After a dry spell that lasted about 7 or 8 years, it was Ken Ninomiya's The Limit of Sleeping Beauty that finally pushed me to dish out another perfect score. Then came the wait for Ninomiya's second feature, a film that wasn't even certain to materialize. Luckily Ninomiya seems to be in it for the long run, and when the news broke that Chiwawa [Chiwawa-san] was ready for release I was more than a little excited. But also a little hesitant maybe, because I knew my expectations were going to be immense. Add another year (Japanese films remain extremely tricky to get a hold of) and I can finally put my mind at ease. Ninomiya is destined for greatness.
What makes Ninomiya's films so unique is that they manage to portray "club culture" characters without falling into cheap doom scenarios and/or misguided generalizations. Usually films with club kids tend to be about lost and out of control generations, about the empty existence of their protagonists and the often futile and exuberant attempts of these youngsters to bring meaning to their lives. These films often feel like an outsider's view, a moot point made by someone completely out of touch with the subject. And it's not that these themes are entirely absent from Ninomiya's films, but ultimately Ninomiya shows the challenges of individuals that represent every single one of us, not just stand-ins for a generation of people.
Chiwawa is a film that deals with the relative impact a person has on the lives of the people surrounding him. Ninomiya brings a rather nuanced view, as he finds an equal amount of heart-warming and sobering angles there. For some people the impact is very real but temporary, for others there's hardly an impact at all, and there's only a select few whose lives will be touched forever. In that sense the films doesn't offer a comforting moral, nor many straight answers. Instead, Chiwawa offers a more realistic slate of options and leaves it to the audience to cherry-pick the conclusions.
The film centers around the disappearance of Chiwawa, an up and coming model that is welcomed into a group of friends by Yoshida, the playboy of the bunch. When they manage to steal a large bribe from some contractors, they plan a wild vacation that is bound to bring them closer together. But they burn through the money and once back home the group starts to fall apart. When a couple of months later Chiwawa turns up dead and dismembered in the Tokyo Harbor, Miki decides to ask around in order to find out what might have happened to her. This setup gives Ninomiya ample opportunities to show what Chiwawa meant to the different people in the group.
Visually this is much in line with his first film, which means there's a much stronger focus on capturing and establishing moods than there is on narrative progression. No doubt some reviewers are going to refer to music videos (or god forbid, MTV), but that's just par for the course. The camera work in Chiwawa is very dynamic, the colors are bright and neon, lens flares add a little extra sparkle and the editing makes it feel closer to a visual poem than your run-of-the-mill narrative film. It's definitely not going to be for everybody, then again that only adds to the uniqueness of the film.
The same can be said about the soundtrack. Ninomiya picks a special blend of pop and electronic music that gives the film a very distinct and recognizable flair, without turning it into an outright rave. It's definitely not the kind of music I'd put on myself, but it's used very wisely and it's an essential part of the mental imprint the film leaves behind. Image and sound reinforce each other and the combination here is mesmerizing. And while not always very functional from a purely narrative point of view, it adds a lot to the overall appeal of Chiwawa.
The main cast is made up of relatively fresh faces, apart from maybe Mugi Kadowaki (who plays Miki). It's a talented bunch though and it's nice to see that they are finally getting some opportunities beyond TV. It's equally obvious that most of them were trying to make the best of the chance they've been given. Shiori Yoshida is no doubt the revelation of the film, as she puts in an awesome performance as Chiwawa. Look a bit further and it becomes clear that Ninomiya's reputation is growing, with big names like Chiaki Kuriyama and Tadanobu Asano appearing in smaller, secondary parts. It's nice to see support from these established names, as it will only help to further cement Ninomiya's place in the business.
Contrary to Ninomiya's first, Chiwawa is a film that gradually changes tone throughout its running time. The beginning is very festive and joyous, but as time passes and Miki learns more about Chiwawa's life, the film slowly starts to morph into a more traditional Japanese drama. It does so without belying its roots though, until the very end this remains a very dynamic and youthful film, but colors do dim and the attitudes of characters do shift to become serious and introspective. It's a clear sign that Ninomiya is growing as a director, without losing himself in the process.
While I don't think Chiwawa is quite as good as The Limit of Sleeping Beauty, I never really expected it be. The real test was whether Chiwawa would confirm the talent of Ninomiya, and there's no question it does. Chiwawa is a vibrant, confrontational and sincere drama, sporting sprawling cinematography, a great score and lively performances. A confirmation that Ninomiya is on the cusp of a great career. The next step is no doubt gaining some international recognition, otherwise it will be a frustrating journey for those wanting to keep up with his work.