The more films you watch, the harder it becomes to be wholly impressed by one. Sure enough, there are plenty of superb, amazing and even inspiring films out there, but the ones that truly blow your mind get rarer as you put more films behind you. It's been more than five years since I last dished out a perfect score, so you can imagine Ken Ninomiya's The Limit of Sleeping Beauty [Rimitto Obu Suripingu Byuti] was a welcome surprise. It's a bit of a low-budget niche film that I'm sure won't be to everybody's liking, then again that pretty much describes most of my favorite films.
As someone who loves overpowering audio-visual experiences, much more so than solid plots and minute narratives, I'm quite sensitive to the term "music video" when reading film reviews. Throw in an "MTV generation" reference and I dare say, with a pretty high level of certainty, that 1: I probably shouldn't trust the reviewer's opinion much and 2: I need to watch that film as quickly as possible. So yeah, I had pretty good hopes that The Limit of Sleeping Beauty might be a film I would end up loving, I just didn't know it would turn out this great.
The Limit of Sleeping Beauty is a mindfuck not entirely unlike Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue, featuring an up-and-coming actress (Aki) who wants to make it in the world of film. When she arrives in Tokyo she bumps into Kaito, a young photographer who runs a small magician's bar. The two hook up and Aki starts working in Kaito's bar as an assistant to earn some extra cash. Meanwhile, her acting career is going nowhere and Kaito turns out less dependable than Aki originally imagined.
Aki fleas inside her own mind where she finds Butch, a figment of her imagination (in the form of a bald and rather creepy clown) who helps her cope with reality. Or at least, that's what she believes, because the more she listens to Butch the more she gets detached from the reality surrounding her. It is no surprise then that the film constantly floats between dream world and reality, mixing and matching both worlds until it becomes one big, undecipherable mess. It's a common structure often found in these kinds of films, but when executed well it can be extremely effective. Needless to say, Ninomiya's execution is exemplary.
Normally I dedicate separate paragraphs to cinematography and soundtrack, but the two are so intertwined here that it feels impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other. I assume it's this incredible synergy that sparks these critical reference to music videos, which I feel is pretty silly considering film is very much an audio-visual medium. Sure enough, from time to time the characters and narrative have to make room for scenes that are completely driven by atmosphere and mood, only drawing from the cinematography and score, but these segments are just as important as getting to the next step in the story, if not more.
The soundtrack features a somewhat darker synth-pop variety, sometimes bordering on techno, which makes for a fine selection of (mostly existing) tracks. It's probably no surprise then that the film was co-produced by King Records, a Japanese music label, though looking at Warp Records' cinematic endeavours that doesn't necessarily translate into remarkable soundtracks. While my own taste in music leans more towards the darker and heavier side of electronic music, the tracks are used superbly and set a great standard for the mood of the film.
Visually Ninomiya pulls out all the stops. The use of color references Kar Wai/Doyle in their prime, but the editing is so much sharper, so much more in line with the musical cues. The visuals feed off the music, while the music reshapes itself to support the visuals. The Limit of Sleeping Beauty lives inside a beautiful world of neon lights, where emotions are directly translated into sounds and camera movements, creating a uniquely and overwhelming visceral experience. It's probably a bit much for some and if you can't relate to this style of film making I'm sure the film will feel endless, but this level of purity is extremely rare and I can only applaud Ninomiya's dedication to keep it up until the very end.
While a lot of time and effort went into the presentation, it would be a real shame to ignore Yuki Sakurai's amazing performance. This is not a film that necessarily demands powerhouse acting, even so Sakurai brings that extra bit of quality to the film. I already knew she had good taste in films (appearing in Tag and Yakuza Apocalypse), but here she shows she can also shine as the lead. The rest of the cast is pretty solid too, with Niino Furuhata (as Butch) being another stand-out, albeit in a smaller part.
The Limit of Sleeping Beauty broadly references other films (think along the lines of Perfect Blue and Helter Skelter), while also containing some more targeted homages. There's one scene in particular that's just one big love letter (sound, editing, content, the whole shebang) to Requiem for a Dream, something early Aronofsky fans are sure to pick up. But besides some obvious nods here and there, this film is very much its own thing. A fountain of creativity, an alluring mindfuck and a touching love drama all wrapped into one.
Ken Ninomiya delivered a very tight package. A film where every element has its place, without being too direct and obvious on how it all fits together. The presentation is gobsmackingly beautiful, with soundtrack and cinematography constantly feeding off of each other. The acting is superb, the story intriguing and the pacing pretty damn perfect. It's not the easiest film to recommend, especially not to people who prefer the golden days of cinema, but it's a real trip that launches Ninomiya as one of the most promising directors of his generation. This will be a difficult film to follow up, but I can't wait to see him try.