Touted as a grimmer, darker version of Amélie, Greatful Dead [Gureitofuru Deddo] is the latest genre bender to make the trip out of Japan. It's a decidedly Japanese film that may have trouble convincing people who aren't too familiar with the country's output, but fans of Japanese genre mixers will feel right at home. It's very much a niche film, but those with an open mind would do good to give it a chance as there's tons of fun to be had.
The past few years the international distribution of Japanese/Asian off-kilter genre films has come to a virtual standstill. Third Window Films is one of the only remaining labels continuing its dedicated support, working hard to become a quality label in the same way Criterion and Masters of Cinema are for arthouse cinema. So when they announced Uchida's Greatful Dead, I approached the film with healthy anticipation.
Even though Uchida has been directing for a good 10 years already (making a solid 9 films before this one), I had never heard of him or his work before running into this film. Turns out those 9 films must've given him some pretty good exercise, because Greatful Dead feels like a film by an accomplished director. There's a certain polish here that's only acquired by directing enough films, in part explaining why the unique blend of different genres and moods works so well.
The film follows Nami, a young girl scarred by an unhappy youth. Her mother left, her sister ran away and her dad ended up with a religious zealot. To battle her own solitude, Nami starts to track down fellow "solitarians", spying on them for comfort. The lonelier and weirder they are, the more Nami likes them. Until one day she discovers that one of her childhood idols has also turned into a solitarian. Nami is ecstatic, but things take a turn for the worse when the man starts meeting up with a God-loving Korean girl.
Don't expect the Amélie references to carry over to the visual side of things. Greatful Dead looks like a pretty normal Japanese film, not the colorful, stylized and dream-like beauty that is Jeunet's darling. On the whole that means it's a little plain but solid looking, with a few scenes jumping out. Though I wouldn't be surprised if a more generous budget would give Uchida a bit more elbow room to add some visual polish, as the potential is definitely there.
The soundtrack is okay but not all that memorable. It's largely functional and it's clearly an achievement that it still manages to feel like a coherent whole when going through several different moods, but it never goes beyond supporting the atmosphere already present. It never lashes out or commands a scene in a certain direction. That feels like a missed opportunity, especially for a film as bold as this one.
Star of the film is Kumi Takiuchi. She maintains a perfect balance between pleasantly insane and insanely creepy. It's difficult to get a grip on her character, but that's definitely part of the charm and mystery as she guides the audience from scene to scene. She finds a great challenge in Takashi Sasano, a quirky old guy with a surprising bite. He continues the remarkable tradition of older Japanese actors taking on uncharacteristically crazy roles. No complaints about the rest of the cast either, though they are clearly more low-key.
I'm pretty sure Greatful Dead is the first film I've listed here with 3 distinct genres. For a moment I hesitated whether I should cheat by using "dramedy" as a stand-in for comedy and drama, but dramedy has become a genre in itself and it's a poor substitute for the type of comedy and drama present here. Uchida happily leads his film through a comedy-filled first part, only to switch to a horror-inspired second part while finally opening up the dramatic undercurrent at the very end of the film. The most amazing thing is that it all gels together seamlessly, never feeling clumsy or forced.
Even though Greatful Dead is both unique and accomplished, there's also a feeling of untapped potential. Third Window Films seems to think so too as they've just met their Kickstarter goal for Uchida's next film. For now though, Uchida delivered this amazing genre bender that may leave the uninitiated a little stunned, but should be required viewing for everyone with a soft spot for Japanese genre cinema. Leave the comparisons to Amélie and Sono for what they're are, avoid teasers and trailers and let yourself be surprised by this little gem.