Love & Peace (Cert PG)

1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 118 minutes approx.

Japanese maverick Sion Sono had a busy 2015, making no less than SIX films of varying subjects and styles, including the violent satire Tag and this almost unimaginable for Sono family friendly tokusatsu (special effects) fantasy movie, in which he illustrates his versatility as a director.

Timid and gauche Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa) once had dreams of being a punk rocker, but is now a low-level office worker, humiliated and bullied by everyone he encounters, except for equally meek co-worker Yuko Terajima (Kumiko Aso). Ryoichi’s only friend is a turtle he named Pikadon with whom he shares all his secrets and hopes, until harassment by his co-workers cause Ryoichi to flush Pikadon down the toilet.

Ryoichi immediately regrets this but fortunately Pikadon ends up in the underground lair of a mysterious old man (Toshiyuki Nishida) surrounded by sentient toys and dolls he fixed. The old man meant to give Pikadon a speaking pill but accidentally gave him a wishing pill instead. When bullied by a street punk band Ryoichi sings a song about Pikadon which leads to the start of a vertiginous reversal of fortune.  

Arguably the only other person who could mix such disparate elements together in one film is Takashi Miike, someone Sono has often been compared to and influenced by. Unlike Miike, Sono is able to make his work a more coherent effort, not veering off into absurd directions for the sake of it.

It might not appear so from the above summary but there is a prevalent satirical flavour to this bonkers scenario, with a number of targets ripe for the Sono treatment, along with a selection of possible meanings and morals being proffered along the way – consumerism, the fickleness of fame and the music business, cherishing memories, take your pick.

The fact that Sono has managed to do all of this with a PG rating is miraculous enough but this is also wondrously entertaining to boot and with hitherto unseen warmth from the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. The main story may follow many familiar paths and does little to distinguish itself from other rag to riches tales – aside from the turtle of course – yet it is what Sono does with these conventions that matters.   

As a lead protagonist, Ryoichi is perhaps too much of a simpering, ineffective waste of space that teasing him actually feels more right than wrong, but Pikadon’s arrival helps turn this around, at least through his bemused reactions to Ryoichi’s delusional ravings. Performed by a real turtle, these are some of the most entertaining and enriching moments in the whole film.

Ryoichi creates an ambition board resembling the road to the newly built 2020 Olympic stadium which he wants to sell out as a rock star. After Pikadon is given the wish pill, suddenly Ryoichi finds himself on that road, his impromptu street song now a huge chart hit record. The joke is that Ryoichi was singing to Pikadon, which means “Atomic bomb” – something he didn’t know – so his ballad is seen as a potent anti-nuke song.

Typically success goes to “Wild Ryo’s” head and he becomes a massive tool, even to Yuko who silently adores him from afar. Pikadon pays Ryo nightly visits to help him write new songs, noticeably growing in size according to the import of Ryo’s wish. The end result is Sono fulfilling his tokusatsu ambition with a spot on but much cuter homage to the legendary Godzilla (or more accurately Gamera) movies.

Where we find the true heart and soul of the film is in the underground workshop of the old man, addressed by the toys and animals as Pa. A mixture of animatronics, puppets and live animals, this rag tag community is full of life, joyous spirit and empathy towards one another. Each toy has its own personality, such as Sulkie the caustic cat, Marie the prim doll and the irresponsible PC-300 robot.

A cross between Toy Story and Small Soldiers with a dash of Jim Henson magic, the interplay and camaraderie between the toys is highly amusing and endearing. It’s impossible not to enjoy the sight of them making their way across Shinjuku inside a large, tatty cardboard box which everyone practically ignores. As for Pa, he is more than the industrious heavy drinking hobo he seems in a superb twist to this delightfully whimsical subplot.

One would assume that Sono would be on the verge of physical, mental and creative burn out making six films in one calendar yet there is evidence of this to be found in this vibrant and imaginative production. The genesis of this project dates back many years but now seems the right time for Sono to make it happen and assuredly benefits from this prolonged journey to the screen.

It’s interesting to note that for the most part the effects are practical – giant Pikadon is a man in a suit – with just a touch of CGI for visual enhancement. This gives the film a more tactile and believable edge while the retro appeal of the googly eyed Pikadon rampaging through a plywood Shinjuku will delight fans of the aforementioned tokusatsu classics.

This may not be the sort of film to judge performances on but one has to tip the hat to Hiroki Hasegawa for his remarkable transformation of Ryoichi/Wild Ryo. The underrated Kumiko Aso seems typecast as the dowdy love interest but she is credible and adorable all at once. Stealing the show – aside from Pikadon – is Toshiyuki Nishida as Pa, the conscience of the whole affair.

On paper Love & Peace sounds like a disaster waiting to happen but in practice it is a wonderful celebration of all that is good and pure in cinematic whimsy this side of Studio Ghibli with a rich sardonic undercurrent.

Having now shown he has a soul and not always the provocateur, do we think Sono will take a well-earned break? Nah, me neither!

 

Extras:

Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD MA

English subtitles

 

Making Of Special Effects (Tokusatsu)

Theatrical Trailer

 

Rating – ****

Man In Black

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