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Survive Style 5+
cast: Tadanobu Asano, Shihori Kanjiya, Kyoko Koizumi, Vinnie Jones, and Sonny Chiba

director: Gen Sekiguchi

120 minutes (18) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Anchor Bay UK DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart
Certain phrases, inevitably, evoke very strong feeling and images. Japanese horror is just such a phrase, bringing to mind longhaired ghosts, demonic children, haunted technology and increasingly disappointing US remakes in short order. However, to describe Survive Style 5+ as a horror film is like describing Magnolia as a police procedural thriller. It just doesn't begin to cover it.

Mixing and matching plots with a glee that few other films, of any nationality, manage, Survive Style 5+ opens with Aman (Tadanobu Asano) burying his wife (Reika Hashimoto). It's the middle of the night, the middle of a forest and once the grave is dug he stands, lights a cigarette and gets ready to fill the hole back in. Which is when she twitches and he leaps into the hole and beats her back to death with a spade.

This is very nearly the only piece of horror in the entire film. It's not particularly visceral, you see nothing and taken on its own it's disturbing. However, as the film progresses, and Aman's wife resolutely refuses to stay dead it becomes clear that this is violence as metaphor instead of violence. The film's best scenes, in terms of sheer entertainment, are the increasingly demented battles between Mr and Mrs Aman, which play as something between surrealist comedy and a Road Runner cartoon. The first is a particular standout, with Mrs Aman cooking an immense meal for her husband which he eats and, last supper consumed, she then kicks him around the entire house before being killed again. Each time the fight is more extreme, each time it ends the same way and each time it becomes clearer what is actually going on.

This is violence as lack of communication instead of communication, the increasingly insane lengths the Amans go to when trying to hurt one another is covering up the fact that they've forgotten how to communicate. Whilst this sounds pretentious it actually works beautifully, thanks largely to the underplaying of Asano and Hashimoto. Asano has an almost deadpan quality to him and this, combined with Hashimoto's cold, silent rage makes them a tremendously entertaining double act to watch. However, their best scenes are their last, an almost entirely silent sequence which sees the Amans realise what they've been doing to one another and move towards a reconciliation that's as surreal as it is sweet natured.

Other plotlines explore this idea of communication breakdown in different ways. The Kobayashi family is thrown into turmoil when their father is hypnotised into believing he's a chicken and the hypnotist is murdered before he can be brought back to normal. As they struggle to accept their father's new mindset, he becomes closer and closer to his youngest daughter. There's a beautiful sequence towards the end where she's trying to teach him how to fly, and a sequence where they mistakenly cook Christmas dinner near him that is as funny as it is heartrending. Again, what makes this work, beneath the surreal elements is the simple pragmatism of family life. You get on with things, and each other, whether or not one of you happens to believe he's a chicken. This in turn is combined with a subtle indictment of the 'salaryman' culture, as Mr Kobayashi devotes all his energies to his children in a way he never could as a man.

The inadvertent architect of this transformation in Mr Kobayashi is Yoko (Kyoko Koizumi) an advertising executive responsible for the most hated adverts in Japan. A bright, intelligent woman with a sense of humour no one else understands, her decision to murder her hypnotist boyfriend is an aberration in what is otherwise the straightest plot in the film. Yoko's increasingly demented adverts punctuate the film and she herself provides much of its pathos. The moment where she realises exactly how unpopular her work is, and how unhappy it makes her is simply played in a film where nothing else is, and is all the more affecting for that.

The fourth primary plot follows J, Tsuda and Morishita, three teenage burglars on the verge of breaking into adulthood. Superficially the least interesting of the five plots, it actually turns out to be one of the most endearing. The macho posturing of the trio is punctured, literally, by their interaction with the fifth plot and gives way to an acknowledgement of the attraction between two of them. It's as funny as it is romantic, again transforming the characters from stereotypes into genuinely sweet, remarkably well-rounded human beings.

The final plot is, in many ways, the spine of the film. Yoshiyoshi Arakawa plays a hitman who decides to hire out-of-town talent for his latest set of assignments. Arakawa is great here, a great big, homicidal puppy of a figure who is the perfect foil for Vinnie Jones as the hitman. Jones is a variable talent, only ever as good as the script he's given but here he's on top form. As an existential hitman responsible for much of the film's actual plot he's physically threatening, verbally intense and a clearly alien presence. He's also at times very funny and the first time we see him and Arakawa is one of the best moments in the film.

It's easy to look at Survive Style 5+ and talk about the wonderful sets, costume design or frantic editing. They're all impressive and all serve to give the film a genuinely unique feel but in the end, they're all window dressing. Like the hammer murder in the opening scene, they exist as nothing more than metaphors for the speed and relentless pressure of modern life. Scratch the surface and what you find is far more personal, endearing and human than any of those trappings suggest. In the end, this is a film about people, the lies they tell themselves and others and how much better life is when we actually sit down and listen. Sweet natured, romantic and packed with great visual gags it's a unique movie deserving of everyone's attention.
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