'Diner': Film Review | Shanghai 2019

Courtesy of SIFF
A neo-pop film caters to manga’s noise, gaudiness and style.

Tina Tamashiro and Tatsuya Fujiwara co-star in Mika Ninagawa’s Tarantino-esque romp about an unlucky girl who becomes the waitress-slave in a diner for assassins.

Japanese fashion photographer-turned-filmmaker Mika Ninagawa pulls out all the stops in her madly colored, frantically paced and urgently orchestrated faux-horror-comedy Diner.

It stars pretty young innocent Tina Tamashiro as an unwanted, not too bright girl whose talent for cooking keeps her alive when she gets a job waiting tables in a yakuza restaurant out of hell, run by a seductive but dangerous chef played by Tatsuya Fujiwara (Battle Royale, Death Note). The entertainment quotient is high and should hit the outré spot with local teen audiences and manga addicts in general. The pic is scheduled for release by Warner Bros. in Japan shortly after its gala screening bow in Shanghai.

Closely based on Yumeaki Hirayama’s novel and subsequent manga series, Diner proves a congenial project for Ninagawa after two previous film ventures. Her exuberant upfront style attracted attention in Sakuran (2006), the lurid story of an 18th century courtesan bent on self-liberation, while her Helter Skelter (2012), about a diva who overdoes the cosmetic surgery, took a step into the psycho-cinema of horror. Unlike the latter’s riff on stardom, Diner has no identifiable adult theme, but caters to youthful fantasies and philosophy (“An unfulfilled dream gives people a reason to live”; “When you want something, there’s always risk attached”).

Here, the story of imperiled innocence finds the outrageous humor in gruesome psycho-killers, like a bloodless Takashi Miike, with increasing amounts of action until all scores are settled in an explosive, extended climax. The eye-popping visuals and ultra-mod soundtrack are infallibly in place, but at a certain point one has to ask whether pop style is enough to engage a viewer with these lightly sketched characters, most of whom don’t even attempt to rise above cartoon stereotypes. The answer will lie in the audience.

Bambi-eyed Tamashiro plays Kanako Oba (the name, it is pointed out several times, means “stupid girl”). Her feeling of alienation is portrayed in a stylized opening scene set on a busy commercial street; she is the only one not grimly marching in step. Her mother abandoned her as a child and she’s a disaster at any form of work. When Oba answers an ad for a chauffeur, she finds herself driving two insane criminals around. Captured by rival gangsters in fright masks, all three are about to be boiled in oil when Oba blurts out, “I can cook!”

She is next seen in a mini-waitress costume that looks like a cross between an American diner uniform and the Marquis de Sade. Her to-die-for boss Bombero (Tatsuya) is dashing in Japanese chef’s garb and wields large kitchen knives with suspicious skill. He informs Oba that all the customers in his luxurious underground diner are psycho-killers and paid assassins. Her eight predecessors (laughing at her from life-size pictures on the wall) met their fate for carelessly serving food, and Bombero doubts she will last the night. If she tries to escape, he will kill her himself. Her eyes widen still more.

The stage is set for the entrance of a motley crew of eccentric baddies. The scarred youth Skin takes a shine to Oba (his Oedipus complex rhymes with her starvation for mother-love). A tiny fellow called The Kid, on the other hand, turns out to be pretty vicious. Later in the film, other gangland kingpins are introduced, including glittering queen-pins Maria and Blaise. The latter is played as a stylish arch-criminal by Helter Skelter’s lead, singer-model-actress Anna Tsuchiya. But since none of these characters is developed, their quick entrances and exits make no difference.

Only the well-cast Oba and Bombero exist on a relatable emotional level, and that is a teen fantasy. Tamashiro is an adorable parody of the silly Japanese schoolgirl wailing at her misfortunes and quaking at danger. When Oba has the idea of taking a priceless bottle of vodka “hostage” so the gangsters won’t kill her, it’s surprisingly clever, and she even pulls out an ounce of courage on occasion. Likewise, Tatsuya gracefully evolves from being just one of the lethal tribe to a fearless samurai whose skills at gun- and knife-play are put to good use in the long, amusing final fight sequence where Ninagawa displays her own talent at staging. The epilogue is unexpectedly fetching.

Production company: Nippon Television Network Corp.
Cast: Tina Tamashiro, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Shun Oguri, Masataka Kubota, Takumi Saitoh, Hanata Hongo, Anna Tsuchiya

Director: Mika Ninagawa
Screenwriters: Hirohito Goto, Yoshikazu Sugiyama, Mika Ninagawa, based on a story by Yumeaki Hirayama
Producers: Takuya Ito, Morio Amagi
Director of photography: Daisuke Soma
Production designer: Enzo
Editor: Hiroaki Morishita
Music: Shibichi Osawa
Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival (Gala screening)

118 minutes