Koara kachô, 2005
Friendly koala to all, Tamura Keichi, is just an average salaryman trying to hold down a job within the stressful pickle industry. At ‘Rabource Pickling Co. Ltd’ he has come up with the proposal of a corporate merging between Rabource and a popular Korean kimchi manufacturer, to which after several meetings his boss, the president of Rabource (who, incidentally is a white rabbit), gives him the go-ahead. Things start to look up for Tamura upon meeting Mr. Kim (Lee Ho) of the ‘Pe Nosan’ company and his pet flying squirrel, Momo. Not only is business great, but so too does Tamura share a loving relationship with Yoko (Elli-Rose), putting behind him his troublesome past. But all of that comes back to haunt him one day when he’s informed by detectives Kitagawa (Eiichi Kikuchi) and Ono (Hironobu Nomura) of Yoko’s brutal slaying. For three years Tamura has been secretly visiting Dr. Nonaka (Arthur Kuroda) in order to cope with the disappearance of his former fiancé Yukari; his memories deeply shrouded in mystery. Does Yoko’s murder really have anything to do with the loss of Yukari? Can Tamura really be so unrelentingly violent? Detective Ono seems to think so, and so does the local convenience store frog. Tamura is about to face his most inner demons as he strives to seek out the truth behind what’s going on in Minoru Kawasaki’s surreal mystery thriller.
Minoru Kawasaki has earned himself a nice little niche reputation as being one of the most absurdist and energetic film makers working in Japan today. His style – born from his childhood days spent watching Kaiju cinema and Sentai television – is unmistakable in its attempts to break barriers by predominantly transplanting oversized animals into everyday human situations. He began directing 8mm shorts at the age of 18 during the latter part of the seventies, and even then films such as 1977’s Huuto which featured a piece of mochi (rice cake) transforming into a giant city-stomping creature, helped to carve his destiny as a film maker with clear intents. Throughout the eighties he worked on various TV and video productions, bringing to life several manga adaptations and children’s stories for instance, while funding personal projects from his own pocket. He continued to produce and direct during the nineties, but it wasn’t until just a few years ago with the festival craze The Calamari Wrestler that he’d start to enjoy worldwide recognition. Since that time he’s been working tirelessly to bring to the screen his own oddball vision, which more often than not sees him parodying various genre flicks as he uniquely channels his love for Kaiju weirdness.
Kawasaki’s follow-on from 2004’s The Calamari Wrestler – made during the same year as wrestling comedy Kabuto-O Beetle – is altogether a different beast from the former, in a sense that it feels a whole lot more evenly paced and assertive. While the evident labour-of-love The Calamari Wrestler was certainly an interesting slice of Kaiju cinema it seemed to be weighed down by a somewhat scattershot script, which ironically lost credibility the more it attempted to unravel the mystery behind the bizarre appearance of its lead character. Executive Koala still follows the whole human-sized animal premise, but this time the director has the better judgement to dispense with explanations, place a giant business-suited koala in the forefront and simply be done with it. As with The Calamari Wrestler, then, our hero is nonetheless treated like any other regular citizen, and that of course is all part of Kawasaki’s charm as a director; that somehow, despite the beastly nature and chinks in the armour, such as visible zips, we can actually buy into such a comic creation and never feel the need to ask the obvious. Of course there is a natural pay-off to Tamura being a koala by the end, but still it’s more than easy to simply go along for the ride.
Kawasaki’s main skill as a director is his natural confidence; he knows exactly what works with relation to this ridiculous cinematic creature and he uses the absolute cheapest method to get the biggest laughs. And indeed Executive Koala is often hilarious, on account of the simplest approach, coupled with having a perfect sense of comic timing. There’s a priceless moment, for example, when upon learning of his girlfriend’s death the camera zooms in on Tamura’s jaw dropping an inch or so; the pitching of the scene is one such exemplary moment which words do little justice, much like a moment earlier on when we see Tamura text-ing his girlfriend on his mobile phone with his overly large and furry fingers. It’s the numerous sight gags that raise the biggest smiles, but with the entire cast playing events totally straight it also opens up a manner of ways for the director to exploit typical genre conventions.
Executive Koala relishes the opportunity to work off of the cliché. Kawasaki manages to wonderfully interweave horror, comedy, romance and suspense to deliver some genuinely workable twists that play up to tried and tested formulas. Indeed, it can be incredibly dark at times, boasting several semi-disturbing sequences dealing with domestic violence. If it wasn’t for the fact that we’re (guiltily) forced to laugh during one particular outburst, which culminates with a koala cackling to himself while a chained woman eats rice from a bowl on all fours, then I’d wager that the feature would be something else entirely. Despite some dark psychological undercurrents, however, the director never fails to remind us that he’s just being silly and nothing is more evident than during the completely insane third act, in which everything comes together in a mash-up of sing-a-longs, martial arts and even more logic-defying sensibilities. But oh, what a rewarding thing to witness.
Make no mistake, Executive Koala is as mad as a hatter, but it’s equally smart to boot. Look beyond its main selling point and you’ll find a feature film all too aware of modern cinema trends; one which deconstructs every possible genre, takes what it needs and still comes away feeling as fresh as a new-born…squid.