Bon Lin (Bon to Lin chan)
Japan (2014) Dir. Keiichi Kobayashi
The Japanese do quirky like no other country but sometimes their take on quirky is so sardonic it is hard to determine where the joke is aimed at – the subject matter, the characters or the viewer. For that reason Bon Lin is a film which will resonate more with its native audience while engaging international observers with this unique Japanese look at life.
Opening disarmingly with a “Story so far” recap – despite not being a sequel or part of a series – we learn about a girl named Miyu (Rino Higa) who left her small town life to go to Tokyo with her boyfriend. Miyu sends a message to her friend Natsuko Yotsuya aka Bon (Ema Sakura) mentioning physical violence and Bon gets it into her head that Miyu is being held as a sex slave.
Dragging long time friend Rintaro Tomoda aka Lin (Mahiro Takasugi) along with her and Naoto Aida aka Bebi (Hakushu Togetsuan), a hardcore otaku whom they met on the internet, Bon sets off for Tokyo to bring Miyu home again. However when Bon eventually tracks Miyu down she is in for a bit of a shock.
Bon Lin has been described as a road trip for otaku but this is a little misleading as road trip movies usually thrive on the madcap events that blight the protagonists en route to their destiny. This film has almost none of that, let alone any real travelling aside for a brief train journey, instead serving as an excuse for writer-director Keiichi Kobayashi to share his homespun philosophy on certain subjects.
Whether Kobayashi is vilifying or championing otaku, their sex lives appears to be the central topic for discussion – “discussion” being the key word. This is a very verbose film with Bon doing most of the talking, sharing her opinion on everything and with such a strong personality, her two male companions keep quiet and listen.
Bon reminds this writer of Juno (a character and film I hated) in that she arrogantly believes her word is gospel and we are all entitled to hear it whether we want to or not. Bon is a huge BL (boy’s love) fan and has coerced Lin into being a fan too, although he isn’t gays nor is he interested in the sexual antics, just the stories. Bebi is also a BL fan as well as regular eroge and moe fare, who gets his kicks from prostitutes yet Bon – still a virgin – is the one who speaks with the most authority.
Her barbed put downs and open suggestions of sexual interaction between Lin and Bebi is met with abhorrence, Bon’s dead pan delivery and prickly personality making it difficult to believe this is jocular banter. When a thug steals their train fare they stay in Bebi’s anime girl festooned apartment where Bebi makes a pass at Bon, unaware that she had her phone camera on record. Bebi is now blackmailed into helping with the search for Miyu.
It appears that this film is not about the journey or the destination but the people themselves which is rare, although they don’t seem to learn anything – especially Bon who gets a lesson in humility but refuses to accept it. Actually that isn’t quite true as Bebi seemed to have gained some courage from Bon’s harsh critique on his life to do something about it and made a friend in Lin, who remain Bon’s weary bag carrier.
The crux of the matter reveals itself when Miyu and Bon finally reunite and a clash in philosophy leads to a lengthy and garrulous showdown in which Miyu gives as good as she gets. A bit of a spoiler but Miyu is now working as a prostitute under the name Satsuki and ensnares her by having Bebi pose as a client. Bon is upset to see her friend in this line of work but more upset when Miyu tells her she is happy, earning money and feels wanted.
After being able to essentially steamroll over Lin and Bebi, this is a clash of likeminded wills as Miyu gives Bon no quarter, throwing a number of home truths at her estranged friend, exposing her for the fraud she is, something Bon accuses almost everyone else she encounters of being. Eventually it comes down to Miyu being the centrifugal force of the story, as Bebi remarks earlier on that she must be special for Bon and Lin to go to so much trouble for.
So what is the message of this film? Is there one? This is what I was referring to at the start about not knowing what we are supposed to be addressing, notwithstanding the abrupt and oblique ending offering no conclusion. One wonders if Kobayashi had an idea for a story but also has a beef about otaku – or thinks otaku are unfairly maligned in which case he doesn’t do them many favours – and uses Bon to sound about them as a way to make some points about sexual tolerances.
Despite this we remain glued to the screen as Kobayashi’s ambiguity intrigues along with the interesting dynamic of the travelling trio. Many of the shots are long single takes so the young cast – aged between 18 and 22 – acquit themselves admirably in delivering such lengthy passages of dialogue uninterrupted without missing a beat.
Physically the casting is interesting – Ema Sakura is tall, thin and upright, talking down to the others both literally and figuratively with a haughty and caustic tongue while Rino Higa is tiny yet breathes just as much fire into her words. Mahiro Takasugi is slight and effete (I actually thought he was actress Hikari Mitsushima for a moment) and Hakushu Togetsuan is a believable forty something loser.
It’s hard to properly describe or define a film like Bon Lin but Japanophiles will “get it” the most even if Kobayashi’s intentions and meaning is buried beneath the withering yet astute rhetoric.