Keeping track of Japanese cinema is quite hard, so it's inevitable that some films will slip through the cracks. It's all too easy to point fingers to distributors, but sometimes you only have yourself to blame. For reasons that completely escape me now, I skipped over Kera's (full name: Keralino Sandorovich) Crime or Punishment?!? [Tsumi Toka Batsu Toka], a strange and absurd little comedy that materialized straight from the bowels of Japanese cinema. It's the kind of film that comes with a built-in audience and probably doesn't travel far beyond that, but fans of wacky Japanese comedies are in for a real treat.
Crime or Punishment?!? is a film that will go over well with fans of Satoshi Miki, another one of those Japanese directors whose oeuvre is notoriously difficult to find outside of Japan. That is, except for a superb DVD collection box released by Third Window Films. And lo and behold, Crime or Punishment?!? was released by that same distributor. I usually keep a very close eye on their library, as the TWF logo has turned into a stamp of quality over the years, but somehow this film never really caught my eye. The upside of this entire story though: Crime or Punishment?!? is readily available!
If you aren't familiar with Miki, then maybe a nod to the work of Suzuki Matsuo or Katsuhito Ishii may point you in the right direction. This is the kind of comedy that relies on peculiar characters, strange turns of events, overlapping storylines and goofy, surprising details. The world of Crime of Punishment?!? is a colorful one, but not necessarily a sane or logical one. Don't expect to make too much sense out of it all, everything here is subservient to the comedy, in the end it's all just played for laughs.
The film revolves around Ayame Enjoji, a wannabe model who finally catches a break. When her big breakthrough hits the shelves though, it turns out there's just one small picture of her, which has a smudge on her face and is printed upside down. Furiously she storms out of the convenience store, and completely oblivious to the world around her, fails to pay for the magazine. This lands her at the police stations, where she accepts a promotional "chief for a day" assignment to get out of her punishment. If that sounds a little weird and far-fetched, it's because it is exactly that, but that's just the kind of film we're dealing with here.
Visually, things are not as clear cut. On the one hand, this film is overflowing with good ideas and nice visual touches. It's colorful enough, the camerawork adds to the quirkiness and the styling is spot on. On the other hand, the execution is just a little lacking. This may of course be a budgetary problem, but because this film is part of such a particular niche it's very difficult not to compare it to other films directly, and it comes out just a little worse. That's not to say Crime or Punishment?!? doesn't have its moments, nor that it's a bad-looking film, it's just that I tend to put the bar just a little higher for this kind of film.
The soundtrack too leaves a little to be desired. Again, it's not a terrible or disappointing score per se. It keeps the tone of the film light and makes the comedy a bit more obvious, but at the same time it doesn't really add much character to the film and it's all very predictable and familiar. Not really the worst thing for a comedy of course, they rarely rely on music to make a big difference, but it's still somewhat of a missed opportunity I feel.
Luckily, the cast is on point. Not too many familiar faces here, at least not in the principal roles, but everyone was well briefed on the silly nature of the film. Riko Narumi does a solid job as the gullible lead, Kento Nagayama's performance as her former love interest/cop with a taste for murder is rock solid. We do find some more familiar names in secondary parts, with Kumiko Aso appearing in a small yet delightful role and Sakura Ando turning up as a successful gravure idol, in what must be her most atypical casting ever. It makes for a very solid, well-rounded cast.
The first half of the film feels very disjointed and weird, with several seemingly unrelated and often absurd storylines flashing by. The second half does a decent job at tying some of the storylines together, though without taking too much absurdity away from the film. It's not an unfamiliar setup of course and fans of these films won't find too many surprises here, but Kera does uphold a fine balance and often finds a little extra comedy in clearing up some of the weirder plot points.
It's a real shame this film didn't grow out to be a bigger hit, because I'm certain there are a lot of people out there who would appreciate the comedy on display here. Kera delivers a weird, confident and funny film that looks the part, sports some solid comedy acting and has plenty of scenes worthy of a healthy chuckle. It's not quite perfect, nor as noteworthy as some of the bigger names in the genre, but there's still plenty of genius to go around and definitely worth seeking out if you're in the mood for some off-kilter comedy.