Today’s selection: Love & Peace (2015, dir. Sion Sono)
Subgenre: Kaiju, Musical
Available from: Third Window Films (UK release)
Remember how we had that list recommending the best Japanese SF Christmas movies last month? Well, shift every one of them down, because there’s a new number one. Love & Peace is a funny, touching, expertly-filmed character study… and also quite possibly the best Japanese monster movie of the decade.
The story is a rise and fall of Ryoichi (Hiroki Hasegawa, who kaiju fans may remember from Attack on Titan or the upcoming Godzilla Resurgence), a failed ex-rocker turned wage slave. He has a pet turtle, “Pikadon”, named for the onomatopoeia that nuclear weapons make, which Ryoichi had heard on TV when a young punk commented that it sounded like a kaiju name*. Anyway, Ryoichi brings the baby turtle to work one day, is mercilessly mocked by his coworkers, and in a panic flushes Pikadon down a toilet.
While Ryoichi laments his actions in a shell-shocked stupor, Pikadon drifts through the sewers to the lair of Master Splinter a kindly old hobo/wizard (Toshiyuki Nishida of Monkey fame!). This subterranean island of misfit toys has become the sanctum for pets and objects cast aside by their creators, and the old man has given them the power of speech. Unfortunately or not, the guy’s also sort of a drunk, and he gives Pikadon the power to grant wishes by mistake**.
Suddenly Ryoichi’s luck turns around. He’d written a song bemoaning the death of his pet, and when he’s forced to perform it in front of a crowd, a talent agent misunderstands, assuming that “he won’t forget Pikadon” is a powerful anti-war ballad. At this point, the mild-mannered clerk begins his gradual ascent to stardom and asshole-dom, losing sight of his initial goals (including love interest played by Kumiko Aso, the true hero of this piece), all while Pikadon grows in proportion to Ryoichi’s wishes and ambition.
This all culminates on Christmas day (including an unsurprising reveal as to the sewer hobo’s true identity), when a gargantuan Pikadon escapes from a government holding facility (long story) to march across Tokyo and reunite with his old friend, crashing the biggest concert in the singer’s career. Naturally, this means gorgeous effects courtesy of Kiyotaka Taguchi, who must have somehow squeezed some time in between Patlabor and Ultraman work. That’s not even getting into the various side-antics of Pikadon’s fellow sewer compatriots, a gang practically Jim Henson-ian in execution.
The rare family-friendly film from Sono, Love & Peace is immensely entertaining and had the whole theater laughing out loud. Performances are stellar, and blocking is done in a perfect way to catch the reactions of side characters to whatever insanity is taking place front & center. The music, perhaps by nature of limitless repetition, definitely becomes a bit of an earworm. The animals are adorable, the love story is adorable, the talking dolls are adorable- see it on Christmas, as it’s a major dating holiday in Japan. Now if only it had some sort of US video release…
*Two points: first, it’s great that we’ve reached a point as a culture where you can just drop the word “kaiju” in English subtitles. Second, I’m not sure if Sono is commenting on how the youth in Japan has forgotten about nuclear issues, or about how much the media sensationalizes the fact that youth has forgotten it… maybe both? Either way I like the subtext of nuclear analogies in giant monster flicks!
**Is there something in the Urashima Taro story about granting wishes, or am I just thinking of Urusei Yatsura?