'Jam': Film Review

Courtesy of Udine Far East Film Festival
Familiar yet satisfying.

Genre chic filmmaker Sabu teams with talent manager LDH for another serendipitous trip through Japan’s margins.

An ex-con, a pair of lackadaisical gangsters, a lounge lizard’s middle-aged superfan and a do-gooding driver with a girlfriend in a coma see their lives intersect in Japanese director Sabu’s latest stylish, minor-key thriller Jam, a film very much in keeping with his late-period contemplative brand of action. After getting high-octane crime drama out of his system years ago with movies like DANGAN Runner, and then dabbling in caper comedies such as Hard Luck Hero and Hold Up Down — which featured then-popular boy band V6 in starring roles — Sabu (actually Tanaka Hiroyuki) has taken a more understated and reflective stance of late. Jam isn’t an unfamiliar story, but it indeed has a mature, downbeat hopefulness that has defined Sabu’s last few films, and combined with his existing cult status it should sustain the pic through an extended festival run. Art house release in Asia-Pacific should be a given.

Unfolding over the course of one day in the coastal city of Fukuoka, the story begins with Takeru (Machida Keita) driving around town in a boxy old Nissan looking for good deeds to do. His girlfriend is in a coma, and Takeru believes God told him to complete three good deeds each day in order to bring her out of it. She was shot in a police chase years earlier. Elsewhere, enka singer (a cheesy balladeer type) Hiroshi (Aoyogi Sho) hilariously holds court with his adoring middle-aged female fans before running into a stan, Masako (Tsutsui Mariko), who drugs him and drags him home so that he can write her a special love song. Fresh out of jail, Tetsuo (Suzuki Nobuyuki) spends the evening wheeling his grandmother around and dodging the low-level gangsters (Yagi Masayasu and Akiyama Shintaro) who abandoned him to take the fall for their crime (three guesses as to what it was) after he exacts a sliver of brutal revenge with a hammer earlier on.

Strokes of luck pile up along the way, paths coincidentally cross, messy violence erupts suddenly and shockingly, absurd comedy rears its head, and through it all Sabu demonstrates a knack for mixing melancholy, genre convention (usually to be toyed with) and genuine respect for his characters, all of whom represent people stuck in the margins, looking to make some kind of personal progress, even if they don’t quite know precisely what that progress is.

Machida, Aoyogi and Suzuki are all members of Gekidan EXILE, a stable of talent managed by LDH, whose subsidiary is indeed Jam’s production house. Many other filmmakers would either run screaming at the idea of creating a film produced by an agency and pivoting on much of its “product,” but Sabu has been down this road before (with Johnny & Associates’ V6) and once again manages to deftly navigate corporate demands and artistic creativity. Machida plays to his strengths as the nice guy who we all know is being taken advantage of; Aoyogi hams it up perfectly as the self-absorbed crooner (he has the pic’s funniest moments); and Suzuki is appropriately stoic as the wordless bad boy getting his own type of justice. The script, however, shades each one just enough to avoid falling into an abyss of numbing archetype.

That said, the trio get great support from Tsutsui as the over-the-top fan. She injects what could be a rote, and offensive, character with real emotion, and finds the empathy in Masako’s loneliness and misplaced affection. Without her, Hiroshi’s sudden epiphanies about himself and the fans he’s been exploiting would feel hollow, and the admittedly bizarre ease with which Hiroshi forgives his kidnapping would be even more awkward. Better still is the evocative sound design — the sudden silence of a concert hall robbery gone wrong, the squeaky wheelchair that telegraphs Tetsuo’s methodical march through the city — that tells half the story efficiently and elegantly, moreso than even Yanagida Hiroo’s images, traditionally a highlight of Sabu’s films. Jam won’t win over any new fans, but for anyone already on the Sabu bandwagon, it’s a welcome continuation of his current career trajectory.

Production company: LDH Pictures
Cast: Aoyogi Sho, Machida Keita, Suzuki Nobuyuki, Akiyama Shintaro, Yagi Masayasu, Ozawa Yuta, Tsutsui Mariko
Director-screenwriter-editor: Sabu
Producers: Miyazaki So, Shimizu Yoichi, Ogawara Shu, Era Kei
Executive producer: Exile Hiro
Director of photography: Yanagida Hiroo
Production designer: Hayashi China
Music: Matsumoto Junichi
World sales: Free Stone Productions

In Japanese
102 minutes