Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The iDol

Director: Norman England
Writer: Norman England
Producer: Norman England
Cast: Jin Sasaki, Erina Hayase, Takako Fuji
Country: Japan
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener DVD

Norman England, Fangoria’s Japanese correspondent, is not the first film journalist to start making his own movies, nor will he be the last. It’s almost a natural progression. You hang around on enough sets, you start to think, “Hmm, I could do this.” That’s not presumptuous or arrogant, it makes sense. What better apprenticeship could there be in any trade than to watch other people doing it and then get to ask them questions?

It is massively to Norman’s credit that his first film is not some cheesy kaiju spoof or knockabout sci-fi comedy but a gentle, imaginative, amusing look at the Japanese culture in which he has lived for 14 years - with a sci-fi twist of course.

The iDol of the title is a retro-looking green plastic alien toy and the first part of the film follows its progress from one character to another. We know that it is extraterrestrial in origin because a bug-eyed alien beastie lands in a flying saucer and presses it into the hands of a terrified homeless guy (Yukijiro Hotaru: Pyrokinesis, Zeram, Cure, Stacy and all three 1990s Gamera pictures). The figure is swiftly stolen by greedy, unscrupulous Tanaka (Bobby Nakanishi), proprietor of a sci-fi/toy shop who recognises that it might be valuable, especially when he can’t find it in any catalogue. (Nakanishi played Akira Kurosawa(!) in a Blair Witch spoof called The Penny Marshall Project in which the three campers are replaced by Kurosawa, Marshall and Francis Ford Coppola. I find this extraordinary - a Blair Witch spoof which actually sounds worth watching.)

Tanaka sells it to our hero Ken (Jin Sasaki) who collects these things but by now we know that the iDol itself is influencing what happens, as it shines light beams into people’s heads. Ken has a girlfriend Rika (Takako Fuji: the spooky Kayako in the Japanese and US versions of Ju-on/The Grudge and their sequels) whose birthday he is in imminent danger of forgetting, a geeky best friend Taki (Hiro Miyama) and a sharp-suited office rival Yamada (Mitsu Katahira). And like every young Japanese male, he has a crush on babe du jour Mayuka (Erina Hayase, who was in a TV series based on the early life of Takeshi Kitano).

The iDol’s extraterrestrial powers give Ken the best day of his life and then the worst, a Twilight Zone-like existence as someone else entirely. Finally he realises that he must pass on the iDol to someone - or something - else.

Running just under an hour, this is a delightful film which presents us with a view of Japan which is at once an insider’s and an outsider’s. This is a nation where too many people fritter their lives away obsessing over pop culture and short-term celebrity instead of worrying about the realities of life. England directs with an assured, lightly comic touch. The acting is top-notch and the limited special effects are great, especially the alien which first brings the iDol to Earth (created by Kakusei Fujiwara: Pyrokinesis, Zatoichi, Godzilla Final Wars).

The screenplay was written in English by, erm, England (who is, of course, American) although Jiro Kaneko (Ultraman Max, Zero Woman) gets a ‘script’ credit for helping to translate it and transfer it into Japanese script format (he also designed some fake magazines and adverts seen in the film). The cinematographer was Hiroo Takaoka and the editor was Rob Moreno. Bill Gudmundson, a big name in kaiju model kits, sculpted the iDol itself, Hajime Matsumoto (Another Heaven, Ju-On, Ringu, GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack) handled visual effects and Takashi Yamazaki (director of Juvenile) was responsible for the computer graphics. No less an artist than Bob Eggleton painted a matte for the final scene; he also receives a ‘concept artist’ credit along with England, Fujiwara, Yamazaki and German actor/model Daniel Zoehrer.

Original music is Koh Otani (Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, Pyrokinesis) and Norman scores extra points for including a great song by Jane Wiedlin which I haven’t heard in a dog’s age (and no, it’s not ‘Rush Hour’). Tomoo Haraguchi (director of Sakuya: Slayer of Demons, special effects on Uzumaki) appears briefly as Ken and Yamada’s boss and there are lots of background references to other films and TV shows including a Dawn of the Dead poster and a toy SHADO Interceptor in Ken’s apartment (surely not filmed in Norman’s own flat?).

Although Norman is fluent in Japanese, nevertheless it takes guts to produce one’s first film in one’s second language. Despite this, The iDol is an accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable movie of which the writer/director/producer can be justly proud. It hits the right notes, it’s funny when it needs to be funny and serious when it needs to be serious, it’s beautifully observed and it’s professional on every level and in every sense. Yoku yatta, Norman-san!

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 17th August 2006

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