“What is your purpose in life?” is a question often aggressively asked of other characters by a hired killer (Vinnie Jones) in Survive Style 5+, a bizarre Japanese film from 2004 that jumps from one genre to another, ultimately defying any kind of categorisation entirely. Perhaps he would have been better off asking “what is your purpose in this film?”, as in the case of many characters it just isn’t all that clear.
This is director Gen Sekiguchi’s debut feature, made following a successful career in advertising alongside the movie’s screenwriter, Taku Tada. It contains five vaguely-interweaving and surreal stories, which are as follows: 1) A man called Aman (Tadanobu Asano) kills his wife Mimi (Reika Hashimoto) and buries her in the woods only to return home and find her waiting for him in the kitchen. She then subjects him to a variety of bizarre punishments, including one attack by fire breathing and another where she fires her limbs at his head as if they were rocket-propelled. 2) A thuggish hitman (Jones) and his translator (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) carry out a series of contract killings. 3) An advertising executive called Yoko (Kyōko Koizumi) amuses herself by dreaming up new and generally terrible ideas for commercials. 4) A trio of bored teenagers (Kanji Tsuda, Yoshiyuki Morishita and Jai West), one of whom harbours strong but repressed feelings of desire for another, travel around town burgling houses. 5) A suburban family’s life is changed forever when the salaryman father (Ittoku Kishibe) is permanently hypnotized into thinking he is a bird.
So far, so bizarre. What connects the stories more than any particular narrative strand is the look and feel of the film, although one or two characters do wander into one story after appearing in another. The sets are busy, packed with features and decorated with many items, and the colour palette alternates between loud, bright, garish and turn-it-off-please-my-brain-is-throbbing. It’s like rolling around inside a six-year-old’s head after they have imbibed nothing but smarties and orange juice for an entire week (or, equally, you could say it’s as pulsatingly vibrant as Jimi Hendrix’s mind after Woodstock). The mood is anarchic but very self-consciously zany, the tone jokey despite some gruesome sporadic violence. This film is basically early 80s British kids TV show TISWAS as directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Of the five stories, the most engaging by far is that of Aman and his indestructible wife Mimi. Though the violence here is resolutely cartoonish, there is something depressing about the way Aman is initially shown smashing Mimi’s head repeatedly with a spade (over two dozen times, at the very least, as the screen fades to black) in the film’s prologue. This is an act of ultra-modern, Asia Extreme violence, yet it feels informed by Tom and Jerry as much as anything else; it exists not to make us think about actual real life violence or the thousands upon thousands of women that do suffer domestic abuse each day, but solely because an ex ad-director thinks it would be cool to show it and – very possibly – considers it to be amusing. The fact that the director doesn’t even bother to reveal any kind of motive behind the original killing is presumably deliberate; it suits the hollow approach, either way.
There can be a certain joy and thrill in watching violence committed on screen, even at its most gratuitous, but I felt completely devoid of any pleasure during any such scenes in Survive Style 5+. Watching an empty Vinnie Jones play an empty, nihilistic character who stabs a hypnotist in the neck with a spike in an empty film made by an empty director is one of the lowest points of this year for me. Sekiguchi, free from the constraints of advertising and the responsibilities that go hand in hand when handling a company’s image (especially important if you want a paycheck at the end of the process), is like a kid in a candy shop, showing all the violence on screen he wasn’t allowed to while working from the pocket of some corporation or other. It’s all completely pointless.
I don’t wish to give the wrong impression; Survive Style 5+ is not a gorefest, and its focus is on the bizarre rather than the violent, but the way that violence is handled is indicative of the lack of emotional core here. Like a million and one adverts it’s all style over substance.
The Vinnie Jones Phenomenon – if it can be called a phenomenon – is difficult to understand. Recently and sadly diagnosed with skin cancer, Jones is an ex-footballer who had limited playing skills but forged a reasonably successful career at the top level of English football in a hard man role. Turning his attention to acting, he first appeared in a kind of amusing cameo in Guy Ritchie’s late-1990s east end gangster film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He has limited acting skills but has forged a reasonably successful career in the film industry, appearing in various hard man roles in American and British films, before more recently finding work in central Asia and Russia. If nothing else you’ve got to doff your cap to the man’s ability to gain a degree of success in two such unlikely fields.
I’m not going to tear Jones’s performance in a ten-year-old film apart in the week that he has publicly announced his illness, but there’s something faintly depressing about actors who can only perform one role, and always perform it terribly. Even action heroes of the 80s like Stallone or Schwarzenegger, often mocked for their lack of range, bring masses of charm to the screen. Is Jones really acting here, or is he just being himself? With his charisma-free brand of dimwitted thuggishness, he is a perfect fit for Sekiguchi’s emotionless movie, where acting skills are very much a secondary requirement.
Survive Style 5+ isn’t a complete write-off, though. There’s so much happening on screen that its sheer unpredictability keeps your attention throughout, and the repetition through the sections means that Sekiguchi’s world does begin to make a certain sense after a while. It’s also interesting as it helps to illustrate a certain shift with regards to the pop video: where once these were influenced by cinema, now it’s the other way round. Clearly a creative mind, it’s incredible that he found enough financial backing to get this film made, such is it’s lack of commercial appeal (though it has actually got a great reputation among lovers of Japanese cinema).
The trouble is, it’s remorselessly hyperactive and there are simply too many things going on for a cohesive whole to be formed. Essentially five imaginative short stories packaged together, with a forced and unimaginative link to hold them together (that is until another link at the very end, which is very enjoyable), Survive Style 5+ doesn’t suit the two hour film format at all. A couple of the shorts (the advertising executive who thinks she is much better than she actually is, and the three burglar friends) are actually pretty dull (though visually interesting), which makes for an unfortunate mismatch. Yes, even when Sonny Chiba pops up in a cameo.
Lacking any true purpose or message, as Jones repeats the question “what is your function in life?” it becomes a knowing nod to the utter pointlessness of the movie. Survive Style 5+ may be nothing more than the sum of its parts – a series of sugar-rush visuals – but at least there’s a certain degree of ambiguity: it’s likely that this is just a director who is extending his successful ad-land formula into a different format, but it’s also possible he is making an incredibly arch joke at the expense of the industry that made his name, showing it up as a soulless, empty place where ideas may attract instant attention but ultimately are forgotten as soon as the next wacky one pops up.
The trouble is I just don’t care, whatever the answer may be.
Directed by: Gen Sekiguchi
Written by: Taku Tada
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Reika Hashimoto, Vinnie Jones
Running Time: 120 Minutes