'Too Young To Die!' ('Wakakushite Shinu'): Filmart/Hong Kong Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
Hilarity marred by repetitiveness.

Japanese award-winning screenwriter Kankuro Kudo's second directorial attempt is an energetic musical comedy that trumps its predecessor in pacing and humor.

In this demonically divine musical comedy, "Motherf--ker!" almost becomes Japan’s national morale-booster "Ganbatte!" ("Do your best!") — so often is it hollered like a war-cry — yet judging by the guffaws it consistently elicits, the film’s outlandish, self-reflexive irreverence has struck the right chord. Helmer and writer Kankuro Kudo (Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims) has managed to turn a simplistic tale of love and life choices into a thoroughly entertaining two-hour extravaganza through wacky allusions to rock music, absurd interpretations of Buddhist beliefs, and spots of well-placed humor.

Too Young to Die should draw much attention in Asia, given the sweeping popularity of Kudo’s TV drama series Amachan, which was shown in many regions in Asia. It may also appeal to niche markets as there are quite a few international fans of Kudo’s works, like PingPong and Go.

The story is about a high school student Daisuke (Ryunosuke Kamiki, Bakuman, voice talent for Spirited Away) who has a crush on his classmate Hiromi (Aoi Morikawa). The bus they’re on crashes and Daisuke wakes up to find himself face-to-face with the swashbuckling demon Killer K (Tomoya Nagase, Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims) in hell — Buddhist hell. Daisuke, with K’s help, embarks on a quest to leave Inferno, but expectedly, gets sidetracked — by K’s backstory and hellish bureaucracy.

In this film as in his directorial debut Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims, Kudo shows himself to be a chameleon as he weaves in and out of references to Japanese medieval traditions and pop culture with alacrity and slings seemingly incongruous elements together. The pacing here, however, is more even. The opening scenes have some shrewdly edited moments — back-and-forth among flashback, narration and musical numbers, accompanied by appropriate contrasts in cinematography. That said, the voltage drops a little after the narrative ground is laid and the reincarnation sessions feel repetitive. But the film always manages to pick itself up again. The culture-specific allusions are also easier to understand than in the previous film. And kudos to Kudo for not making explanations of jigoku mechanisms a drag, given they’re more complex than Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell.

There’s strong comedic chemistry between Killer K and Daisuke. K with his painted face, big hair and medieval-glam rock gowns is what happens when KISS crosses over with Kabuki theatre, and it’s brilliant. By contrast, Daisuke has the pale androgynous visage of a millennial. Nagase, a contemporary of 90s heart-throb Kimura Takuya, is endearing as Killer K, but the young uniform-clad Kamiki is the scene-stealer.

The music is definitely a highlight of the film, one which helps to make the sometimes random humor and repetitiveness palatable. Ranging from metal to blues, and always given a ‘feel-good’ rendition, the pieces come with witty commentary about the industry, like what happens if you play the guitar with arms borrowed from Jimmy Hendrix, Gary Moore and Randy Rhoads? (They start fighting).

Heaven is portrayed as Japanese society on steroids. It’s a pristine futuristic expanse that bans sounds over 20 decibels, and two passive-aggressive guardians carry this out with the efficiency of a world-class metropolis. The one-stop remote has buttons for everything, including sex and suicide. Kudo’s experience in theatre is evident in the actors’ stylized movements and the minimalist sets. And it’s this inventive presentation, as well as snide comments about hell’s badassism, that saves the boring-paradise versus tantalizing-hell dichotomy from feeling like a big cliche. 

The costumes and sets are a tad formulaic but then the film makes it clear that it thrives on kitsch. In fact Too Young to Die has enough quirk and kitsch to be cult, if it wasn’t for the clever humor. 

Production company: TOHO Pictures

Cast: Tomoya Nagase, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Kenta Kiritani, Nana Seino, Aoi Morikawa, Machiko Ono, Rie Miyazawa, Arata Furuta, Sarutoki Minagawa, Shishido Kavka

Director: Kankuro Kudo

Screenwriter: Kankuro Kudo

Producer: Mitsuru Uda, Makiko Nagasaka, Hisashi Usui

Executive producers: Shuichi Nagasawa, Minami Ichikawa, Julie K.Fujishima, Hajime Inoue,  Tatsuro Hatanaka, Makiko Nagasaka, Makoto Takahashi, Naoto Miyamoto, Masao Teshima, Taichi Ueda

Director of photography: Daiske Soma

Art directors: Towqako Kuwajima, Hiroyasu Koizumi

Costume designer: Daisuke Iga

Editor: Ryuji Miyajima

Music: Shutoku Mukai

World sales: Toho / Asmik Ace Entertainment

In Japanese

No rating; 125 minutes

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