'Chasuke's Journey' ('Ten no Chasuke'): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Controlled satire descends into unfocused sentimentality

Sabu's Berlinale competition title features Japanese star Kenichi Matsuyama as a heavenly tea boy who returns to human society to save his long-admired object of affection.

With its premise of a heavenly creature descending to Earth in an effort to save a woman he fancies before the clock ticks down to zero, Sabu's latest outing seems tailored for a bow in Berlin. But Wings of Desire and Run Lola Run are just two of the dozens of iconic films or filmmakers that the maverick Japanese writer-director alludes to. Cinephiles could easily have a field day playing Spot the Reference here as, among others, Notting HillCastaway, Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life and — what else? — Wong Kar Wai's Fallen Angels make their presences felt in this two-hour feature.

Adapting his own novel of the same name, Sabu offers something many times cheekier and more chaotic than his last film, the vampire-erotica-political-metaphor Miss Zombie from 2013. But Chasuke's Journey is also much less focused: While a tribute of the history of film — even the titular character's black-and-white wardrobe and abbreviated name, Chas, are obvious references to Charlie ChaplinChasuke's Journey is essentially a sprawling beast, with its mix of multiple inspirations never really properly calibrated.

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Produced by Takeshi Kitano's production company, Chasuke might generate a cult following such as his previous films Monday and Miss Zombie if marketed inventively by its French reps Film Boutique. But even the attraction of its versatile toplining star Kenichi Matsuyama (Death Note, Norwegian Wood) might not be enough to guarantee Chasuke a blooming journey away from home turf after its kudos-grabbing (but questionable) appearance in competition at the Berlinale.

Matsuyama's Chas begins the film in heaven, as a lowly tea boy serving beverages to the huge team of scribes assigned to plot the existences of living beings. Having somehow made an off-the-cuff suggestion that leads to the death of an Earth girl he has admired from afar (or above), he agrees to shuffle back on to the mortal coil so as to prevent the tragedy from happening. A handful of sympathetic celestial writers somehow manage to assign two men to be Chasuke's sidekicks: Taneda (Ren Osugi) and Joe (Yusuke Iseya), both boasting lives resembling — as Chasuke explains offscreen in flashbacks — hyper-melodrama written by lazy "hacks" copying stuff from movies.

Sabu is no hack, but Chasuke's Journey runs dangerously close to pushing the director's reputation in that direction. With Chasuke's mission quickly accomplished within the first hour, the film continues by either repeating what came before — more characters are introduced, through flashbacks, with incredibly troubled rites of passage — or offering cliched sequences about a deity's brush with mobsters and a sleazy media.

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The banality of repetition — best illustrated by a running gag of Chasuke puking at the most inappropriate of times — is made more worrying when the film slides into an earnest submission of the very middlebrow fare it started out mocking. DP Daisuke Soma and production designer Michitoshi Kurokawa began the film with some wonderfully inventive stylistic jarring, when the dramatic soundstage mise-en-scene of the scenes in heaven collides with the kinetic, handheld sequence of a newly fallen Chasuke navigating his way through a loud, traditional procession.

With sentimentality taking over as the film moves on, the imagery becomes less inventive, sometimes even to the point of being — to quote one of the celestial scribes — "Plain Jane" ordinary. Having now dispensed with a roundup of his inspirations and his diverse career — both Matsuyama and Osagi have played lead roles in his previous films — Sabu should go back to his sharper, more straightforward and less snarky ways.

Production companies: Office Kitano, with Bandai Visual, Shochiku, Backup Media in a BMedia Global and Backup Media presentation
Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Ito Ohno, Ren Ohsugi, Yusuko Iseya
Director: Sabu
Screenwriter: Sabu, based on his own novel
Producers: Shozo Ichiyama, with Kazumi Kawashiro, Tadashi Osumi, David Atlan-Jackson
Executive producers: Masayuki Mori

Director of photography: Daisuke Soma
Production designer: Michitoshi Kurokawa
Costume designer: Yukiko Nishidome
Editor: Naochiro Sagara
Music: Junichi Matsumoto
Casting: Iranana Higashida
Sales: Films Boutique

In Japanese

No rating, 106 minutes