Survive Style 5+ (Japan, 2004)

Who was it that originally insisted that style was somehow inferior to substance? Is style merely the icing on substance’s cake, as it were? But to take that admittedly poor metaphor one step further, doesn’t that mean substance is already a sugary unnecessary, with style its only marginally more sweet topping? I really have no idea what I’m going for here except that I’m trying to find some clever way to introduce Survive Style 5+ and its satisfying triumph of style over substance. The product of a television commercial production duo, Survive Style 5+ is an almost entirely unnecessary film that not only manages to be extremely entertaining but also almost effortlessly relevant in its final ten minutes, a feat that had me not only laughing with delight but also confounded at my expectations with not only the picture itself, but with what it means to be substantive.

Five barely related stories interlock: Aman (Asano Tadanobu at his understated best) repeatedly kills and buries his wife, who not only refuses to stay dead but fights back; three thrill-seeking burglars break into houses and argue; a family’s dynamic is shattered when their salary man father, Kobayashi (Kishibe Ittoku), continues to act like a bird after being hypnotized; an advertising executive (Koizumi Kyoko) refuses to recognize her own egotism; a hilariously self-centered hypnotist (Abe Hiroshi) is killed onstage by a foreign hit man (Vinnie Jones) before he can unhypnotize the salaryman father.

All of this nonsense that passes for plot wouldn’t stand up to anything if Survive Style 5+ weren’t so damn entertaining. The characters are all roundly hilarious—even Asano, who barely speaks yet says tons with his minimalist expressions. The casting is brilliant, going against type to confound expectations and up the comedic potential. Abe Hiroshi, who is best known as the magic-debunking physicist from the TV series Trick, is cast as an over-the-top hypnotist, while Sonny Chiba steals the brief scene he’s in by playing a hen-pecked corporate executive. The most inspired casting, though, is Kishibe Ittoku, a character actor best known for playing dour yakuza types, as the human bird. His comedic skills are impeccable—or should that be im-peck-able?

Any discussion of Survive Style 5+ has to include the way it looks. This movie is art-directed to within an inch of its life. Aman lives in a huge Western house, painted bright colors like it came from the set of an American sit-com. He wears a coat covered with little painted eyes. Even his old American station wagon is art directed, painted with vines. Somehow all of this eye-riot fails to be overly distracting and only adds to the enjoyment of the film.

Like the similarly episodic and commercial-like Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005), Survive Style 5+ shows that there are many different ways to make a film, not just what we’ve become used to over time. And that television commercials can actually be good for something: as a training ground for forward-thinking film makers. And that last 10 minutes? Let’s just say that standing up and cheering wouldn’t be inappropriate.