Appellate Judge Dan Mancini says watching this Japanese crime-thriller stinks.
When wires cross, murder takes shape.
Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which sensory experiences merge in associative ways. A synesthete, for instance, might always experience the number 1 as red in color, or might experience geometric patterns in association with the scent of a flower. Note that it required two relatively concise sentences for me to give you at least a rough idea of what synesthesia is. First-time director Toru Matsuura's Synesthesia (Gimmy Heaven) is an hour and a half of story (tops) that runs just over two hours because his characters engage in a series of lengthy expository conversations meant to explain the neurological condition at the center of the plot. The more they talk, the more opaque and ridiculous synesthesia sounds, and the less we believe that either Matsuura or his characters know what the hell they're talking about. Matsuura needlessly pollutes a mildly interesting crime story with a contrivance about synesthetes sharing a common secret sensory language and a melodramatic burden of hipster angst and loneliness.
As Synesthesia opens, teenaged girl Mari Michiki's (Aoi Miyazaki, Tomie: Forbidden Fruit) third family has been brutally murdered. An orphan who's been bounced from one foster home to another, the girl's temporary families have a way of ending up dead. Detective Shibata is working the case. She's intrigued by a large butterfly-shaped wine stain in the carpet at the crime scene—an image associated with the grisly handywork of a serial killer who calls himself Picasso. Somehow, the secret mark leads Shibata to believe Picasso may be a synesthete and that finding another synesthete who can translate the mark may be the key to discovering Picasso's true identity. Meanwhile, the runaway Mari is taken in by Shin Hayama (Yosuke Eguchi, Madness in Bloom) and his buffoon of a business partner Takashi (Masanobu Ando, Battle Royale). The two men run a computer design studio, making most of their money by administering prurient webcam pay sites for a greasy yakuza with a penchant for bad suits. As luck (or contrived screenwriting) would have it, Shin is a synesthete. When Picasso contacts Shin with threats over his harboring Mari, we know that it's only a matter of time before our hero becomes a part of Shibata's investigation and the mystery of Mari's relationship to the killer is revealed.
Synesthesia is every bit as bad as my plot description makes it sound—in fact, it's worse. While the description fairly expresses Matsuura's lame and unnecessary appropriation of a neurological phenomenon as a MacGuffin in his otherwise by-the-numbers crime thriller, it doesn't capture how infantile the film's characters are, or how insipid its dialogue. When having to consider whether his business partner can be relied upon in a life-and-death situation, Takashi—Synesthesia's grating answer to Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!'s Shaggy—hedges because of some offscreen kerfuffle over a cup of soup once upon a time. This is what passes for hilarity and witty banter in Synesthesia. At one point, our two heroes—apparently unaware of the concept of cardiopulmonary activity—have a lengthy discussion about how they might tell whether Mari is dead or simply unconscious. Still, we're supposed to assume that Shin and Takashi are cool because they're bone thin, have hipster haircuts, and wear leather pants, T-shirts, and Converse hightops. I'm sure if I was a Hello Kitty-loving Japanese schoolgirl, I'd be sold. Unfortunately for me, I'm an American dude pushing middle age who finds more unintentional laughs than chills in a serial killer who looks like an androgynous Japanese pop star.
Worse yet, after nearly two hours of relentless and unapologetic inanity, Matsuura and company hit us up with a pretentious ending executed with a maximum of crass sentimentality and low-rent computer-generated special effects. It practically redefines anticlimax.
The movie was competently shot, but with little visual flair. On DVD, the image is flat, muted, and lacking detail. The undersatured colors and weak black levels have all the earmarks of a mid-range video source. ADV Films' transfer is loaded with combing artifacts. Prevalent interlacing artifacts in the rendering of fine horizontal detail like window blinds mean the transfer either isn't progressive or it was ported from a PAL master. Overall, the transfer is mediocre. Watching Synesthesia won't feel like needles in your eyes (even if you're a synesthete), but it also won't be the most delightful visual experience you've ever had.
The default audio is an English dub presented in Dolby 4.0 surround. The voice performances are as good as the Japanese performances (which isn't saying much), and the track is as well mixed as the original. The acrobatics the English voice actors perform to make their reads match the movements of the actors' mouths while also accounting for the ludicrous dialogue is perhaps the most entertaining thing about watching this flick.
The original Japanese track is also available in a four-channel Dolby mix, accompanied by optional English subtitles.
In addition to the feature, Disc One of this two-disc release contains a text-based feature that defines and provides background on synesthesia. It's considerable more coherent and concise than all the pseudo-clinical talk in the film. Disc One also contains a gallery of trailers for other ADV DVD releases: Dark Water, 2009 Lost Memories, Public Enemy, Gantz, and Yujo the Negotiator.
Disc Two contains a 37-minute making-of documentary; cast and crew Q&As from the film's sneak preview and opening night; a 35-minute video interview with Matsuura and actor Shinji Takeda; and a Japanese trailer and six TV spots.
Synesthesia is a mildly interesting idea, poorly executed. It's a run of the mill serial killer thriller that tries too hard to be something more. It's guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
• Background on Synesthesia
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