The recent Japanese film Wood Job! is not, despite its very suggestive title, a pornographic film, which will either relieve or disappoint you, depending on where your movie tastes happen to lie. Instead, it is the latest comedy by Yaguchi Shinobu, a filmmaker who specializes in a very specific kind of formula: mining all the absurd hijinks that occur when its main character pursues an unusual sort of art, sport, or profession. Prime examples of this are Waterboys (2001), which dealt with the world of high-school synchronized swimming, and Swing Girls (2004), in which high school girls put together a swing big band.
Wood Job! takes us deep into the world of forestry, and it proves to be one of Yaguchi's strongest and funniest films to date, with a deep respect for the work that these (almost exclusively) men do that resonates well beyond the movie's comic surface. There are also some intriguing touches of mysticism which tap into ancient Japanese legends and mythology, adding layers to the comedy. Not for nothing has this film been praised by master animator Miyazaki Hayao, whose own films (especially Spirited Away) have dealt with these themes. Wood Job! also boasts fine performances by its cast, who creates real and interesting characters from figures that may seem to be little more than caricatures on the page.
Our hero here is Yuki (Sometani Shota), a below-average student who fails his college entrance exams and, to add insult to injury, is promptly dumped by his girlfriend. He goes out on a drunken night of karaoke with his friends to try to forget, but he still must face the hangover reality of very few job or career prospects. He happens upon a recruitment pamphlet with a strikingly pretty woman on the cover, and follows the siren call of this potential new mate to enroll in a one-year forestry training program.
To his dismay, Yuki learns that this program will take him to a remote village deep in the mountains, where there are few of the creature comforts that a city boy like himself has gotten used to, and worst of all, no smartphone coverage. Even more to his dismay, he is assigned to be a live-in apprentice to Yoki (Ito Hideaki), a strappingly handsome, dyed in the wool mountain man, who proves to be a harsh taskmaster. He yells at and insults Yuki at every opportunity, and as a morning greeting, kicks Yuki's pillow out from under his head to wake him before their early morning work.
Accidents immediately befall Yuki upon his arrival. He cuts his finger badly during a woodworking class, promptly going into an anemic faint. Later, he is attacked by leeches when he falls down a mud-covered hill in a rainstorm. Yuki tries to escape, but lack of available transportation keeps him there for the time being.
Yuki does manage to track down the cover model of that recruiting pamphlet, who turns out to be Naoki (Nagasawa Masami), a teacher in the village. Naoki, however, initially has little respect for Yuki, whom she perceives to be just like all the other guys lured by her photo who quit after a week or so, unable to handle the demanding work. Yuki, however, proves to be of sterner stuff than he appears, and becomes more acclimated to this adopted way of life, slowly gaining the respect of Yuki and the other village men.
The trajectory of this story is just as predictable as the arc that a tree in the forest makes as it falls, but this matters little when there is such warm and wonderful humor as Yaguchi exhibits here. Adapting a novel by Miura Shion, Yaguchi reminds us of the rich culture and the hard work that makes the comfortable lives of those in urban areas possible. He does this without heavy-handedness or preaching, but with a great comic sense and lots of laugh-out-loud gags that are wild and wacky without insulting our intelligence.
The fine performances here also greatly help in drawing a vibrant picture of a way of life that is traditional and conservative (more in the sense of nature conservation than the political sense), but is also warmly communal. Sometani Shota, often called upon to play very intense, even tortured characters (for example in A Liar and a Broken Girl, Isn't Anyone Alive? and Himizu), proves himself to be quite a skilled comic performer. Nagasawa Masami - a NYAFF and Japan Cuts guest of honor two years ago with her previous film Love Strikes - is also great here, essaying her role as the romantic love interest in a subtle way that is refreshingly free of cliché.
Wood Job!, a co-presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts festivals, screens July 13, 12:30pm at Japan Society. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit NYAFF's website or Japan Society's website.
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