Apparently black, full-length cloaks with cowls are haute couture for scientists. At least no one seems to notice that four out of five scientists at the huge research facility in a small town prefer them. Somehow they seemed to have missed the memo that went out to all the mad scientists after the German Expressionist era of film ended: black cloaks and sinister hoods are out, white lab coats are in.
They, of course, have some sort of evil plan, which involves collecting and transforming negative energy harvested from children, a Godzilla-sized monster, and destroying the world to save it. Somehow that one never works out.
Sigh. It’s just impossible to stay cynical about this film. It has so much charm and silly fun to it that it is irresistible. Well, at least as long as you’re willing to read subtitles.
There aren’t that many new films that get the full Criterion DVD treatment in their initial video release, and somehow I doubt if many of them are chock full of CGI creatures. Japanese artist Takashi Murakami directed – his first feature film – and it doesn’t take too much effort to connect his often strange and disturbingly cute work with the wild assortment of strange and disturbingly cute creatures in the town (or F.R.I.E.N.D.s: there is some sort of overly-long and convoluted explanation for this acronym, but even the scientists who invented it don’t use it much). The film itself frequently seems to be channeling Gremlins or E.T: certainly it falls in the familiar little-kid-with-a-secret-friend mode, only this time every kid in town has one.
There are hints of the Fukushima reactor tragedy throughout the story (and in fact, the boy and his mother just moved into town from a refugee camp). Perhaps the story seems a little darker than a similar American film would be – the local bullies (who will later become the hero’s friends, of course) actually beat him senseless, his uncle is murdered (he’s all right. Wasn’t fatal), and the kids in the town find themselves surrounded by strife and unpleasantness (thanks, of course, to the black-hooded four. Yep, the credits actually call them that). But then, come to think of it, the American version often seems too saccharine-sweet…
All in all, a beautiful, well-made fantastic film, filled with impressive artistry and attention to detail (when the big creature first appears, one of the things that separates it from the classic Toho Kaiju Eiga is that the shots of it from a distance are appropriately hazy, as things in the distance always are). It even pleased two young children at our screening who haven’t a word of Japanese between them.
Which is high praise, indeed.