Chasuke’s Journey (2015)

Review of film that formed part of the ‘0th’ Edition of the London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF 2015)

Chasuke (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) is head tea server in Heaven for the legions of workers who script the lives of mortals on Earth. When one of the less imaginative Screenwriters, instructed by ‘the Man’ (i.e. God) to write something more ‘avant-garde’, turns to Chasuke for help, the resultant alterations to reality destine mute Yuri (Ito Ohno) below in Okinawa to be killed by a stolen car – and so Chasuke races down to Earth to intervene before this terminal screenplay for Yuri can come to pass. Now stranded, Chasuke dons a toy set of angel’s wings and begins employing his celestial powers to heal the sick and “to undo those assholes’ screenplays – right down to the punctuation!”. Who, though, can save him?

Like A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Wings of Desire (1987) and A Life Less Ordinary (1997) before it, Chasuke’s Journey (aka Ten no Chasuke) deals with the traffic between Heaven and Earth, as angels and humans interact to realign the fates and bring about miracles of romance. Yet the film’s allusiveness – and derivativeness – do not stop there: for this, the fourteenth feature from Sabu (aka Hiroyuki Tanaka), adopts a metacinematic high concept that foregrounds the contrived scriptedness of its characters’ lives, and then exposes the writers themselves as wrangling, clueless incompetents. Chasuke, who has for years been reading over the shoulders of the Screenwriters, reveals the backstory of each character as he encounters them – and those backstories are typically concocted from familiar movie motifs.

So it is that the childhood of TV magician Charlie Pon (Hiromasa Taguchi) has been purloined from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and John Cassavetes’ Gloria – while another friend/disciple of Chasuke, the noodle chef Joe Hikomura (Yusuke Iseya) used to engage in Ghost-style erotic pottery with his actor girlfriend before she drowned in a Titanic-like iceberg collision. “All”, as Chasuke observes, “because of a no-talent writer who rips off movies and jumps on trendy bandwagons, Joe has to feel this misery.” And Chasuke’s own past and present involvement with yakuza admits all manner of genre material (fights, hitmen, etc.) into the unstable mix. For here we are witnessing no less than a script, complete with real-time edits, adjustments and rewrites, coming into being from multiple vying pitches.

The results are messy, even tone-deaf – but that does seem to be part of the point. For in Sabu’s strange collision of high and low, genres are blurred, characters are merely half-written with the broadest of strokes, a Jesus-like saviour engages in repeated vomit gags, Christianity and Okinawan folk rituals do a strange two-step, and ‘avant-garde’ surrealism and quirkiness are the wildcards. Meanwhile, Chasuke himself provides a constant (and mostly critical) metacinematic commentary on the poverty of all these characters’ storylines, while the divine, dragon-like ‘Man’ keeps his distance but still appears to be exerting a mysterious influence on all these postmodern events – perhaps not a little like the invisible Sabu himself. Some uneconomic repetitions and casual homophobia aside, Chasuke’s Journey takes romantic comedy on an endearing, inventive spin heavenwards.

© Anton Bitel