1996 / 68m - Japan
Drama, Fantasy
Picnic poster

I've come to a point where most of my rewatches result in a negative adjustment of an earlier rating, so I usually approach these films with a little trepidation. I didn't remember that much about Shunji Iwai's Picnic [Pikunikku], except that it was short and one of his earliest works. I wasn't fully prepared for the film I was about to see, and thoroughly regret not getting the (completely random) local DVD release back in the day. This is easily one of Iwai's best and most inspired films and a must-see for fans of turn-of-the-century Japanese drama. One of those rare rewatches where I ended up increasing my rating.

screencap of Picnic [Pikunikku]

Shunji Iwai is a unique director, who never fully tied himself down to a single style or genre. He did become the voice of a younger generation though, especially after he directed All About Lily Chou-Chou, a cult film that sports a tremendously dedicated following to the very day. Picnic is a tad rawer, but the roots of Iwai's flair for the dramatic are already fully present. It is a little less polished and the film does contain more direct genre influences, but it's exactly that extra bit of grit and imagination that makes Picnic such a fun and exciting experience.

The film holds the middle between a psych ward drama (think One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), mixed with a childhood adventure game I used to play myself (how far can you get without touching the ground - one of the perks of growing up in a small town I assume). The film eschews subtlety, instead, it embraces the weird and awkward to create a story about three quirky characters escaping from the clutches of the facility that is keeping them locked up. It's as much an adventure as it is a drama, with little touches of magical realism sprinkled throughout.

Coco is a young girl fascinated with crows. Her family brings her to a mental ward as they can't deal with her strange behavior. There she meets Tsujimi and Satoru, two young boys who love to go exploring. Coco joins them one day, and ventures further than the boys ever dared. She tells them it's okay to move beyond the boundaries of the facility, as long as they don't touch the ground. The boys reluctantly agree, and once they see what the outside world has to offer, they quickly forget about their initial worries and fully submit to the adventure.

screencap of Picnic [Pikunikku]

Pikunikku received a welcome HD upgrade, which helped to bring out the beauty of the cinematography. Strong greens and blues dominate the outside scenes, while creative sets and camera work (the rooftop scene with the blankets comes to mind) further distinguish the film. Iwai gets a little crazier with the editing when inside the psych ward and there are some interesting practical effects that bring Tsujimi's dreams to life, all of which offer a nice change of pace from the usual Japanese drama vibe. The film still looks mighty impressive, especially for its age.

The soundtrack is vintage Iwai, meaning he doesn't hold back as much as many other Japanese drama directors love to do. Iwai likes playing with J-Pop influences and that may take some getting used to, especially for people who prefer dramas to stick to piano diddles and string music. Iwai has a feel for music though and even though I don't always appreciate the music by itself, he always manages to make it work within the context of the film. Picnic comes with a strong and outspoken soundtrack, something I can always appreciate.

The performances are stellar too, but that's not too surprising looking at the names involved. I'd already forgotten a young Tadanobu Asano was part of the cast, so that got me immediately excited. But it's Chara who turns out to be the real star of the film. Her performance is spirited and energetic, creating a character that is perfect for taking the audience on a little journey. Hashizume is the weakest link, then again he also has the smallest part of the three, and he's not bad. He just fades into the background when the other two are on screen.

screencap of Picnic [Pikunikku]

After a short introduction that establishes the main characters and their quirks/struggles, the film turns into a unique road movie. The three escapees traverse a seaside city without touching the ground, passing by various interesting sights and people. Each scene adds something valuable to the overall story and the limited runtime helps Iwai to keep focus, as he doesn't have to strain himself to reach the 90-minute mark on a relatively basic premise. It's a nice lesson in efficiency, finished off with an impressive finale. I wish all films were this polished.

Picnic may be a short and early Iwai, that's exactly what makes this film so special. There is no excess here and Iwai's youthful enthusiasm creates a lovely blend of traditional drama and genre elements, resulting in a condensed bundle of joy. From the pleasant cinematography to the outspoken score and the standout performances, this is the kind of film that establishes a filmmaker. And looking at Iwai's career, he made good on all the potential he showed with this film. Fans of Japanese drama owe it to themselves to give this a go, you won't be disappointed.