Hiroyuki Tanaka is one of my all-time favorite directors, but keeping up with his work is nigh impossible. Not because he's the most prolific director who has ever lived, but because releases of his films are so incredibly erratic. People in France and Germany have it a little easier, but those of us depending on English subtitles are too often left to fend for ourselves. Jam is one of Tanaka's most recent films and once again it seems doomed to vanish in release limbo. While not one of his absolute best films, it's a fun return to his older work that his fans are sure to appreciate.
Throughout his career Tanaka has tackled many genres, but in the beginning he got a name for himself making films with meandering and intersecting narratives. The kind Tarantino became famous for (a comparison that was sometimes made, but doesn't make a lot of sense). Tanaka's films were much gentler and amicable, though never without a lingering layer of dark/dry comedy underneath. Jam feels like a throwback to that era, with a pretty simple story that is cut up and reassembled into a slightly more confusing one, with parts of the plot venturing off into different directions just for the fun of it.
The story revolves around a modern day enka singer. It's a ballad-like pop music niche that is based on traditional Japanese music, though I feel most countries have their own particular version of the genre (think crooners or schlager), as it certainly didn't appear as otherworldly as the description made it out to be. The music is pretty bland, the lyrics are extremely cheesy and the artists are often idolized by women past their prime. It's a great niche that is perfect to exploit for some dark comedy (as films like Fabrice du Welz' The Ordeal and Tom Six' I Love Dries have proven) and Tanaka does exactly that.
Hiroshi is a modest enka idol. He hasn't made it big yet, but he has a small group of hardcore fans that support him through thick and thin. Working up to his first big performance, he has a little one-on-one with his fan base where they're allowed to ask him questions and give him feedback on his performance. What Hiroshi doesn't know is that one of his fans is planning to go way beyond that, though her plans are about to be thwarted by Tetsuo (an ex-con who takes care of his demented grandmother) and Takeru (a young boy who hopes good deeds will pull his girlfriend out of her coma).
Tanaka is a seasoned director who can shoot pretty pictures without even trying too hard. Jam has a very crisp and clean look, sporting pleasant contrast, tight editing, smart use of lighting and the occasional color that pops. It's a good-looking film with a couple of moments that jump out, but compared to Tanaka's other films it's a pretty basic affair. No real memorable shots, quite traditional framing and somewhat inconspicuous editing make for a film that looks pleasant, but is sure not to detract too much with its visuals. The focus lies more on the wit and story here.
As always, Tanaka's use of sound is slightly more notable. The opening track sets the mood, with its rhythmic use of a singular sound it creates a very nervous and agitated atmosphere that is carried through the rest of the film. It conjures up a sense of unease and musters a drive that propels the audience from one scene into the next. The enka music is rather functional, but it's used to good effect and Tanaka is able to draw some fine laughs from it. It's probably not a score that will linger or do well by itself, but it's a perfect companion for Jam.
The production was backed by LDH, a talent agency that represents several famous pop bands. Quite a bit of LDH's talent is featured in the film, which also means many of Tanaka's regulars are nowhere to be seen. I can't really fault the performances, the biggest problem is that none of the actors manage to bring something extra. Other Tanaka films have always had exceptional actors that managed to raise the overall quality of his films, that's not really the case here. All actors perform well and do what's asked of them, but nobody really stands out.
The first 30 minutes are a little confusing, but that is obviously by design. Tanaka introduces the different characters and their plights, which appear to be completely unrelated at first. The middle part slowly starts to tie things together, while the ending brings everything full circle. It's not quite as clean and clear-cut as similar films, but that too seems to be part of Tanaka's narrative goal. I'm quite partial to these loose ends, which give a film like this extra character and make it more than just a narrative puzzle, but I'm sure not everyone will be as pleased with this setup.
The strong narrative focus is not something I usually appreciate, but Tanaka is talented enough to deliver a high quality audiovisual experience, even when he's not paying close attention. Jam is great entertainment, sporting a healthy amount of black comedy, coupled with solid performances, refined styling and some interesting narrative twists. It may not be a film that will linger for long, nor stand out in Tanaka's vast oeuvre, but time flies while watching and there are some good laughs to be had. It's a shame availability will no doubt be a bitch again, as I'm sure this has the potential to appeal to a sizable audience.