Judge Joel Pearce says this quasi-remake of Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog would be an exciting policier, if only it offered some excitement.
All life is a process of breaking down…
Ahh, it's time for another ArtsmagicDVD review. A company that burst onto the scene with some auspicious releases, they now seem relegated to delivering the same kind of dull crime movies over and over again. That's sort of how I feel about An Obsession, too, which goes over a lot of familiar ground. At least it isn't about a hitman trying to make a new life for himself.
Facts of the Case
Saga (Ryo Ishibashi, Audition) is a workaholic cop who spends weeks at a time on stakeouts without complaining. Everything collapses for him after the murder of a cult leader, when he is shot in the chest and has his gun stolen. He becomes obsessed with finding the lost gun, resigning from the police force in the process. Eventually, Saga learns that Shimano (Kazuma Suzuki, Crazy Lips), a terminal leukemia patient, has stolen the gun. The two men, both obsessed with the same gun, are driven towards a deadly confrontation.
Or perhaps I should say that the two men amble slowly towards a deadly confrontation. Although I respect the film for its craftsmanship, as I read other criticism about An Obsession I wonder what I'm missing. The critical blurbs splash words like "pulsating" and "passionate" across the front cover. If I were to have a chance to add my own "p" adjectives, I would volunteer "ponderous" "puzzling," and "plodding."
The biggest problem is yet another poor attempt at translating philosophical Japanese conversations into English. Although I don't understand Japanese, I am assuming that the dialogue must make more sense than this. The characters talk at great length, about what it means to be human and how best to respond to life's twists and turns. These conversations are challenging, because we as an audience need to try and interpret what the characters really mean. Saga talks about feeling blank, where I think he really means hollow or empty. If even a dozen words were translated that far off, it would explain my frustrations. It doesn't help that seemingly inexplicable things keep happening, such as the team of guys in hazmat suits with machine guns who drive around in the jeep. From an audience standpoint, I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with an armed gang in radiation suits and gas masks, but something that bizarre really needs to be explained.
In fact, I can't quite figure out how director Shinji Aoyama managed to make a cop movie about a series of murders with a stolen gun so dull. Perhaps it's because the murders and the reasons for them are glossed over in favor of the aforementioned philosophical discussions. Perhaps it's Aoyama's own obsessions with pretentious long takes that are designed to make us believe we're seeing something truly significant. Perhaps it's just because the whole "race against time to catch the killer" routine has been done better countless times.
That's not to say there's nothing worthwhile in An Obsession. All of the leads deliver impressive performances. Ryo Ishibashi gives a typically laid back portrayal of Saga. His is a calm, calculated obsession with finding the gun. Although Shimano has less screen time, he creates a fascinating and edgy victim who enjoys the power his new guns gives him over other people's lives. After all, he has lost the power over his own life. I also enjoyed the performance from Yurei Yanagi (Ringu) as Saga's ex-partner, who injects some humor (and humanity) into the film. Kimiko (Kyoko Tohyama, Ultraman) is a great character as well, who acts as a bridge between the worlds of Saga and Shimano. When Aoyama isn't trying to show off, the cinematography is also impressive, creating a world of confusion and despair.
Although ArtsmagicDVD always includes thoughtful and helpful features, their transfers are consistently disappointing. The anamorphic image is windowboxed, has no black level, appears faded and washed out, and is quite fuzzy to boot. It's not an ugly film, but the transfer makes it hard to appreciate the quality of Aoyama's cinematography. The sound is just as ugly. There is a Dolby 5.1 track, but I can't tell much difference between it and the included stereo track. There is hiss throughout, the low tones are boomy, and the highs are quite harsh. The music and dialogue haven't been well mixed. I realize that this is a small company handling very low-budget films, but it's still unpleasant to watch. I have already mentioned the rough subtitle translation as well.
There are several extra features on the disc. The most notable is a commentary track by critic Jasper Sharp, co-author of The Midnight Eye. His commentary offers a lot of insight into what was happening in Japan during the years leading up to the subway gas attacks that inspired An Obsession. Although his comments do help to explain where Aoyama's ideas are coming from, the commentary track isn't any more exciting than the film itself, and I don't think many North American viewers are going to want to buy a film that requires a commentary track in order to understand the cultural references. Even those with some understanding of Japan and plenty of experience watching Japanese film could well feel lost here. I do applaud ArtsmagicDVD for trying to connect these dots, though. In addition to the commentary, the disc houses an interview with Shinji Aoyama. He talks about his inspirations, philosophy, and his feelings for An Obsession. As a side note, the transfer of the interview is far nicer than the film itself.
Although Stray Dog is one of the Kurosawa films I haven't gotten a chance to see yet, I suspect that this quasi-remake is not up to par with the original. I would only recommend it for people well-versed in recent Japanese cultural history, and those who are very passionate about art films. Everyone else has hundreds of great cop movies to watch instead. Even if you do like the film, you will have to weigh carefully whether this transfer is worth the price of the disc. A rental might be a better call.
Aoyama is convicted for turning a fine idea into a dull film. It may make more sense in context, but that moment of history is now over and this DVD has come eight years too late.
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