It seems like every year we pick some event that epitomizes Fanime and write about it. This year it was Sunday's showing of Re:Play-Girls, complete with a short Q&A by the director. (Last year's was HAMAMOTO Ryusuke's drawing panel, which was lots of fun.)
I'm a little conflicted on Re:Play-Girls. Sometimes I think that these reviews are about me more than anything. My limitations, my highly-constrained frame for evaluating media. To me, "don't kill yourself" isn't a particularly interesting message.
It's a serious movie. The director did a short Q&A session after the showing, and he talked about how it was a "message movie." He made it, as he described, because a high school friend of his killed himself.
And I can see that.
On the other hand, I'm not convinced that "Japanese exploitation film" is the correct medium for this message.
And make no mistake, it's very firmly in the exploitation film genre. It's got some great set pieces, I have to admit. The final battle, a Good, the Bad, and the Ugly-style duel between four katana-wielding schoolgirls, has some moments that equal anything I've seen in the genre. (And I would love to ask KOIZUMI Maya if she was thinking of Battle Royale's Kirie during that scene, or if it just came out that way.)
I will also say that the director did some things that were narratively necessary, and did them quite well. There's a reason the "teacher" reads like a high school student roleplaying Beat Takeshi. There's a reason they don't just keep the guns and try to shoot their way out. The ending isn't really a twist, but it does a good job recontextualizing the action of the movie in a way that's internally consistent.
That said, I think one of the biggest weaknesses of the movie in that regard is just that it doesn't manage to convincingly portray what makes suicide seem attractive. It's a symptom of the underlying problem, that they've set themselves up with this ridicuously powerful material, and the frame just doesn't let them handle it with appropriate delicacy. It dissolves into cliche just when it needs to be strongest. I wish it didn't -- it's a worthwhile message -- but not all things that are worthwhile are good.
And so I'm reviewing Re:Play-Girls, and I'm being harsher than it probably deserves. I watched it in a crowded room, and a fair number of the people around me thought it was great. The director said that he recieved twenty-five letters from high school students saying, essentially, that they were alive because of this film. Next to that, my complaints seem small. Petty. As I said, these reviews are more about my limitations than anything else.
But for me, it was all just a bit too played up, too much for shock value. It wasn't immersive, wasn't relatable, and suspension of disbelief is vital to an enterprise like this. Battle Royale (and the comparison is so inevitable that I'm rather proud of myself for mostly avoiding it thus far) although not subtle, has a certain nuanced quality in its handling of the characters -- their relationships seem to develop organically, so you can forgive a lot from the scenario and the supporting cast.
Re:Play-Girls does an interesting postmodern take, but at the end of it I'm left with almost exactly the opposite feeling. Without going into plot details, I felt like Rosencrantz from Stoppard's play, ranting:
You die a thousand casual deaths -- with none of that intensity which squeezes out life. . . and no blood runs cold anywhere. Because even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat. But no one gets up after death -- there is no applause -- there is only silence and some second-hand clothes, and that's death.
There's a lot of advice there, if you're inclined to look at it that way. Death's terror is in its absence, its finality, its utter incomprehensibility. It's not about carefully-placed blood packs or realistic sword work. These are devices in the service of narrative, and although technical skill there is necessary, it's never sufficient.
If you don't handle the characters in a realistic way, the entire work loses its impact. There's some latitude in what constitutes realism, and I do my best to suspend my disbelief, but I just wasn't able to do that in this movie. Narrative reason or no, it's tough to keep from yelling at the characters to do painfully obvious things. "Shoot him. No, don't throw the guns away. STOP FOLLOWING HIM!" The explanation, for me, comes too late.
But, as I said, all of my complaints here are kind of petty. Read the narrative like this: It's a young director's first movie. He made something ridiculously audacious on a budget that wouldn't even cover catering for a commercial film, and even though it doesn't quite work for me it still managed to reach the people he was aiming for. And I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do with more experience and more resources. One day he'll succeed completely.