Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review: Blues Harp

Blues Harp (1998, Takashi Miike)

Here is a fun little movie in Blues Harp, a story about the newly found friendship between three very different people in urban Japan. The first of these three is Chujii (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a half Black half Japanese (that’s right) bartender in a pub that puts on music shows every night. A little known fact is that he very much enjoys playing the harp (or harmonica), but only in his private quiet time, not in front of any significant audience. He also deals drugs for a gang member in order to earn some extra money on the side. The second is Kenji, a young, resourceful but perhaps too brash Yakuza gang member. The third is Tokiko, a perky ‘glass is half full’ type of girl who visits the same pub Chujii works at to see the music shows. One night, their fates become intertwined when Chujii not only helps out Tokiko from some customers but hides Kenji, who is on the run from some rival gang members who he has irked. Pretty soon, Tokiko and Chujii start dating and move in with each other. The former becomes inadvertently involved in a plan Kenji has concocted to overthrow a Yakuza leader. A great setup so far.

First and foremost, Blues Harp has a great sense of style, a style that serves the storytelling very well. This isn’t a three hour epic drama, but a 100 (give or take) minute film that tells a compact and interesting story. There are few scenes here that do not serve any purpose in the narrative, with perhaps a couple of exceptions that I will assess a bit later. The character development on display is also well up to par with what one would at least hope for in a Yakuza film. Chujii is of the laid back type. From his demeanor it appears as if very little can rile him up. Tokiko on the other hand is very expressive. To reference to a recent film, she is very much in the same vein as Poppy, from Happy Go Lucky. What the film does well is not make her perkiness unbearable. Her reactions and comments to the people and events around her tickled my funny bone more than once.

Perhaps the most ambiguous character is Kenji, the Yajuza gang member. At times, there is an appearance about him that denotes confidence and a know-how that should make him a formidable foe. And yet, from the very get go, there are hints that indicate he may be getting in over his head. He is highly loyal to those he believes he can trust, as is demonstrated in the scene during which he repays (literally) Chujii for helping him out when he was in need early in the film. Interestingly enough, the movie makes a semi-subtle reference to something that may be cooking under the surface with regards to how Kenji views Chujii. I won’t give it away here, and the movie never explicitly provides an answer, but it is an interesting theme that the story toys with a bit. Put some easy points on the board with these fun characters.

The films greatest strength, its leader on the field, is in these relations that unfold. It is possible to argue that there is a slight sense of ‘been there, done that’ but we spend enough time with these people that by the time the third act begins, the viewer is fully invested in them, which is more than I can say for many other films I’ve seen. Chujii and Tokiko, as different as they are, do form a good looking couple. Her inherent goodness inspires him as does his work ethic (minus the drug dealing) and laid back attitude make her feel good. The determination that fuels Kenji to honour this new friend and ally he has found in Chujii is a nice element. Rather than have Kenji drag Chujii into his plot to shake up the Yakuza, he wants to protect him. One thing leads to another, and when it is Kenji’s driver, who out of jealousy, brings Chujii into the plan and subsequently into great danger, Kenji feels compelled to do all he can to save him. The final scene has a strong dramatic effect because of everything that came before it. The viewer has come to like these people so much that seeing them in any danger raises the stakes to a remarkably intense level. Instead of an overtly gritty, glum gangster movie, what we have is a surprisingly effective character driven story. The Yakuza element merely serves as the starting off point for the character moments that follow. A wise decision which is nicely put into effect by director Miike.

One last point I’d like to make. Eventually Chujii is invited to the stage one night at his pub to play the harmonica with the band. We have already seen the band play some grand blues/rock at the beginning of the film. The singer takes a backseat and Chujii starts blowing the heck out that little harp of his. It’s great stuff to watch and listen to. There are maybe 3 or 4 scenes like this in the movie that show off great blues musical numbers for 2-3 minutes. Every one of them is a treat to listen, doubly so if you like that kind of music. A great, great soundtrack for the movie, which can practically serve as a mini concert.

Blues Harp
had a game plan and stuck to it. There is no cop out at the end, it isn’t trying to be ‘important’ in any particular way. It simply wants to tell a story with compelling, memorable characters. It does just that but with a confident sense of style as well. A well directed story with actors ready to give it their all. Certainly not exquisite filmmaking, but a very competent character driven movie nonetheless.

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