For every Japanese film that gets a sliver of attention in the West, there are 20 that just pass us by without ever being noticed. In the case of Ten Shimoyama's L though, it's not all that suprising. Half feature film, half rockstar vanity project, L is an extremely peculiar film that runs almost exclusively on local star power, thus severely limiting its international appeal. That doesn't mean it can be safely ignored though, if you're in for a modernized fairytale, Shimoyama has you covered.
Ten Shimoyama isn't the most known name in the West, but with films like St. John's Wort, Shinobi and About Love he did enjoy some global exposure around the turn of the century. He usually works in niche genres, getting about on smaller budgets, but the films I've seen so far are rarely straight up B movies. His films usually have a strong and outspoken aesthetic in an attempt to deflect their B movie vibes, though never quite reaching the depths of true auteur cinema.
L isn't your run of the mill feature film, but it's not quite without precedent either. Movies driven by musical acts are rare, but not unheard of, with the Beatles probably pioneering there. A little closer to home, Takashi Zeze's genre bender Moon Child and Tetsuro Takeuchi's horror comedy Wild Zero are arguably the most famous examples. Both are (very) flawed films, but interesting nonetheless. Shimoyama's L grew out of Acid Black Cherry's Eru album and is by far my favorite of the three mentioned here.
The film tells the story of L, a young girl escaping the dreary surroundings of her home town, after her parents died and her uncle made an inappropriate pass at her. She leaves behind the only friend she ever had and moves to the big city, hoping to find a better life there. When she arrives in the city she bumps into a struggling play writer and the two of them get romantically entangled. Sadly he loves gambling more than he cares to write, which sets off another string of tragic events in L's life.
L's fairytale-like setup gave Shimoyama a good excuse to take a very visual approach, but the modest budget resulted in some less than favorable blending of green screen and live action footage. If you hate CG (in general) than you're going to hate the entire look of the film, but if you don't mind the technical imperfections you'll find a superbly stylized and very attractive film underneath. Just think of it as early Jean-Pierre Jeunet on a budget.
Even though L was born from a music album, Shimoyama didn't stuff his film with songs from the album. There's only one track with actual vocals, the rest is purely instrumental. The score is very much present though, but with visuals that are so overwhelming it's actually quite nice to have a score ready to help steer the atmosphere. The instrumental tracks aren't all that bad either, though they can get a little too dramatic at times (yet still appropriate within the context of the film).
For a film like this, the level of acting is sufficient, but clearly the cast isn't going to win any prizes for this one. Star power seems to dominate raw talent while the green screen doesn't do the actors any favors. Neither does the somewhat sloppy make up near the end of the film by the way. But they manage and since the film plays out like a modern fairytale, emotions are allowed to be bold and expressive. The performances never get in the way of enjoying the film, which is what matters the most.
L has all the ingredients to be a divisive film. A lot depends on whether you are able (and willing) to see this as a modern interpretation of a fairytale. If you look at L as a serious, fantasy-injected drama then it's going to fail you from start to finish, but go with the flow and you'll find a lot of creativity and passion here. It's clearly a project born out of love rather than commercial gain, which definitely counts for something in my book.
In the end, L is another typical Shimoyama film. It's not without its faults and it's not as polished as some would like, but there's enough authenticity and vision to make it stand out from the crowds. The plot is merely an excuse for some emotional highlights and technically it could've been a lot better, but stylistically I was captivated from the very first frame. Finding the film will be a challenge and recommending it is a gamble, but if you're up for a modern fairytale and you liked Shimomaya's earlier work, there's plenty to like here.