Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (Japan, 2021) [JAPAN CUTS 2021]

The opening scene of writer-director Daihachi Yoshida’s latest feature, Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction, is a masterclass in crafting a minimalist act and ratcheting up the tension, only to suddenly plateau the soaring anticipation to an almost nothing. The scene also inadvertently defines the thematic core of the film.

Adapted from Takeshi Shiota’s novel based in the book publishing world, there is not a moment out of place or a character wasted in Kiba. Adept at writing narratives that disconcertingly expose individual psyches and hierarchal group politics, Daihachi constantly creates crises and demands his characters move apace. This, while he frequently moves across multiple points of narration. His inimitable filmmaking skills worked fantastically in his first critical and commercial success The Kirishima Thing (2012). As Kiba ends though, it is the taste of the finish of the first scene that lingers. A sense of an empty watch, yet riveting throughout the watch.

Kunpu, a century old major publishing company, is unexpectedly thrust into a crisis when its long-standing CEO suddenly passes away. The evening of his funeral wake becomes an aside for unaffected mourning as vested Kunpu magazines heads begin their scheming and plotting to gain control of the firm. Briskly introducing the main players as they make their way from the funeral to a razzle dazzle literary event via their biting conversations, Kiba is exacting in the viewer drawing up the ruthless dynamics amongst them. Yet as soon as an understanding barely settles, Daihachi pulls the rug from under, again, and again, right till the finale.

The contemporary world of book publishing, both print and digital, is precarious but Kiba takes absolute pleasure in plotting to bring down an experienced publishing firm as if it were a mere house of cards. The film becomes less of a sharp, satirical insight into this industry and more of Daihachi having great fun in writing and filming one shocking twist after another. Thus when Teruya Hayami (Yo Oizumi) is asked by his junior team member Megumi Takano (Mayu Matsuoka), what next, he mumbles “the world, as I’m a freelancer”, immediately awkwardly backtracking. Teruya, an outlier editor who has flitted from one magazine to another, and is now roped in to revive flagging Kunpu cultural magazine Trinity, comes in with a street smart, sharp insight on what kind of writing Trinity can offer. But he is made to spend much of his time jumping from one prospective author to another, evading one catastrophe to another, courtesy the script. Daihachi writes Megumi as a brilliant young editor who has an innate talent to discern new unique, exciting literary voices. Her stable upbringing amongst books (her family owns a bookstore) and a loving father (a gentle Shinya Tsukamoto), gives her not just a love for the written word, but a very solid foundation of what she stands for and what she expects from editing and publishing books. At Kunpu, Megumi is invariably present at every shenanigan. When at one point, furious, she questions, ‘Is this all so enjoyable?’, she may well be asking Daihachi this. As Megumi tries to make sense of the slippery proceedings, Kiba becomes mighty watchable. A dependable character actor in contemporary Japanese films about twenty-somethings, the diminutive Matsuokabrings a magnetic presence to Kiba. The film wouldn’t work as it does, without her, nor Oizumi.

It is not a surprise then that Megumi is the one who lands on her feet after she has passed through all the professional and personal tornadoes. As she is interviewed by a noted cultural critic who is nothing but an intense tabloid gossip monger, Arisa Kutani (Satomi Kobayashi, a quiet riot), she looks at the camera and smiles. In a sharper, authentic film, this could have been a revelation, not just for the character but for the viewer as well. In Kiba, it becomes evasive, as one wonders if the next shocker is just around the corner, having been so accustomed to Daihachi constantly unleashing his surprises. Kiba unfortunately becomes an empty spectacle.

Like many Japanese films, Kiba is generously sprinkled with versatile veteran actors. But each performer even minor ones, who barely have much to say, is complete in their performance. Special mention, though, to Jun Kunimura as a sleazy, famous author. At a dinner meeting he gets Megumi very drunk, slowly walks around the table and sits next to her. Jun’s demeanour instantly ramps up the fearful expectation of violence, but Daihachi’s sudden swerve to comedic relief is ingenious and Jun is faultless as he squashes his threat. Kiba is a film that stays in its cinematic cocoon, reluctant to engage with the real world politics within the publishing industry. Its background score is a perfect mix of contemporary slow rock and a bit of classical, that embody the sinister and nicely complements the furious editing and assured camera movements that move slowly around characters to suddenly zoom to close-ups. Kiba has a noirish visual texture and works as a very engaging thriller, though one that quite easily slips through the mind once the end credits have rolled.

Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction was shown at JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film on August 26 and 28.