Spotlight on Japan: Wild Life

Before his international breakthrough with Eureka in 2000, Shinji Aoyama had already established himself as one of the most interesting and identifiable Japanese directors in the late 90’s. His early films remained obscure in the west until Artsmagic released a DVD box that included Wild Life (1997), An Obsession (1997) and EM Embalming (1999). Even though the releases are only as good as VHS to DVD transfers can be (in other words, quite rough) the release is essential for fans of Japanese cinema since it sheds light on Aoyama’s early experimentation. As a “director special” of sorts, I’m going to review these 3 films for Spotlight on Japan, starting with Wild Life today.

Sasai is a former boxer who is entangled in a web of blackmailing, pachinko and women after he begins to look for his missing boss. What ensues is an unlikely crime film that prefers surprises to conventional genre tropes. There are no significant plot twists as we understand them these days, but instead Aoyama pushes and subverts certain stereotypes that are common in screenplays involving betrayals, gangsters and cops. The power structure between the characters is constantly shifted and despite being a thoroughly fleshed out character, the success of Sasai’s actions are impredictable. You never know what he is capable of – until he has really done it or failed while trying. However, all of this is set against his strict daily routine that involves jogging, solving jigsaw puzzles, beer and sleeping at fixed points in time. It’s a fascinating combination that provides subtle insight into how he is proceeding in finding his boss.

As a genre film Wild Life has great value, but it doesn’t offer much beyond that. It has rich characters and it is bizarrely toned, but what really shines in the writing is how the narrative works. At first it seems like the film has been spliced together in a random order, but once the major players have been introduced the marvelously shuffled chronology starts to reward the patient viewer. Too bad those rewards stay purely on the level of storytelling, never willing to dig too deep into anything abstract that could have been explored – the plot could have easily given way for more ambitious ideas.

Just like in Eureka, Aoyama proves that he has complete, nearly auteuristic, control over the visuals. The long takes are wonderfully constructed: the compositions and camera movement are pitch perfect. They are not there just for show, Aoyama makes the most of his recognizable style. He sets the atmosphere for each scene with ease as his camera floats around the set, giving a tangible feeling of space and tension. The transition between scenes is a tricky thing to pull off with a challenging screenplay, but Aoyama pulls it off quite smoothly. He doesn’t gather attention for his editing, opting for  understatement and silence instead. It’s a shame the great visuals are accompanied by a lousy soundtrack. It’s mostly off the mark and can even be downright silly because it is creates such an unfitting contrast between what is happening and what the music implies.

In the end, Wild Life is a really interesting and solid film despite its shortcomings. Whenever there are complaints about the state of modern Japanese cinema I point them towards relatively obscure directors. Wild Life proves yet again that Aoyama is one of those directors worth checking out.

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About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (johlauri@hotmail.com), Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

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