Director Yu Irie’s last two films, 8000 Miles and 8000 Miles 2, detailed the travails of aspiring Japanese underground hip-hop artists. With his latest, Ringing in Their Ears, Yu shifts to a rock milieu, an expansion of focus, and a leap of structural ambition, offering an Altmanesque multi-character narrative centering on Shinsei Kamattechan, a real-life rock band whose members play themselves. The narrative is driven by a musical ticking time bomb, counting down to an upcoming performance by the band; there is a bit of suspense concerning whether Noko, the band’s mercurial, reclusive lead singer, will even show up for the gig. As with many other details, this reflects reality outside the film; Noko assiduously avoids the press and refuses to participate in band interviews. The narrative strand directly involving the band finds the group at a turning point in their career, having signed to a major label after gaining a large following on the internet. Again, this has a real-life parallel; Shinsei Kamattechan was signed to Warner Music Japan last year after building their following with surreal homemade videos on You Tube, and a successful indie album release. In the film, the band faces the perennial dilemma that comes with being on the verge of mainstream stardom: whether to “sell out” by making a bid for broad audience appeal, or to remain true to the essence of what attracted their fans in the first place, even if this retards their progress in conventional career terms. This choice is presented to the band’s manager by an arrogant, bullying record company executive, who wants the band to change its image and rewrite one of their songs as a positive anthem to encourage hikikomori (pathological social shut-ins) to emerge from their rooms. The manager, almost certain the band won’t go for it, gingerly, and reluctantly, tries to bring up the subject with the group.
While the band prepares for its show, we are taken into the lives of other characters whose crises orbit the group, and who are all connected with this music in some way. Kaori (Kurumi Morishita), an office cleaning lady by day and an exotic dancer by night, is also a harried single mother driven to distraction by dealing with her son Ryota (Tatsuya Sakamoto), who won’t let go of the laptop given him by his estranged dad, and who horrifies his teachers by leading his kindergarten classmates in choruses of very morbid Shinsei Kamattechan lyrics. Kaori wants to take the night off from the club to see the band in concert, but her boss gives her a hard time, threatening to replace her with younger girls. Meanwhile, high-school girl Michiko (Fumi Nikaido) obsessively pursues her dream of becoming a shogi (Japanese chess) champion, which drives a wedge between herself and everyone around her, including her father – who increasingly resents her rebelliousness and who Michiko blames for turning her brother into a hikikomori – and her cheating boyfriend, who gives her a CD of the band’s music to listen to.
The film shuttles back and forth between the band and the parallel storylines, building to a crescendo with an impressively edited final sequence on the day of the show, in which all the narrative lines converge into an ecstatic explosion affirming the power of rock and roll, and most especially the passionate and idiosyncratic brand that Shinsei Kamattechan practices. Their music is a vessel that allows their fans to express their hidden feelings and desires, allowing them to experience epiphanies and to break out of prisons both self-imposed and created by society.
Irie gets major points for ambition and well-drawn characters, but the grand statement he is clearly going for remains elusive, since his style of filmmaking rarely rises above the functional. One hopes for more of a transcendent feeling from this film, for more poetry and less prose. Still, Ringing in Their Ears nicely captures the power of a song, and the myriad ways it can hit listeners in the deepest and most personal places.
Ringing in Their Ears, a co-presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema, screens July 7, 9pm at Japan Society and July 11, 1:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Japan Society websites.