Many might think the presence of Japanese heart-throb Matsuda Ryuhei would be sufficient justification for any film, and the addition of fripperies such as story and character development would merely waste money. For myself, I’d probably watch Matsuda reading the phone book, but I admit that wouldn’t necessarily be compelling viewing for others. Luckily for us all, Otakus In Love has many other things going for it.
For starters, it’s funny. The characters are funny, and the situations are funny. It’s full of odd, quirky moments that Japanese directors do so wonderfully. In a way, Matsuo is very similar to English director Peter Greenaway, as this film, like most Greenaway films, has a rich and detailed texture. But if Greenaway’s rich, dark, oppressive films could be described as the treacle pudding of cinema, Matsuo’s work is the pavlova: light, fluffy, and full of strange fruit. And unlike many Hollywood comedy directors, who labour the point interminably, Matsuo doesn’t care if you get the joke. Perhaps because he knows that there will be another one along in a few minutes. Matsuo throws humour at you with a shovel, and most of it hits the mark. This richness of texture makes Otakus In Love a film that you can watch several times, and get something new each time.
While we’re on the director comparison, Matsuo also shares with fellow Japanese director Sabu (Monday, Drive) the ability to push characters and situations the merest hair’s breadth over the line into absurdity. Some viewers might object to Sabu or Matsuo films with “But that’s not very realistic, that won’t happen!” Which is missing the point: realism is not the aim. Matsuo and Sabu enmesh their very credible characters in situations that creep beyond the common, giving rise to situations at once believable and absurd.
The cast works wonderfully well, both in their own performances and as an ensemble. Matsuda, hitherto known for extremely serious, and often tragic, drama, essays a lovable loser, and does it with panache. The air of distant sadness that he presented in such as Taboo and 9 Souls is gone: instead we have a gormless, hungry artist who seeks the perfect rock with which to express his art. In the opening scene we find our hero driven to the extreme act of taking a paid job, although his descent into this mundane world doesn’t extend as far as changing his rather tatty clothes or, it seems, bathing. His self-defense against the inevitable jibing from his salaryman boss combines the meekness of one who knows himself to be an underdog with the arrogance of one who believes himself to be an artist, and Matsuda performs with a comic skill surprising in one so frequently subdued.
Wakana, as the cosplaying Koino, manifests a wide-eyed enthusiasm that looks ditzy all the way up to the scene where she loses her cool, which she does with the intensity of a cable snapping. Director Matsuo, as manager of a manga bar where the desperate Mon takes a job, plays the laconic barman to perfection, once again until this stereotype is shaken to pieces. Matsuo looks serious and studious, and it might take you some time to recognise in him the bunny-eared twins he played in Miike’s Ichi The Killer. There’s even a hysterical cameo from the Master of Extremes himself, Miike Takashi, that you’d miss if you blinked.
Unlike Miike’s bloodfest, this film has no violence, and precious little sex. There’s an occasional internal monologue from Matsuda that’s used sparingly and to good effect. There’s dollops of fun being poked at manga fan culture, with a side order of snook being cocked at artistic pretensions, and even a song and dance routine. One thing I noticed was that the names of the main characters, Koino and Mon, combine to form the Japanese title of the film (Koi No Mon). This might make them archetypes, and make the whole film a post-structuralist commentary on something, but that’s of little moment to me. What I care about is amusement value, and this film has it in spades. Or, rather, in stones.