Saturday, August 21, 2010

[Japanese Film Festival] Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki)

Shopping at Kino

I was wondering which of the films will prove to be the one big alternative, experimental experience, and to my surprise it had to be Nagisa Oshima's Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. As the festival director Gavin Liu had explained in the pre-screening introduction, this is a rare screening of the film, and the owner of Kinokuniya bookstores is actually the man playing the Kinokuniya store manager in the film, as are many of the performers playing themselves, being non-actors going their own real thing as captured on celluloid.

It's a treat all right, but I suppose it's an acquired taste that I still haven't cultivated. One of the draws to this film is because I'm curious to see how Shinjuku, the hotbed area in Tokyo where all things youth and underground take place, looked like in the swinging 60s, having been there in two consecutive years already. The film opens with a crazy introduction of a man forced by a group to strip down to his underwear (a rather flimsy one that barely protects his modesty), being accused of stealing some pipes, before the group start to cower when they see his tattoo. Then we're thrust into the narrative proper that deals with the titular bookstore thief Torio, cheekily nicknamed Birdtop (Tadanori Yokoo), as the camera follows behind him through the extremely packed Kino bookstore - where you can't help that people around just happen to gaze into the camera – until he gets nabbed by the eagle eyed salesgirl Umeko (Rie Yokoyama) for taking a book out without paying for it.

In fact he does so twice, and besides to experience the high from pinching things, a challenge he throws to Umeko later on in the story, I suspect he does so because he's got quite the hots for Umeko, an attractive though complicated lady, that even the store manager probably sensed something brewing between them, and offering not to report Birdtop to the cops, but to gift him some books as well as cash for both Birdtop and Umeko to spend. That essentially launches them into having some time off if you will to visit everything else that Oshima's intended to put into his film, with 4 different writers that will inevitably lead to a kaleidoscope of ideas, bringing forth the massive melting pot of different folks with different strokes.

Presented in sections split by intertitles that tell the time (worldwide to local, and other nuggets of trivia such as the weather condition at the time) the film is almost documentary in nature come this point, and interchanges between black and white and colour which I still have to figure out why, other than to not miss out in capturing the vibrant colours present in particular performances and scenes. There's a visit to a sexologist whose area of research may challenge Kinsey's, and a talking heads styled interview with a group that's focused predominantly on sex, where it gets expressed verbally, and later on, having numerous sex scenes which had to justify its R21 rating in Singapore.

Like the earlier films, this one is also rich in music such as Juro Kara coming on at every opportunity with a guitar, though the tunes were not quite up my alley. It's like a musical of sorts at times when characters inexplicably appears and break out into music. And while the story becomes more perplexing, I gave up trying to piece the narrative together since it was clearly abandoned to showcase various performances available at that era in Shinjuku. In that respect this film will work relatively well in capturing things that will inevitably be lost as time goes by, and for the modern audience to experience what it was like then, especially those vaudeville theatre styled acts. The other scene I thought I enjoyed until it proved to be outstaying its welcome involved Umeko walking by shelves of books, and quotes from the literary masters call out to her through voiceovers.

The film ends with a montage of scenes involving some protests with the police out in force. I suppose this would have echoed the feelings of those who did not agree with the film, some having to walk out before they get to the scene. A rare treat, but one that calls for an acquired taste to thoroughly enjoy.

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