Takashi Miike (Sun Scarred, Crows Zero, Crows Zero II, Zebraman 2) still stands as one of my all-time favorite directors, even though the quality of his recent output has somewhat diminished. It isn't easy to pick one film from his vast oeuvre that stands out as his absolute best, but after some thorough soul-searching 46-Okunen no Koi is the film that survived all scrutiny. It's and arthouse flick, it has dancing, gay prison inmates and space rockets: vintage Miike in other words.
Miike never really made a true "classic" arthouse flick, but between this film and Izo there are enough elements that suggest Miike was aiming for a little more than mere entertainment with these films. While at its very core 46-Okunen no Koi is just a simple whodunnit, there is enough artistic value (and artistic weirdness) here, pulling this film purposely away from mere genre film making and creating a hybrid of two incompatible worlds that may be greater than the sum of its parts.
When the first images of 46-Okunen no Koi surfaced some people assumed Miike was stepping into the footsteps of Lars Von Trier's Dogville. And while some sets indeed resembled the idea behind Dogville's minimalism (prison cages marked by lines drawn on the floor), Miike is not one to abide by a strict set of rules. So yeah, there's a bit of Dogville in here, but the resulting film is completely different from anything Von Trier would and could ever direct.
After a short introduction featuring a modern interpretation of an old tribal ritual, we warp to an unnamed prison in an unnamed time, witnessing the murder of Shiro by one of his fellow cell mates, Jun. Jun is quick to confess his crime, but apparently there is more than meets the eye. The film then warps back to the moment Shiro and Jun were admitted to the prison, following their tale of repressed friendship within the prison walls through several flashbacks and changes of perspective, ultimately revealing the true motives behind the murder.
Visually speaking 46-Okunen no Koi is a pretty unique film. It may not be as minimal as Dogville but it's definitely way more abstract than most other films out there, removing all unneeded objects and obsolete visual impulses from the settings. The camera work is classy, the use of color very defining for the film's atmosphere (46-Okunen no Koi is very much a yellow film). Some of the CG is still too intruding for my taste, but at least it's functional and it serves a good purpose.
The score may go by somewhat unnoticed at first (it may even come off as a little generic), but upon closer inspection (and multiple viewings) it does prove its value. There is some memorable background music here that sets the right mood and allows you to be pulled in much faster then often the case. While watching this film I'm usually too transfixed by the on-screen events to notice, but the soundtrack is definitely an essential part of the experience here.
As for the acting, Miike was able to assemble a tremendous cast. Masanobu Ando and Ryuhei Matsuda are both excellent as Shiro and Jun (and I wouldn't be surprised if both characters were actually scripted with these two actors in mind), secondary roles are equally impressive with Ryo Ishibashi and Ken'Ichi Endo as most notable examples. Between these four actors you have plenty of talent used to portraying such a set of strange characters while keeping performances straight-faced and believable.
Miike has never shied away from some playful experimentation left and right, but he does take it to the next level in 46-Okunen no Koi. He mixes different narratives and time lapses, at times fading characters away from particular scenes or simply adding dialogues without the actual characters present. The result is a world that remains mysterious and exciting, as it does not even seem to conform to any internal rules or limitations. Miike plays with the expectations of his audience (the scene where Endo suddenly steps through a window) and keeps you guessing until the very end.
I must admit that even though I love the poetic nature of this film, I never really made an effort to uncover any hidden layers or tried to explain the symbolism in 46-Okunen no Koi. Others may have their fun figuring out what motivated Miike to make this film the way it is, and I'm sure you could come up with some amazing theories for this film, but that's just not my cup of tea. I keep coming back for the atmosphere and the poetic trip Miike has on offer, which suits me plenty.
If you want to see a more experimental and serious side of Miike, this film is definitely recommended. Sure enough the film has its fair share of weird moments, but all the weirdness does seem to serve a higher, more artistic goal here. So far Miike hasn't been able to match 46-Okunen no Koi and as he slowly shifted towards more commercial cinema I wonder if he will ever be able to top it, but whatever the future brings, Miike clearly demonstrated that he has skills that transcend the realm of obscure genre film making.