Yojin Mizuki might be a young man, but he acts like a kid who could use a dose of Ritalin. Oddly enough, pesticide seems to have the same effect on him. Not exactly Prince Charming, the new kindergarten teacher will have to deal with his not particularly welcome, chemically stabilized attentions in Satoko Yokohama’s Bare Essence of Life Ultra Miracle Love Story (trailer here), which screens during the Japan Society’s 2010 Japan Cuts: Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.
Twenty-something Mizuki is still a handful to deal with. Fortunately, his grandmother has a lot of patience. However, she has real concerns about his ability to live independently once she has gone. As a test, she has granted him his own vegetable patch on the family organic farm. So far, the bug-infested results are not encouraging, which is why Mizuki sought out some chemical help. Through a strange set of circumstances that could only happen to the overgrown adolescent, he gets a pesticide shower, but he feels just fine. In fact, he can converse relatively rationally with Machiko Shinsen, his new crush.
For obvious reasons, Shinsen is not thrilled by Mizuki’s advances. She is also trying to resolve her feelings for an ex-lover who was decapitated in an auto accident. Still, though Mizuki does not exactly wear down her objections, strange things seem to happen when he is around.
Essence starts off like a quirky indie dramedy, complete with two legitimately funny kindergartners, who up-stage their adult co-stars in all their scenes. Yet, it matter-of-factly veers into magical realism territory as the unforeseen consequence of Mizuki’s self-medicating, accepted at face-value by the hard-working citizens of provincial Aomori Prefecture.
Indeed, Yokohama maintains a weird tone during Essence, keeping viewers off-balance throughout. It is hard to get a bead on Mizuki—“his wiring is just different,” we are told. Ken’ichi Matsuyama (recognizable to some as the mysterious L in the Death Note series) approaches Kojin as a showcase role, with plenty of all too convincing hyper acting-out and tic-y foibles. Though generally sympathetic, his portrayal is hardly saintly. Mercifully, this is not a Japanese Phenomenon. Likewise, the not always likable Shinsen, brought to life with tremendous credibility by Kumiko Aso, certainly warms to her trying suitor, but she does not exactly throw caution to the wind.
Up until the conclusion, Yokohama largely reigns in Essence’s potentially quirky excesses. Indeed, thanks to a disciplined cast (including the surprisingly charming youngsters) and its realistic grounding in a scrupulously un-romanticized Aomori, the film mostly hits its marks, largely overcoming potential viewer resistance to its heroic eccentricity. It screens at the Japan Society this Wednesday (7/7) as Japan Cuts continues through July 16th.