Donju is my kind of film. Nobody does colorfully retarded like the Japanese and all the promo material for Donju seemed to point in that particular direction. Director Hideaki Hosono has a background in directing commercials (think Gen Sekiguchi) and with Kankuro Kudo responsible the source material there was plenty of potential for a new personal favorite. Donju didn't get that far, but what remains is still highly enjoyable.
This type of colorful manga-come-to-life comedy, even though quite popular in the West, is not as common as you might presume. The last 15 years there have been a few prime examples getting good reviews over here (Survive Style 5+, Taste of Tea, Party 7, maybe even Cromartie High), but it never reached the stage where a group of true followers could launch it into a hype. And so we are left with one or two big films each year to quench our thirst for more and better. Donju is definitely amongst that select group of films.
Just like Sekiguchi (Survive Style 5+), director Hosono stems from the world of commercials. An interesting breeding ground for commercial directors which has proven itself a valuable addition these last few years. The influence is very apparent in Donju, which plays more like a collection of sketches and individual jokes with a few running gags thrown in to keep everything together. The storyline is meager but fun, though it never escapes the boundaries of its primary function: gluing the jokes together to turn Donju into a feature film.
Donju is Japanese for Dumb Animal, which is actually a spot on description for what you may expect. When Dekoyan returns to his hometown he seems to be missing a few brain cells. You can image the surprise when his friends find out he's actually a popular author, writing about his childhood days and the mischievous things they did back then (like killing a classmate). When they confront Dekoyan, he gives them a blank stare and simply denies everything, and so it doesn't take long before they turn on him and try to kill him, with whatever means possible.
Visually Donju is extremely colorful and kitschy, but in a fun, extravagant way. It doesn't reach the same heights as his competitors but the settings are lush, the costumes freaky and over the top. Both the camera work and editing are agile and fun, contributing to the overall comedic feeling of the film. Of course there are some animated sequences (all flashbacks) as they seem almost mandatory these days. Add to that some lo-tech but wicked special effects and you're all set.
As for the soundtrack, I guess it's just about sufficient though it does very little besides lending the film a jolly and fluffy atmosphere. There are few scenes where it's actually used to enhance the humor, something Matsumoto handled way better in Symbol. It's a missed opportunity to give Donju that little extra edge.
The acting on the other hand is strong. I'm extremely pleased to see Tadanobu Asano return to goofier character roles, a much needed break from the bleaker roles he's been doing. It's not that his talent suddenly vanished but you need a good film to make it flourish. In Donju he goes full retard with a lot of blank stares, stupid smiles and a silly, nerdy look. The rest of the cast is great too but obviously eclipsed whenever Asano enters a scene.
There is one big thing that will kill the joy for many though. Donju brings a special breed of humor, mixing dry deliveries, nonsensical dialogue and random interludes to a strange puddle of laughs. The result is equally stupid and dumb as it is genius. Rather than focus on quirky and tasteful comedy Donju goes full retard and plays on stupidity and brain damage. Which doesn't bother me at all, but it makes this film a lot harder to recommend to others. If the humor doesn't hit the mark, chances are that people are going to be seriously offended by the lack of so-called intelligence in this film.
Hosono can't quite live up to the legacy of his predecessors, but still he delivers a film which is pretty good in its own right. When it comes to details Donju does miss some refinement and there are a few gags that really fall flat on their face, but overall there is plenty that works and more than enough to charm most fans of the genre. If you're into the films mentioned in this review it's worth checking out, but even then it's difficult to guarantee you're going to like it just as much as I did.