One of the biggest tragedies of Japan’s declining status in the world is the end of its art film boom. Growing out of the Pink-Eiga (softcore art-porn) industry in the 80s, Japan’s art film output reached amazing heights in the 90s and early 2000s, bringing us spectacular new talents such as Shunji Iwai (PicNic, All About Lily Chou Chou), Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life, Maboroshi) and Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer).
But in recent years Japan’s art-film output has slowed substantially. For every bizarro film like Love Exposure, we get 20 maudlin pieces of TV-quality garbage, or a handful of slow, badly made Hollywood-style blockbusters. Japan, as Roger Ebert has said, is one of the 3 countries with a strong artistic filmmaking tradition, and seeing its output slow to a trickle has been nothing short of heartbreaking.
And so it’s with a sense of celebration that I discover a new, fairly off-the-beaten-path film with artistic proclivities, even if it’s from a director I already know. In this case, Isao Yukisada’s “Parade” pretty much delighted me from the get-go.
Taking place largely in a crowded 2-bedroom apartment, its young inhabitants consist of a slacker college student Ryosuke, heavy-drinking illustrator Mirai, an aspiring actress (who’s dating a celebrity) Kotomi, and film distribution salaryman Naoki. They hang out together occasionally, and live as young roommates often do; their lives criss-crossing and co-mingling, without probing too deeply.
Things get stirred up a bit with the arrival of the drifting teenaged prostitute Satoru, who seems to be homeless. Ryosuke and Kotomi are convinced there’s a brothel being run out of a neighboring apartment and conspire like kids to infiltrate the place. (Both of them also have some personal drama going on with the people they’re respectively dating.) Mirai is pretty screwed up and goes on regular drinking binges. Naoki is a fitness nut who needs his wisdom teeth pulled.
On the surface there’s not much going on here, and most of the film settles into a comfortable, amusing slice of their lives. However, the film takes some very strange turns in the second half, exploring each character’s background, their damage, their loneliness, and how while they might never admit it, they need each other. The college-like atmosphere of the apartment might seem like something they’d be outgrowing at their age (Naoki, in particular, is 28) and most of them are considering moving on, but something is keeping them there, and keeping them together.
Most intriguing is the character of Naoki (Tatsuya Fujiwara, in his best role since the original Battle Royale), who often feels the discomfort of being the group’s big brother. He’s also carrying one hell of a secret around with him, and it’s this secret that leads to some of the film’s biggest, most emotional statements. The resulting choices that the characters make, and what it says about where they place their values, is something I’m still rolling around in my head.
Yukisada’s filmography is pretty long, including plenty of TV dramas and films alike — good, and bad. I loved his 2001 film “Go”, but two years later he was making drippy schmaltz like “Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World.” Despite (or even because) of such a young and hot cast, Parade is something of a shock, a true personal artistic statement of the sort Japan barely makes anymore. It’s subtle, it’s real, and it’s kind of amazing. If you have a chance to see it, take it.