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“Bare Essence of Life” (a.k.a. “Ultra Miracle Love Story”) is a unique slice of Japanese weirdness, helmed by female writer director Yokohama Satoko, who was previously responsible for the oddly titled comedy “German + Rain”. The film is another decidedly offbeat affair, headlined by popular actor Matsuyama Kenichi, recently in the hit “Death Note” series and “Detroit Metal City”, and who is soon to be seen in the blockbuster live action “Gantz” adaptation. A bizarre mix of romance, comedy, drama and existential ponderings, the film also stars actress Aso Kumiko, following up her role in Satoshji Miki’s delightful, and equally quirky “Instant Swamp”. The film is an authentically local production, taking place in the Aomori prefecture in Northern Japan, of which both Satoko and Kenichi are natives, with him speaking in Tsugaru dialect throughout.
The actor plays Yojin, a mentally challenged farmer who spends his days working in his grandmother’s fields and vegetable garden, following the instructions his grandfather recorded for him before his death. With an incredibly short attention span and predilection for loud and unpredictable behaviour, Yojin is an energetic, though frequently very troublesome young man, who causes a lot of trouble for the other locals. One day, a new teacher called Machiko (Aso Kumiko) arrives in his small town, and he instantly sets his sights on winning her heart. However, this task is made difficult not only by his own eccentricities, but by her personal demons and secrets.
“Bare Essence of Life” is one of those films that is genuinely impossible to neatly categorise, and is a strongly individual and wonderfully creative piece of work. Although selling the film as a kind of offbeat love story doesn’t do it justice, it does have hints of romance, though in a truly unexpected manner, with the relationship between Yojin and Machiko developing into something different, and far more rewarding. The film is possibly best described as a piece of philosophical musing on the nature of existence and the adaptability of the human organism. Though it would be unfair to spoil some of the near surreal plot developments, despite its weird and miraculous twists, it progresses in surprisingly coherent fashion.
In narrative terms, Satoko allows much to go unexplained, though thanks to an ambient, almost zen-like atmosphere, at the same time the viewer never feels lost. Through this, although much of the film doesn’t make sense in traditional terms, it is charming and engaging throughout, with its gently thoughtful manner leaving a lasting impression. At the same time, it is very funny in places, at times simply due to its out and out strangeness. Satoko really does throw the viewer a fair number of curve balls, though without ever seeming too wilfully kooky, and the film impresses with its straight faced, naturalistic approach.
To a large extent, the film’s success is down to Matsuyama Kenichi’s central turn, which really holds everything together. The actor was certainly an interesting and brave choice for the role, given that he has in the past been known for giving grating, over the top performances and could have easily have tipped the film into “Forrest Gump” territory. Instead, he manages a fine, winning balance, portraying a desperately random young man, whose annoying tendencies are part of a bigger picture which itself is not without some logic or sympathy. As a result, although its fair to say that the viewer is fascinated by him rather than actually liking him, he makes for an almost hypnotically interesting subject as his life goes through its various changes. Aso Kumiko is also on good form, playing things less cutesy or wacky than in other films, and the way in which her gradual, hesitant coming out of her shell becomes central to the film is very rewarding in itself.
“Bare Essence of Life” is a very rare film, which verges on the abstraction of art house while at the same time engaging the viewer through its characters and strangely meandering plot. Although it may not be for everyone, and indeed may disappoint those looking for a straightforward romance or comedy, it certainly stands as a one of a kind viewing experience that should be enjoyed by anyone looking for something a little different.
Satoko Yokohama (director) / Satoko Yokohama (screenplay)
CAST: Ken’ichi Matsuyama … Akito Mizuki
Kumiko Asô … Machiko Kamiizumi
Seiji Nozoe … Ta Tanaka
Arata … Kaname Shimada
Yoshio Harada … Dr. Misawa
Misako Watanabe … Shibata