Party 7, 2000
Miki (Masatoshi Nagase) is a small-time crook, who’s decided to abandon his fellow gangsters because he feels he no longer has a suitable future with them; taking with him a few million in yen, he flees to the relatively unknown Hotel New Mexico, located in the countryside. But his sense of security is short-lived when his travel agent, Auntie (Yoneko Matsukane), betrays his location to a string of pursuers. Soon Miki is greeted at the hotel by his former girlfriend Kana (Akemi Kobayashi), to whom he owes a considerable debt of money, while she has been tracked down by her gadget-expert fiancé Todohira (Yoshinori Okada). Things finally erupt with the arrival of Miki’s friend Sonoda (Keisuke Horibe), who has been ordered by his boss to kill Miki and bring home the money he stole. But when Sonoda learns of his own boss’ betrayal he soon begins to question himself whether or not his time is well spent with the clan.
Unbeknownst to the recently re-acquainted, the hotel is a peeping tom’s paradise, governed by the mysterious Captain Banana (Yoshio Harada), who has constructed a secret base of operations adjacent to Miki’s quarters. He’s soon joined by a young man named Okita (Tadanobu Asano): a hopelessly addicted and multiple-convicted peeping tom, who suffers from painful childhood memories and is the perfect foil for Banana’s nefarious schemes in keeping the peeping tradition alive. When Banana informs Okita that he once knew his father, the pair reach a kind of bond – but soon a series of events will dictate a very unusual outcome. Matters aren’t helped a great deal when a toy-collecting, trigger-happy assassin by the name of Wakagashi (Tatsuya Gashuin) is in hot pursuit, ready to unleash his arsenal on the unsuspecting runaways. You can be sure that at the Hotel New Mexico, nothing is quite how it seems.
Katsuhito Ishii – a graduate of television commercials and short animation – has but only a handful of feature films under his belt, but since his 1998 hit debut Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl (subsequently based upon the manga by Minetaro Mochizuki) he’s gone on to prove himself as a director who doesn’t bow easily to convention. The closest he’s ever come to making some sort of sense is with his aforementioned debut and his third feature Cha no Aji (The Taste of Tea), while as a writer his most accessible piece is without a doubt the equally mature teen angst comedy/drama Frog River (directed by Hajime Ishimine). These are films with some semblance of narrative flow, though true to form they exhibit Ishii’s natural flare for surreal visualis and cartoon-ish adventurism. Ishii’s very much a director with dozens of good ideas, pouring as many as he can into each outing by adopting his preferred method of vignette formatting, which often follows a non-linear path. In some cases it can tend to be his undoing, however, as he prioritizes oddball set-ups over sensible storytelling, which ultimately affects the pacing of his movies; it’s something which no matter how much of a fan you may be, seems to have only gotten more out of control over time. His most recent live-action work, Nice no Mori (First Contact/The Funky Forest) – an experiment stemming from Cha no Aji’s leftover budget it seems – being a staggeringly long 150 minutes’ worth of strange, incidental sketches, which simply have to be experienced, rather than discussed. This trait of his, then, tends to divide audiences by a substantial margin, and in all honesty I can see why. He’s a director for those with a lot of patience and an acquired taste in the bizarre.
Released in 2000, Party 7 – his second film – came out to fairly high expectations, with Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl having been one of the highest grossing films Japanese films of 1998. It didn’t do amazing numbers though; Tohokushinsha hurriedly got it out on DVD in the same year, after a limited theatrical release, and from there it’s garnered its own little cult reputation. It’s also one of Ishii’s more difficult pieces to assess. Much like the aforementioned Nice no Mori, Party 7 doesn’t get by so much on the set-up, but rather the interaction of its characters and a winding series of events that share loose connections. There’s a feeling deep down that his stories exhibit some kind of social context and have an emotional pull to them, though his efforts to touch upon humanity in general can prove to be all but fleeting excursions, whilst the desire to present cool and quirky characters is all-too-evident. Certainly in the case of Party 7 he often comes close to delivering bouts of poignancy, but he’s all too quick to hold himself back and not tackle a particular issue or a character’s place to any large degree, which is actually quite refreshing from a certain perspective. To be perfectly honest though, the only character he ever tries to flesh out here is that of Okita, whose unhealthy perversions form the basis for several lengthy transitions, consisting of childhood flashbacks and Captain Banana’s unruly attempts at justifying his actions. Whether or not it’s Ishii’s intent to open discussions regarding the voyeuristic society we seem to be living in today is something that only he seems to know about, but the darker undercurrents lining these moments certainly provide the basis for that thought. As it stands it’s more of an ambiguous plot device which allows the populated cast to eventually come together, whereby their own flaws are each brought to light during a maddening series of exchanges as they struggle to realize just what it is exactly that they’ve managed to walk into.
The story itself does follow a basic pattern: Miki steals money from a Yakuza boss, flees to a fledging hotel in the middle of nowhere, and is then chased down by the boss’s hit-men. Once there events escalate beyond unbelievable coincidence; panic sets in and we end up with an series of unlikely mishaps, fuelled by screeching voices. Ishii’s initial approach is pleasantly sedated, though soon we see the pacing issues start to form. For instance the opening act begins with a conversation between Kanji Tsuda’s pathological desk clerk and Yoshiyuki Morishita’s goofy bellboy about an urban legend concerning a poo that fell out of the sky and impacted a small rural village just out of town. It has no purpose other than to provide a comical payoff during the film’s closing credits – which admittedly is very funny. Following on from this is a fantastically animated opening sequence, which eventually settles down, and it soon becomes clear during the following couple of scenes that this is how Party 7 is going to remain: an inconsistently bumpy ride. Ishii’s sense of humour and pacing lacks all known restraint, with the director keeping scenes going for seemingly indefinite amounts of time, many lasting 5 minutes upward and with little cutting between, thus lending a freestyle attitude as if the film was winging it. It’s certainly admirable that at least Ishii can hold our attention and make us laugh over the most mundane of conversations and sudden character outbursts. Highlights include Captain Banana’s “Top Ten Peeps”, Miki and Morishita’s wig incident and the childish bickering between Kana, Miki, Todohira and Sonoda in such a confined space, but it only goes to showcase just how much of a mash-up things really are as it eventually approaches a manic finale, filled with much confusion and killer polar bears.
Yet most of Party 7 works considerably well on account of its fun and extremely colourful cast, many of whom are regular players in Ishii’s films. Notable exceptions are Yoshio Harada as the ‘eccentric’ Capt. B; Masatoshi Nagase – effortlessly cool once more and looking like he just stepped out of Mystery Train – and the gorgeous, pouting Akemi Kobayashi who actually has little to do other than provide the eye candy in what is her debut appearance. But if we’re going to make distinctions then it’s Keisuke Horibe, previously of SSM&PHG who steals the show as the hopelessly gullible and pitiable yakuza member, duped by his own boss, who has bestowed upon him nothing but the worst clothing and accessory knock-offs in all of Japan; while Tadanobu Asano continues to avoid being pigeonholed by taking on a rather risky role in what would be the film’s most tragic character.