Ishibashi Yoshimasa's Milocrorze, A Love Story demonstrates both the benefits and perils of taking a long time television - he was a key player and director of comedy variety show Vermilion Pleasure Night, which spawned The Fuccons - and commercial director and turning him loose in a feature environment.
On the plus side there is no shortage of style in the commercial world and certainly no shortage of style in Yoshimasa's film. Once an industry rich in craft and loaded with talented visual directors Japan's output in recent years has been so dominated by television spinoffs shot just like their source shows and manga adaptations churned out as quickly and cheaply as possible that a film as richly designed, as brash and bold and playful as this one is comes as an enormous breath of fresh air. On a purely visual level there hasn't been a Japanese effort with this much gleeful kick since Kamikaze Girls or Survive Style 5+.
On the negative side commercial directors don't generally have much chance to develop narrative or character skills - weaknesses that generally hold true for sketch comedy directors like Yoshimasa as well. And the narrative and character elements are, sure enough, glaring weaknesses here.
Milocroze is an anthology piece, four stories about manly romantic angst with the first and last revolving around the titular Milocrorze - a rather fetching young lady - and the boy who falls in love with her at age seven and pines for her his entire life. Between the Milocrorze bookends we get the story of a leisure suited relationship counselor with a yakuza snarl who offers advice only to teenaged boys and the story of a salaryman who turns roaming samurai to find the lover who was taken from him. Thirteen Assassins star Yamada Takayuki takes the lead in three of the stories, absent only from the opener where his later character is played by a young child.
The mid-section of Milocrorze is where the strength lies. Narrative connections between the film as a whole are tenuous at best but the middle two pieces - the relationship counselor and the wandering samurai - are both pretty astounding as stand-alone pieces. Had either been presented as a short film rather than part of a larger whole both would have been raved about as some of the finest work of the year but, sadly, being sandwiched between two much less satisfying moments robs both of some momentum.
The good first.
Sporting bowl-cut era Beatles hair, a white leisure suit and platform shoes Yoshima and Takayuki between them have created one of the most mesmerizing on screen characters of recent years in their growling relationship counselor. He is all growling masculinity wrapped up in 70's lounge wear, a man who insults his callers for being weak and cowardly before dispensing advice such as turning up at the beloved young woman's house and tweaking her nipples as a method of winning her affections. But this must be done with confidence, he warns before the tunes crank up and - advice dispensed - our erstwhile counselor is surrounded by gorgeous bikini clad women for a slinky musical dance number. Clearly this man is the international rock star of relationship advisers. The advice becomes more ridiculous and more complex with each successive call - the dance numbers likewise - as the director and star mercilessly skewer the stereotypes of manly relationship angst with a smirk that threatens to break out into full scale laughter twisting across their faces the whole time. We're all fools, they're saying, getting all worked up over nothing when all we really want is a hot chick in a bikini. And maybe a kick ass car.
As our counselor and his harem of women drive off into the night - literally - we move into our next tale, the story of a young salaryman smitten by the beautiful florist he passes in the street every day. As a greeting he buys her entire stock of lilies and hands them back to her as a gift - not knowing that her name actually is Lily - and love is born. But love is fleeting as all too soon she is stolen away and sold off into a life of prostitution forcing her lover into a life spent roaming the streets pursuing ghosts of rumours for years in search of his lost love. Takayuki literally transforms into a one eyed, wandering ronin - a fearsome sword-wielding samurai hardened by the realization that his quest is likely futile fused with his refusal to admit defeat. It all culminates in one of the most striking swordplay sequences of recent years - an astoundingly long and complex piece all captured in ultra slow motion because something this gorgeous deserves to be savoured.
And then there are the actual Milocrorze stories. All dressed up in bright colours and off-kilter angles with the story almost entirely told through narration the intent with these two pieces was clearly to dress up a story of loss and insecurity as a child's fantasy and while the point is interesting - the character's insecurity comes from his own emotional insecurity, mirrored in the childish nature of the presentation - it just doesn't work in practice. What should be playful comes off as cloying, what bits are clever worked for well longer than what they can actually sustain. There's a possibility that this may all work better for Japanese speakers - there's a repetitive quality to the names and dialogue that suggests there may be a level of wordplay present that is lost in translation - but as it is these opening and closing segments stand as easily the weakest parts of the film.
Very much an example of style over substance Milocrorze is, nonetheless, stylish enough in the mid section to establish Yoshimasa very much as a director to watch. While this particular film struggles to sustain itself over its full run time the parts that work - which do, after all, make up half the run time - frequently verge on the spectacular. One day this man will find a script good enough to match his visual talents and when that happens, look out. But in the meantime this is a pleasant enough, though inconsistent, diversion.
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