NYAFF/Japan Cuts 2012 Review: POTECHI (CHIPS)

Featured Critic; New York City, New York
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NYAFF/Japan Cuts 2012 Review: POTECHI (CHIPS)
NYAFF and Japan Cuts favorite Yoshihiro Nakamura (Fish Story, Golden Slumber, A Boy and His Samurai) returns with his latest film Potechi (Chips), in which he once again adapts a novel by Fish Story and Golden Slumber author Kotaro Isaka. Like those previous works, Potechi features numerous characters brought together in an intricate plot involving fate, coincidence, and surprising connections that are gradually revealed in the course of the narrative. This time, however, Nakamura jettisons the sprawling, lengthy structures of Fish Story and Golden Slumber for the much leaner and concise style of Potechi, which clocks in at a mere 68 minutes. Amazingly, this brevity sacrifices not a bit of the narrative intricacies Nakamura has been known for, and in fact has a greater emotional impact for not being encumbered with the digressions and detours which I felt weakened Golden Slumbers. This pays off in a big way at the genuinely moving conclusion, in which the closing moments of a baseball game causes all the narrative puzzle pieces to click together in a deeply satisfying way. Also contributing to the emotional impact of the piece is its setting of Sendai, the epicenter of the devastating March 2011 earthquake which devastated the city. Potechi is a gently humorous and quietly poignant response to this disaster, one that offers a beautiful vision of human resiliency and their capacity to help to heal each other's traumas. 

The film begins with an odd conversation between Tadashi (Gaku Hamada) and Kurosawa (Nao Omori), which concerns, among other things, Tadashi's apparent discovery of the laws of gravity. Over the course of the conversation, it becomes clear that the two are professional burglars, and Tadashi is trying to convince the more experienced Kurosawa to join him on one of his jobs. Kurosawa refuses, but leaves Tadashi with the valuable tip of dressing in a gasman's uniform to deflect suspicion while on robbery jobs. The next scene finds Tadashi and his girlfriend Wataba (Fumino Kimura), both dressed in gas worker uniforms, hanging out in an apartment they have broken into. This apartment belongs to Ozaki (Ryohei Abe), a baseball player who was a high school local hero, but now leads an underachieving, bench-warming career with the Sendai Kings. Oddly, they don't steal anything from Ozaki, but instead an answering machine message left while the two are there from Miyu (Mayu Matsuoka), who asked for Ozaki's help in fending off a stalker, sends them both on a mission to scare away the stalker themselves. This quest is driven by the fact that Tadashi happens to be a super fan of Ozaki, following his every move in the press, and with whom Tadashi even shares a birthday.  In an example of the clever way Nakamura places flashbacks in his narrative, this answering machine call triggers a sense of déjà vu for Tadashi, who recalls how a similar occurrence led to his meeting Wataba, whom he stopped from committing suicide.

Tadashi and Wataba's pursuit of Miyu's stalker soon reveals that all is not what it appears to be, and most pertinently, that Tadashi's fandom goes well beyond the sports realm. I can't really reveal much more than that here, since one of the joys of Potechi is in discovering how all of these seemingly disparate occurrences all fit together over the course of the film. Even what appears to be a minor scene, such as Tadashi buying Wakaba the wrong flavor of potato chips (potechi is Japanese parlance for potato chips), has great thematic and emotional import. Nakamura dazzles with his cleverness and skill at adapting Isaka's material, without resort to fancy visual tricks, allowing the surprising revelations and the wonderful playing of his actors (including Nakamura himself as Tadashi's boss) to shine all the more brightly. 

Nakamura made Potechi specifically as an attempt to do his part to help the people of Sendai as they continue to struggle with the aftereffects of their devastating earthquake. And although such occurrences would seem to indicate an unfeeling and indifferent universe in which random events rule our fate, Potechi strongly argues that we are not powerless in the face of this, and with caring and resourcefulness on our part, we can counteract these forces. And with the crack of a baseball player's bat, this crazy world can begin to make a little sense.

Potechi (Chips), the closing night film of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival and a selection of the Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema, screens at Japan Society on July 15 at 8pm. Click here for more information on the film and to purchase tickets.

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