DumBeast (2009)

In its eleventh year, the highly celebrated, Frankfurt-based Japanese film festival Nippon Connection had the extra responsibility of promoting solidarity for Japan after the devastating effects of the earthquake and tsunami disasters – a task that supervisors, volunteers and visitors all rose to meet with admirable generosity and spirit. This time around, the lineup seemed to present its attendees with an extraordinary variety of films that all had something in common: an abundance of style. From the delirious, candy-colored delights of Yoshimasa Ishibashi’s MILOCRORZE – A Love Story (2011) to the cooler precision of Hitoshi Yazaki’s marital drama Sweet Little Lies (2010) to the noir-tinged odyssey of Takashi Ishii’s A Night in Nude: Salvation (2010) to the enchantingly bizarre realm contained within the hand-drawn wonder of Keita Kurosaka’s Midori-ko (2010), time and time again I walked out of screenings with a great deal of respect for the creative energy put forth by the directors. For DumBeast, the feature film debut by Hideaki Hosono AKA Mr. Hide, I was very much expecting the same rush of nutty, manic energy I had seen in MILOCRORZE and Go Shibata’s Doman Seman (2009), which won the festival’s Nippon Visions Award. While the film still very much bears its own brand of that energy, I was also pleasantly surprised by other rewarding qualities that emerged throughout its duration.

DumBeast begins with the arrival of an editor (Yoko Maki) in a gigolo club completely devoid of customers. She soon meets Eda (Kazuki Kitamura), its owner; Okamoto (Yusuke Santamaria), his shifty policeman friend; Junko (Yoko Minamino), Eda’s mistress; and Nora (Aimi Satsukawa), a ditzy hanger-on. After they are all awkwardly acquainted, the editor begins to ask them about Deko (Tadanobu Asano), a missing writer she is trying to track down so he can be given an award for his recently published memoir. The club’s assembled oddballs begin to tell her about Deko’s recent appearance at the club and his childhood friendship with Eda and Okamoto. Through extended flashbacks, we learn of Deko’s astounding dimness, Eda and Okamoto’s shock upon discovering his revealing writings on their youth and their numerous attempts to kill him off so as to halt his pen.

This summer, moviegoers will be able to catch a small glimpse of Tadanobu Asano in the multiplex in Kenneth Branagh’s Marvel outing Thor (2011). It is somehow comforting to know that, within a relatively short period of time, he lent his services to both the big budget comic book flick and a smaller production like DumBeast. What makes it even better is how well acted and enjoyable his role as Deko is, making the clueless writer one of the actor’s most memorable characters. He truly comes across as a real oddity in the film: first seen running from a random flock of attacking crows, he constantly maintains an air of cheer and good humor. However, he also remains astoundingly oblivious to certain details that would appear undeniably obvious to anyone else. For instance, he is completely surprised when Eda and Okamoto show him the serialized memoir chapters that he is supposedly writing, and only responds to their questions with obtuse, unhelpful remarks. If it weren’t for the specificity of the memoir’s contents that only Deko would have access to, one could easily guess (and might still anyways) that someone else besides him was writing them. In any case, his stupidity takes on ridiculous proportions when Eda, Okamoto and the rest of the club gang attempt to kill him off, all with no success and without ever alerting Deko’s suspicions. They dump container after container of rat poison in his drinks, but somehow, against all odds, Deko keeps showing up, greeting his not-so-friendly friends in their gigolo club hideaway with his repeated query: “Closing soon?”

As I previously mentioned, DumBeast has plenty of style to spare. Shot with a vivid palette of bright colors and filled with several great sequences of dark humor, the film also includes a number of animated sequences showing the childhood experiences of Eda, Okamoto, Deko and another friend of theirs: a sumo wrestler also named Deko. The boys’ involvement in a fatal accident on a train bridge gives DumBeast an unexpected emotional resonance that is maintained in other story elements throughout the film amongst all the bits of absurdist comedy. While it certainly delivers in the laugh department, there is more going on beyond what the initial setup might suggest.

What mainly makes the film so oddly moving is its focus on friendship. Even though the blissfully unaware Deko remains a constant target for murder attempts, along the way his would-be assassins gradually realize just what they are doing and who they are doing it to, prompting them to take a step back and think about their selfish actions. For as annoying as Deko can be, he also remains a very lovable and sweet-natured character, made all the more so by his naïveté. Quite simply, he serves as a strong reminder of how hard and how easy it can be to maintain loyalty to a person.

Marc Saint-Cyr was a guest host on the VCinema podcast’s coverage of the Shinsedai Cinema Fest 2010 and a guest reviewer on our Toronto International Film Festival 2010 episode. He is a staff writer for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow. He has also written for Row Three, Midnight Eye and the Directory of World Cinema: Japan published by Intellect. He runs his own blog, Subtitle Literate.