B/B (Japan, 2020) [JAPAN CUTS 2021]
Kosuke Nakahama’s feature directing debut B|B is a short, strange, and utterly vivid concoction, one that rockets along for 77 minutes with a pace akin to getting strafed with machine gun fire. It is Nakahama’s graduate film project, and that shows through the limited budget and a few oddly young casting choices. Despite the limitations, this is a striking and memorable start for what should be a lucrative career.
In a parallel, seemingly COVID-free 2021, the Tokyo Olympic Games have been cancelled over a corruption scandal and the country is reeling from another 1995-style poison gas attack. With police forces dedicated to both incidents, the murder of a convenience store owner is being investigated by one officer. A teenage girl named Sanagi (Karen) has been brought into custody for questioning, as she appears to have been the last person to speak to the murder victim’s young son (Koshin Nakazawa). The only problem is that Sanagi has dissociative personality disorder, and her recollections of the event are split across 12 different personalities.
B|B’s narrative is framed by an interview with Sanagi inside her psychiatrist’s office. The mononymously-named Karen dominates these scenes with a strong, funny, and electric performance, the corner of her eye twitching each time her personality shifts. It is a useful device for Nakahama to employ, because it allows the main action to then cut in via a somewhat unreliable and suspicious narrator.
In a series of flashbacks, we meet Shiro (Nakazawa), a young boy clearly suffering from domestic abuse. We meet him via Sanagi in a quiet park, with both youths having skipped school. A friendship then develops, each encounter teased out in Sanagi’s interview and then showcased from her perspective. For that perspective, each individual personality is performed by a different actor – all of them walking six at a time behind Sanagi. It is a technique that seems shamelessly lifted from Johnnie To’s Mad Detective (2007), which employed almost precisely the same technique. Here, however, the effect is more humorous than unsettling.
The humor is also emphasized via a fairly large number of pop culture references to American and Japanese film and animation. Rather than feel intrusive, they give the film a tone that matches its teenage protagonist and allow a connection between her and young Shiro.
Nakahama adopts a rather abrupt and jarring editing style that has the effect of accelerating the action. Shots usually used for scene-setting or a sense of space are largely removed, creating a sudden and immediate effect on their viewer. Close-ups and unexpected camera angles abound. It adds to a general sense of chaos about Sanagi’s story, and stresses her personality and unreliability. It is, all in all, a superb narrative effect.
It is a particularly bold choice for Nakahama to redirect the film into unexpectedly dark territory during the final act. It does not come entirely as a surprise – it is well foreshadowed in advance – but the tonal shift does run the risk of alienating audiences that were most appreciating the humor in the first two-thirds. It is a valid approach, but likely a divisive one.
There is an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ feel to B|B. It does not so much blend genres as juggle them, and plays vigorously with aesthetic and technique. Overall it feels very much like a feature with something to prove – not unexpectedly, given the film’s graduate student nature, but hopefully successfully as well. In its best moments B|B is more than worth those other times when it falters. This is vital, wonderfully creative cinema.
B/B was streamed in the U.S. from August 20 to September 2 as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film.