleak or hopeless, maybe had it been more thoroughly dark and upsetting I could have at least commended it for taking the road to it’s limit – but overall, it just feels like Aoyama ‘trying’ something rather than actually following it the whole way through. Never the less, the film is what it is and even if it did have that zaniness to it, there’s no way the final scene would have had the power that it does on a visceral level. So, it’s hard to be too upset. The visuals of the film, while expertly shot and featuring many interesting uses of lighting along with the city-scenery; it didn’t have as much of a free-roaming atmosphere with the long takes and complex coordination that we are used to in this director’s work. Kind of feels cheap to say ‘used to’ having seen so few of his films, but as a viewer you still feel certain bonds with the director. All of this really isn’t much of a complain though since I don’t know how well that would fit this story, a camera diving around all over the place, and the cinematography as it is sure doesn’t leave a whole lot to be left down by. It is a beautiful film of dark nights and days of blue contrast. There’s certainly an immediate atmosphere to the entire film. The performances are all of great quality, and Ryo Ishibashi who is about as classy as they come as an actor of course puts in a standout performance as our confused leading man. Some of the actors, who were new faces to me, I feel guilty for not knowing their names, but I found many of these performances to be absolutely brilliant in quality as well. I’ll make sure to copy the faces down in memory, as I’m sure I’ll run into many later.
As I’ve made the point, An Obsession isn’t a perfect film, but it is a highly enjoyable one – and if you have seen and liked and of the director’s previous work, you all but HAVE to see this film as well. Highly recommended and another noteworthy inclusion to Shinji Aoyama’s library of films. A man who’s name is going to mean a whole in the coming years I suspect, and I highly look forward to as many offerings of his work as I can get my grubby little hands on.