Masanori Tominaga's The Pavillion Salamandre just came out of nowhere. It went by completely unnoticed on its initial release, the addition of Jo Odagiri being the only hook that put this film on the radar of a select few in the West. Looking back after watching the film, it's not difficult to see why they didn't even bother to promote it over here, but that shouldn't stop you from seeking it out when you have the chance. The experience alone is worth the gamble.
If the name Tominaga sounds familiar, it's because I've written several reviews for Mai Tominaga's films (Wool 100%, Rinco's Restaurant) in the past. While I haven't been able to figure out any clear connection between the two directors, judging from their respective styles it wouldn't surprise me in the least if there was some kind of family connection between these two. Even though the both of them make very distinct films, there is a certain familiarity to their output that links them together.
The Pavillion Salamandre is one of those film that isn't overly weird, but manages to create an off-key atmosphere that lasts an entire film. Strange dialogues, quirky characters and unnatural plot twists make for a very fun and intriguing whole. Chances are of course that Tominaga's style won't suit you, if that's the case then this will no doubt be a horrible trial to sit through. But if it does somehow manage to stick, The Pavillion Salamandre is a film that will stay with you for a long time to come. It's a gamble, but definitely worth the risk.
The story is difficult to capture in a few lines, but I'll give it a shot anyway. Central to the story is Kinjiro, a strange and famous salamander whose pond (and whose very existence) is a national landmark. Roentgenologist Hoichi is chased and eventually hired by some suspicious-looking guys to examine the animal and determine its authenticity. What Hoichi doesn't know is that he's being used as a tool in a long-lasting feud between the Kinjiro foundation members. And if you think this sounds random already, it's only the beginning of the story.
Visually Tominaga's film is a little inconsistent. Some scenes look really wonderful, with much attention being paid to the camera work, composition and color. Other scenes look a bit plain and have a rather rushed feel hanging over them. It's a shame because the potential is definitely there and some scene are genuinely impressive. Maybe it was a budget-related issue, maybe it's because this was Tominaga's first film or maybe Tominaga just didn't care enough to keep it consistently fresh. Whatever the case, I feel more could be done visually.
The soundtrack on the other hand is first class material. Ranging from stylish jazz to experimental lofi electronic, the score is a constant factor in undermining any chance of getting used to the film's quirky feel. It's a constant challenge that lends the film a very unique atmosphere and even though it's not always easy on the ears, it sure is a lot of fun. People who've watched 100% Wool might have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
The most recognizable actor of The Pavillion Salamandre is without a doubt Jo Odagiri. The man is often compared to Tadanobu Asano (scruffy appearance and a taste for off-key characters) and judging on his role here the comparison is easy to justify. Odagiri has his own flair though and uses it to great effect in this film. While Odagiri steals the show, Kashii turns in more of a sleeper hit performance. Not as visible or out there, but just as strong and powerful all the same. The rest of the cast is up to par, with everyone obviously very conscious of the type of film they're appearing in.
Halfway through Odagiri switches hides and transforms into some weird Italian stereotype. Things get gradually weirder and the coherence might be hard to find at times. While the film does wrap up nicely, you may wonder how Tominaga managed to cram in so much nonsensical plot lines. If you were planning on watching a captivating story with big emotional scenes, warm feel-good comedy and overpowering dramatical elements, better go somewhere else. The Pavillion Salamandre is an incoherent, strange and chaotic mess that challenges your suspension of disbelieve for its entire running time, but pays off in other areas.
It's definitely a difficult film to recommend. The film is virtually impossible to compare with other films, it has a very distinct flavor and doesn't really cater to any well-defined audience out there. But if you like a film that dares to be different, shows a lot of vigor and enthusiasm and manages to be quite funny and emotional through all the chaos, this is no doubt a film that should be high on your checklist. Great fun, unique and mesmerizing, but definitely not for everyone.