Genre: Pop Culture Crime Mystery
review in one breath
Youth sleuth extraordinaire Kindaichi Hajime is back at it, this time in Shanghai China attempting to solve mysterious and gruesome deaths seemingly related to a spiritual curse. Local lore tells of a cursed mermaid which emerges from the sea to exact retribution on her victims, and each of the murders seem to point to such a fate. Only with the help of Kindaichi's ADHD-riddled pubescent mind will this bizarre mystery be broken open.
This film is the first theatrical release of a widely popular manga, anime and TV series entitled The Jikembo of Young Kindaichi. A "jikembo" is literally an "Incident (jiken) report (boki)" and conjures the image of the report police detectives might submit following a crime investigation. But these are not the written reports of police but rather the experiences of a high-school student named Kindaichi Hajime who possesses a keen knack for solving difficult crimes. Thus Kindaichi is perhaps a Japanese version of the Hardy Boys with the exception that his side-kick is female class-mate (and potential first girlfriend) Miyuki.
The various adventures of Kindaichi have been widely popular with youth and young adults and have spawned a substantial manga series, followed by an anime and then a rather long-running TV series on Nihon Terebi, all by the same title. In the live-action (TV) version, Kindaichi is played by Domoto Tsuyoshi who came to the project already widely popular as one-half of the (brother) boy band KinKi Kids. Mayumi is played by Tomosaka Rie.
In the theatrical version under review here both Domoto and Tomosaka appear in their respective roles, along with a very substantial and respectable cast. This film was produced for the 45th Anniversary of Nihon Terebi and thus garnered wide support (and a large budget) among media talent. The film is directed by Tsutsumi Yukihiko, who also went on to later direct (among others) Ikebukuro West Gate Park (2000), Oboreru Sakana (2000), the Black Jack trilogy (2000-2001), and 2LDK (2002). The brunt of Tsutsumi's work revolves around complex crime mystery and/or cutting-edge pop culture/icons depicted with a dry-humor, tongue-in-cheek approach. (FYI: Tsutsumi's 2LDK, which resulted from a bet with Kitamura Ryuhei, is nothing like his other films in terms of content and quality and is, in my opinion, far less sophisticated and polished than any of his other work I have seen. It is unfortunate that of all his work only 2LDK has trickled over to the West, no doubt only due to its association with Kitamura.).
When Mayumi's penpal in Shanghai asks her help in saving her older brother from being wrongly accused as the perpetrator of the vicious murder of their father, Mayumi and Kendaichi soon find themselves in bustling Shanghai, the gem of China's modernized crown. Leila and her brother Sho work as performers in a theater of Chinese Folk Arts run by their father. When during one of the performances the father was murdered, no one was without an alibi except for Sho, who the local detective now strongly suspects is the killer.
The theater's specialty, among many impressive acts all captured in this film, is the retelling of the local legend of the Shanghai Mermaid whose oppression leads to vengeance. Seven years prior, a strikingly beautiful performer had played the role of the mermaid and the theater's popularity subsequently soared, until she was tragically deformed by an unknown assailant who replaced her facial creme with corrosive acid. After writing out a cryptic curse, forewarning the retribution she swore to enact, she committed suicide by a gunshot through the head, falling headlong into the (Shanghai) bay from which her body was never recovered.
In order to appease the spirit of the deceased actress, Leila's father had created a small shrine within the theater. Along with the candles and incense placed around her photo were four theatrical masks representing the four seasons of retribution mentioned in the actress' curse. When the father was murdered, he was found wearing the first of the four masks and his body mutilated in accordance with the curse's proclamation. Those aware of the history view this as the beginning of the curse, a conviction which strongly increases as the subsequent seasons of the curse are graphically fulfilled.
Things get even creepier when people, including Kindaichi himself, see a sloshing monstrous figure lurking in darkened hallways late at night.
Will the intuitive skills of Kindaichi be able to help Leila and her brother when all clues increasingly point to the guilt of her brother?
This is a very polished and well-done film which comes across as wholly satisfying on several levels. I was not kidding when I said earlier this film received a lot of budgetary and talent support (perhaps due to the 45th anniversary of Nihon Terebi). The production quality of this is evident from the very first scenes, both in terms of editing and management of the storyline. The confidence of the cast, by now well familiar with their roles, in pulling this off remarkably well is obvious.
The vast majority of Kindaichi no Jikembo takes place on location in Shanghai and not an opportunity is wasted to provide excellent panoramic captures of this foreign, bustling metropolis. The same educational element which so starkly distinguishes Japanese television from America's is also embedded here as this film uses the international location as a means of informing Japanese youth about Shanghai culture and Chinese Arts.
So the cinematography and editing is remarkably good, as is the acting conducted by major league names, and the soundtrack is provided by mainstream music heavyweights related to KinKi Kids. So would you believe me if I said this film actually excelled in content over presentation? Unlikely as it may be, the complexity and (okay i'll admit it) rather emotional plausibility of the "mystery" here is nothing short of impressive. (I've decided to attribute that tear in my eye to the amount of Guinness I drank last night in an unrelated matter.)
This was really good fun both in terms of eye-candy and intellectual challenge. (No you will NOT know who it is, even after everything you think you know.) There are certain projects where Japan's society as a whole comes together to build something for themselves (whether cinematic or other), something the society as a whole approves of and something they know will be both educational and entertaining for their youth. This is definitely such a project.
(And let me just say here, I have found Tsutsumi's work (with the exception of 2LDK) to be increasingly good in this regard. Oboreru Sakana is almost flawless in witty and complex content and presentation including a integral cameo appearance by Jo Shishido.)
I guess a final note on the violence depicted here is warranted. Despite the "youth-centric" appeal to this film, in (USA's) MPAA parlance this would most likely be R rated due to graphic violence. And I don't mean due to puddles of fake red blood. This film is realistically graphic of rather grisly occurrences from the first scenes onward. This realism undoubtedly adds to the viewer's impression of a convincing storyline, but I admit I was a little surprised (based on the traditional (young) audience of the Jikembo series) by the amount of explicit and implicit violence contained herein. Of course its nothing you or I have not already seen, its simply not what I had anticipated from the KinKi Kids in a film based on a manga aimed at high school-aged students.
Nevertheless, if you have the chance, definitely see this and allow it to raise your bar of expectation regarding quality production, presentation and content of Japanese projects.
Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS
|Excellent cinematics of the urban metropolis of Shanghai, China.||Relative to what I expected from this film (and cast), there is full-out depictions of violence here including (slow-mo) shots to the head and barely off-screen removal of key facial elements such as ear, tongue and eye.||After the opening scenes you will undoubtedly wonder whose side Kindaichi's gonads are on.||I am thoroughly impressed by the time, effort and thought that went into this. Its really worth viewing.|