(2005) Directed by Minoru Kawasaki; Written by: Minoru Kawasaki and Masakazu Migita; Starring: Lee Ho, Eiichi Kikuchi, Arthur Kuroda, Hironobu Nomura and Elli-Rose; Available on DVD.
Rating: *** ½
“Listen carefully, Mr. Tamura. You’re normal. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re as normal as the next koala.” – Psychiatrist (Arthur Kuroda)
What if someone took the basic premise from an Alfred Hitchcock-style (okay, maybe William Castle-style) psychological thriller about a man who may or may not be a killer, and replaced the troubled main character with an anthropomorphic koala? Of course, this begs the question, “Why a koala?” The only logical response is, “Why not?” This goofy spin on familiar material is all in a day’s work for director/co-writer Minoru Kawasaki, who’s not afraid to place animals (or at least a reasonable facsimile) in roles that traditionally go to humans. Executive Koala follows in the warped footsteps of Kawasaki’s The Calamari Wrestler,* Kani Goalkeeper and Neko Râmen Taishô,**which featured squid, crab and cat protagonists, respectively.
* Watch for a shout out to Exectuve Koala’s predecessor on a cellphone charm.
** As of this writing, neither Kani Goalkeeper, nor Neko Râmen Taishô have yet reached these shores on DVD. Pity.
Mr. Tamura (played by an unknown actor) is a hard working executive for a pickle company. His boss is a big white rabbit, and he frequents a convenience store managed by a frog (hey, I couldn’t make this up if I tried). Everything seems to be going his way – he’s about to seal a lucrative deal with a Korean kimchi company, and enjoys a loving relationship with his pretty girlfriend Yoko (played by model/DJ Elli-Rose). His life suddenly collapses when she’s found murdered in his home. Due to the mysterious disappearance of Tamura’s wife Yukari (also played by Elli-Rose) three years ago, he’s the primary suspect. He’s pursued by police detectives Kitagawa (Eichi Kikuchi) and Ono (Hironobu Nomura), who are determined to catch him in a slip-up.
Kawasaki toys with the audience, forcing us to ask ourselves, “Is he, or isn’t he responsible? It’s hard to consider the possibility that a psychopath might lurk underneath Tamura’s gentle, cuddly exterior. Tamura insists he had nothing to do with the murder or disappearance, but can’t account for a gap in his memory. His psychiatrist (Arthur Kuroda) helps him come to grips with his repressed memories, but in the process might just uncover his dark past. As his memories emerge in dreams (or are they?), Tamura finds himself lapsing into psychotic episodes, signified by his red glowing eyes.
Similar to The Calamari Wrestler, Kawasaki and the cast treat the material with a deadpan tone. Everyone is so blasé about their daily interactions with a koala, as if this were a normal, everyday occurrence. The fact that he’s a marsupial is never played for laughs, which only seems to make things funnier. If you took the basic story and replaced the non-human characters with human characters you’d be left with a fairly standard (if overwrought) thriller, but Kawasaki ensures the film is anything but ordinary, with sing-along opening credits, a musical interlude in the middle of the film, and his usual assortment of oddball characters. Kawasaki never treats his characters like freaks, and maybe that’s the point. They are who they are, which only gives them license to let their freak flag unfurl in the breeze.
As with The Calamari Wrestler (reviewed for Japan-uary II’s Quick Picks and Pans, reading too much into this flick will only result in making your brain hurt. I don’t recommend doing that. Kawasaki makes the kind of batshit, idiosyncratic films that are frequently associated with Japan. They’re a special sort of crazy that’s quintessentially Japanese, yet appeals to anyone with a penchant for the absurd. Kawasaki once remarked, “I want to be silly for the rest of my life!” (from Twitch interview with Blake). For our sake, I hope he keeps that promise.