Nobuhiro Yamashita is a filmmaker who always gets fantastic performances from his female stars. Think of Bae Doona in Linda Linda Linda (2005), Kaho in A Gentle Breeze in the Village (2007), or Atsuko Maeda in The Drudgery Train (2012). But for La La La at Rock Bottom (also known as Misono Universe) he has cast rising star Fumi Nikaido and I was excited about this film just for her presence alone. And while she is fantastic here, I was particularly surprised by the male lead, Subaru Shibutani. Add the offbeat yet naturalistic humour that is expected from Yamashita plus music that is reminiscent of Linda Linda Linda, and you get one of the director’s most crowd-pleasing outings to date.
Shigeo (Shibutani) is a lowlife gangster who just finished an 18 month stretch in prison, and when he meets his so-called friends on release, they beaten him up, causing him to lose his memory. He then stumbles into a band performance (by real-life band Akainu) in Osaka and literally steals the show with his surprisingly capable singing. Taken in by Kasumi (Fumi Nikaido) who lives in a record studio with her grandfather, Shigeo is renamed “Pooch”, after her late dog, put to work around the studio and also given the position of vocals in the band. But sooner or later, his memory catches up with him. With Kasumi investigating his past, Shigeo will have to decide whether to go back to his old ways or commit to what has been building between himself and Kasumi.
Amnesia storylines have long been used in cinema, and infinitely more in soap operas, so there isn’t a lot of juice left to be squeezed from this old trope. Fortunately, it’s the only old trope in La La La at Rock Bottom that feels cliched. The storytelling here is refreshingly subtle and the focus of the drama lies within the characters, who are wonderfully portrayed. Shibutani is an actor that I’ve never heard of (although he is more of a singer by trade) and he delivers a strong performance as Shigeo/Pooch. He exudes charisma and likability without really doing anything and his gradual transformation back to his older self is well handled, as he hints at a dark side with bouts of menace. When he proclaims that he may be dangerous, we actually believe it. As for the role of Kasumi, some actresses would have overplayed the toughness of the part to the point that they would just look petulant or whiny, but not Nikaido. She has impressed with her many roles from Himizu (2011) to Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013) to My Man (2014), and she does so again here. Nikaido plays her role with charm and courage, never looking forced and conveying her sympathy to Shigeo/Pooch with conviction, even if she punches him or writes make-believe stories about his past, speculating that he was a singer who was betrayed by his own manager.
La La La at Rock Bottom never threatens to be dull because of the quirky humour that Yamashita finds in realistic situations (aside from the amnesia story) and off-kilter supporting characters. Kasumi’s grandfather is very amusing, particularly when he thinks Shigeo/Pooch is his son, and Akainu are fun to watch as the band members. But not all of the supporting performances are funny, as there are also some great dramatic performances, particularly from Izumi Matsuoka, who plays Shigeo/Pooch’s sister. Her main scene with Shibutani is poignant and hits the audience hard when she states what their family has gone through.
The story is also surprisingly realistic despite the amnesia trope, as it never forces melodrama or even a romance between Shigeo/Pooch and Kasumi. I was surprised that it did not go down that route, but the bonding between the two was more than enough, since the two actors have great chemistry that sees their characters go from owner-and-“dog” relationship to friendship. And what about the songs? Although Japanese is a language that I know very little of, the songs are great to listen to, although they are quite repetitive at times and not as catchy as the ones heard in Linda Linda Linda.
On the downside, the brutal violence sometimes conflicts with the tone of the story – it comes off as jarring and could take the audience out of the movie, but the positives far outweigh the negatives here. La La La at Rock Bottom is a great acting showcase for Shibutani, another success for Nikaido and one of director Yamashita’s most enjoyable films.
La La La at Rock Bottom is showing as part of the Japanese Film Festival 2015 Australia which runs from October 14 to December 6. See the festival website for screening times and venues.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.