Some films you watch with no expectations at all, some films you walk into expecting the world and more. And then there are those films that you just know will be good, even when all you know about them is the director. Chasuke's Journey [Ten no Chasuke] is one of those rare cases. I went in blank, but not once did I doubt this film would be anything less than it turned out to be. And while it's not one of Tanaka's absolute best, it's still a marvelous little film.
Chasuke's Journey is a book adaptation with a twist, the twist being that Hiroyuki Tanaka (credited as Sabu when he's directing) himself wrote the novel. It's not often that an author is in the position to adapt his own novel, but I think it's a pretty good position to be in. There's always the chance a creator becomes too involved of course, but ultimately you'll get a much more faithful rendition this way. Considering the relative absurdness of the source material I can't see how anyone else would've handled this film better.
Tanaka made a film that's quite difficult to explain in a mere paragraph or two. Chasuke's Journey is one of those films that makes sense while watching, but merely summarizing the plot won't do it much justice, instead it makes it sound like a convoluted mess. In true Tanaka style, the film shoots off in all kinds of directions. There's a bottom line that somewhat clear from the start, but the road there is everything but predictable. It's what draws me to his films, though I'm sure not everyone is going to appreciate this.
The plot revolves around Chasuke. He's a tea server in heaven who takes care of the scriptwriters. One day he inadvertently causes the death of a young girl, and he's sent to Earth to try and right his wrong. Along the way he is helped by a couple of scriptwriters from above, but he's found out before he can reach the girl and a battle of heavenly scriptwriters ensues, each one trying to make sure their character remains alive and relevant. It sounds like a good enough concept for 100 minutes of amusement, but instead this merely describes the first 20-30 minutes of the film.
Visually Chasuke's Journey is another step up from Tanaka's earlier work (unless you have a thing for black and white, then Miss Zombie is pretty much uncontested). What struck me the most though was the exquisite lighting. There are lights everywhere, handled in such a way that they always impact the overall impression of the visuals. Clearly it wasn't just accidental, as I noticed the end credits mentioned a lighting director. For me personally that's the first time I ever heard about the position, but I'll be more than happy if it actually becomes a thing. Apart from the lighting, Tanaka plays around with some different visual styles, making the film even more dynamic and playful. The result is absolutely amazing.
The soundtrack was featured a little less prominently than I expected. Tanaka has a way of incorporating music in such a way that it becomes an integral part of the film. While the score definitely wasn't bad or disappointing, it never truly gripped me or seemed to play a big part in the overall atmosphere of the film. I guess I wouldn't have made a big deal of this if it had been any other director, it's just that I expect a little more from Tanaka in the sound department.
I was glad to see him dig up part of his old actor crew though. While they weren't given major parts, seeing Ren Osugi and Susumu Terajima featured in the same film always gives me a little tingle, especially when said film starts off with the Office Kitano logo. Ken'ichi Matsuyama (the lead) has established himself as one of Japan's bigger stars, Ito Ohno is not as famous, but if her performance here is anything to go by she might have a bright future lying in front of her. Solid casting all around.
Tanaka fans will have little trouble with Chasuke's Journey, as it's basically just a more contemporary update of his earlier work. But if you've never seen a Tanaka film before, it might all be just a little too free-form, too confusing. Tanaka still gets side-tracked quite easily, there are some weird and absurd elements and plot-wise it's just not the most coherent of films. That's a small price to pay though, especially when in return you get a film that's very creative, constantly surprising and has its heart in the right place.
It seems Tanaka is back where he belongs, after going through some rougher patches in the late 00s. Chasuke's Journey is visually stunning, very well acted, original and most of all unique. It's exactly the kind of film that fuels my love for Japanese cinema. If you're not familiar with Hiroyuki Tanaka or Japanese cinema in general you might be better off looking at some more accessible films first, but long time fans will feel right at home with this one, if only because the film reunites Osugi and Terajima. I can't wait to see what Tanaka will come up with next.