Quirky Guys and Gals (Japan, 2011)
The title of Quirky Guys and Gals effectively summarises a form of contemporary Japanese cinema that is, if not a fully-fledged genre, still immediately recognisable: offbeat movies that are either laugh-out-loud funny or balance humour with low-key drama, generally more interested in character eccentricities than plot developments and often populated by engaging actors on the rise (most obviously, Tadanobu Asano and Jô Odagari, before they went down global art-house avenues or started accepting studio jobs). It’s also suggestive of a type of film that has become fairly representative of the Western perception of Japanese cinema since the J-Horror boom died a sudden death and more varied trends began to emerge. Most of these films exhibit an independent spirit, due to being developed by directors, rather than committees, then funded by smaller companies, but are produced to exportable standard and savvy enough to appeal to those seeking novelty on the festival circuit or browsing the DVD shelves. Of course, a little ‘quirky’ can go a long way, sometimes to the point of annoyance, but the Japanese films that have adopted this tone successfully –Fine, Totally Fine (2008), Instant Swamp (2009) and The Taste of Tea (2004), to name but three – serve as well-observed studies of individuals or communities in unusual circumstances with an emphasis on behavioural of situational humour. Quirky Guys and Gals is an anthology film that brings together four Japanese comedy directors, with each segment adhering to the loose theme of men and women who are a little left-of-centre.
The four segments intended to please, rather than to provoke, but nonetheless mine laughs by taking lightly satirical swipes at contemporary Japanese society: Yosuke Fujita’s opener “Cheer Girls” has a trio of university students combating depression and suicidal tendencies in Tokyo by cheering on people who are stuck in a rut, but lead girl Chiharu falls into a slump when accused of ‘narcissism’ by her boyfriend following television coverage of her efforts. The broadest segment is Tomoko Matsunashi’s “Boy? Meets Girl”, in which shy high school student Konosuke tries to get close to dream girl Kaori, the president of the photography club, by pretending to be a woman, then modelling for Kaori around town and in the countryside, but still finding himself stuck in the ‘friend zone’. Things take a darker turn in Mipo O’s “Claim Night”, in which single thirty-something Mayuko returns home to find that her electricity supply has been cut-off due to non-payment; after an unsuccessful call to customer services, a complaints manager visits Mayuko in person, with his apology and compensatory measures leading to a dinner date as the limits of customer care are tested by Mayuko’s demanding manner. The final segment, Gen Sekiguchi’s “The House Full of ‘Abandoned’ Businessmen”, comments on the plight of the salaryman during a prolonged recession; a housewife with a habit of collecting takes pity on recently-fired professionals and lets them spend the day at her home, dutifully preparing lunchtime snacks, but refusing offers to assist with the daily household chores.
Quirky Guys and Gals feels very much like a side-project for all concerned, with perfunctory production values and cheap but cheerful graphics that make it a small screen proposition rather than a potential theatrical breakout. However, it is fitfully amusing throughout, with none of the segments outstaying their welcome and the range of characters on offer (singletons, students, suburbanites) providing a varied social cross-section of not-so-ordinary Japan. The highlights are arguably “Claim Night” and “The House Full of ‘Abandoned’ Businessmen” which are more evenly-paced, show the most visual flair and would work as stand-alone shorts if removed from the thematic framework. Nervous laughter is raised by the former as O reveals the repressed anger that lies behind Japanese politeness, culminating in a rage-fuelled living room fight that his protagonists find strangely liberating. The latter finds Sekiguchi returning to film production for the first time since his festival favourite Survive Style 5+ (2004) with a dual-satire of suburban boredom and unemployed salaryman shame that culminates in a chaotic attempt by a group of out-of-work corporate professionals to kill a cockroach with their office shoes. Anthology films have a decidedly mixed track record – for every Paris, Je T’Aime (2006) there is a Four Rooms (1995) – but Quirky Guys and Gals maintains a consistent style while accommodating the individual approaches of the four directors involved. Even in short-form, these filmmakers effortlessly challenge Japan’s modern social norms beneath the self-consciously ‘quirky’ surface of their respective segments and will hopefully collaborate again in the future.