Wednesday, September 29, 2010

God's Left Hand, Devil's Right Hand (2006)

Original title: Kami no hidarite akuma no migite

A little boy called Sou Yamabe (Tsubasa Kobayashi) has strange precognitive powers connected with his dreams. One night, while his older sister Izumi (Asuka Shibuya) is watching over him, he dreams of the cruel murder of a teenager (Saaya). Somehow, the boy's mental connection to the murder victim runs so deep that he even mirrors her deadly wounds, his throat tearing open and blood spattering in an early warning that the blood in this film will be very fake looking yet will also appear in copious amounts. Only the fast reaction of Izumi saves Sou's life, but he still ends up in hospital in a coma from which nobody seems to be sure when or if he will awake.

Sou had warned Izumi that something like this would happen to him, and made her promise to save him if she could. At the time, Izumi didn't take what her brother told her seriously, but now she is convinced she has to follow the vague hints he gave her to the killer he saw in his dream.

The audience has already made the killer's acquaintance. Kubota (Tomorowo Taguchi), as he is called, is a soft-spoken grocery store clerk who takes loving care of his little, paraplegic - yet for some peculiar reason wheelchair-less - daughter Momo (Momoku Shimizu). Of course, if you know what he's doing in his free time, some of Kubota's interactions with his daughter begin to take on quite disturbing features. He draws macabre little stories that end up in violent deaths of young women for Momo, which delight the girl to no end, it seems, but each of these stories is actually based on the true events of one of his murders. And Kubota has already told a lot of stories to his daughter.

So it's probably for the best that Izumi has a prophetic dream that leads her to a red cell phone with which she can get in contact with her comatose little brother, who in turn is able to point the girl to the town where Kubota and his daughter live. There, Izumi teams up with Yoshiko (Ai Maeda), the sister of poor, dead Ayu and follows a tiny handful of clues to Kubota.

I will always admire Shusuke Kaneko for his brilliant reimagining of Gamera and the whole kaiju genre in the 90s (and his pretty neat Godzilla film), but I have not been satisfied with any of the films he made outside the kaiju genre I have seen. Like Kaneko's Gamera films, all of these movies are trying very hard to do clever and unexpected things inside their respective genres, yet unlike the Gamera films, they never manage to achieve their goals completely.

This adaptation of a manga (that is of course not available in translation) by the great Kazuo Umezu (who has one of his inevitable - and inevitably charming - cameos giving Kubota positive reinforcement for his art) starts out well enough.

Kaneko seems to be quite on the right wavelength to work through some of Umezu's favourite themes. Early on, God's Left Hand makes much of the difference in the way children and adults see the world, with the serial killer ironically being closer to a child-like disposition than a sane grown-up could be, and shows very Umezu-like doubts in the correctness of seeing the world in a rational and grown-up way (Umezu does live in a striped house after all) when it is obvious that the world isn't a rational and grown-up place.

The way Kaneko treats the supernatural here fits into the same mould. Izumi, who as a teenager is much closer to being an adult herself and not prone to magical thinking anymore, is at first sceptical when it comes to her brother's prophecies, but as soon as she has witnessed him nearly dying, she accepts all the weird coincidences, prophetic dreams and bizarre occurrences the film is throwing at her with the matter-of-factness of a much younger child, following the trail before her like the fairy tale character she is.

It is important not to misjudge the film as one of those horror movies that try to be realistic or logical, or even believable in the usual sense. This is a dark fairy tale with a bad wolf who pretends to be a loving father, a little princess in peril, a courageous girl on a quest and a forest of subtextual meaning that just happens to take place in contemporary Japan.

And for the first forty or fifty minutes, Kaneko's film is a pretty impressive fairy tale at that, proficiently balancing on the line that divides non-naturalistic filmmaking from silly camp, managing to squeeze a dream-like mood out of mundane locations.

But then, suddenly, the film begins to falter, right at the scene I won't spoil for anyone by calling it the Great Cake and Axe Massacre, in which what should feel grotesque and just plain weird turns into a kitschy mess of cake frosting, rubber heads and idol cameos. It's a scene that ripped me right out of the mood Kaneko had built up so carefully before, and for the rest of the film's running time I wasn't able to find a way back into it anymore.

Unfortunately, much of what follows that scene isn't really worth trying to get into again. Although there are still some utterly fantastic moments (and a wonderfully bizarre happy end) to follow, much of the rest of the film is further disrupted by increasingly bad acting. I could forgive the child actors (and possibly even the idols) for not being able to get through the more emotionally draining later scenes, but Tomorowo Taguchi has been in more than enough films to really know better. His performance starts out quiet and underplayed and therefore disquieting, but all too soon turns into an eye-rolling piece of overacting that would be too much in a Tim Burton movie, and just sucks every bit of menace and subtlety from this particular film.

But it is not only the acting that is at fault here, the script and Kaneko's direction falter as much, with everything that was subtle and ambiguous in the beginning turning into the obvious and overly familiar, until the finale finds the film turning into a full-blown celebration of cinematic weirdness. Alas, at that point, it is already far too late to matter anymore.

So, like all of Kaneko's films not featuring guys in rubber suits, I can't whole-heartedly recommend God's Left Hand, Devil's Right Hand. I don't think, however, that this is a movie to avoid completely. It's just a question of coping with the crushing disappointment that Kaneko, who should by rights be one of the leading Japanese directors of intelligent commercial films working today, has again not lived up to his directorial potential.

No comments: