After stealing the contents of a locker from a local gang member, Diakoku makes the discovery that he now holds the hard drive containing the information regarding the birthrights to Japan’s homeless population. A valuable commodity that makes Diakoku the primary target for a lot of people. Unable to escape the city, Diakoku has a violent run in with Boss Kan Senju that results in Diakoku being left for dead. After being saved by Nanmu, Diakoku decides he will take revenge against Senju and reclaim what was once his.
Sogo Ishii is one of those filmmakers that I feel doesn’t get the proper credit that he deserves. Yes, he has a dedicated (international) following and some of his films are more recognized than Ishii is himself (i.e., “Burst City”). However, with a career that spans nearly 40 years, it’s odd that he still exists more on the fringe of cinema. Is it perhaps because he was surpassed by some of his peers, like Shinya Tsukamoto? Or is it because of his willingness to constantly venture into new territory in terms of style and story?
While I am a fan of Sogo Ishii’s work (regardless of the fact that I still call him Sogo Ishii instead of Gakuryū Ishii — but that has more to do with the fact that I can never remember how to spell Gakuryū), even I don’t give him enough credit. Granted not everything he has made has been a hit — there are a few titles in his filmography that I don’t care for — but when he hits the mark with a film he really hits it. Something I’m reminded of when I watch movies like “Crazy Family” or “Mirrored Mind”. So I was ridiculously excited that the release of Sogo Ishii’s latest movie, “That’s It”, was available to buy…with English subtitles!
Perhaps I was a bit too excited. While I write this review I have press access to the Fantasia Film Festival — an incredible opportunity. Yet all of the amazing films available at the festival took a back seat to “That’s It” when I found it in my mailbox. When I initially dove into “That’s It”, I didn’t even know what the film’s premise was. Actually, I didn’t know anything about the movie. All I knew is that it was a new Sogo Ishii movie and that I wanted to watch it. That’s it. That’s all I needed, but by the end of the movie, I was left with bitter disappointment.
That initial excitement seemed validated because those first 15-minutes just grab ahold of you: fast pace, high energy, Sogo Ishii’s signature running shots. The movie slows down after that intense opening, which is fine, and I was glad to see it slow down since I was hoping “That’s It” would meld his punk and psychedelic styles together. However, the movie gradually became even slower, and the more the story was expanded upon, a sinking feeling began to set in — “That’s It” started to feel less and less like a Sogo Ishii movie.
This was a familiar viewing situation that I found myself in before with Toshiaki Toyoda (another Japanese filmmaker I admire) and his venture into mainstream pop-culture cinema with “Crows Explode”. A filmmaker’s unique style is sacrificed in order to take an existing property and adapt it into something that’s more accessible to both new and established audiences. A director such as Takashi Miike excels with those projects, then there are those like Toyoda and Ishii who are better off at handling their own personal work.
And with having little knowledge of “That’s It”, I began to suspect that maybe this film as a live-action version of a manga or something to that effect. The fact that the DVD release comes with a copy of the manga that’s used in the movie aided in what I thought was wrong with “That’s It”. The longer that the movie went on, the more I began to realize that the idea that this was an adaptation wasn’t the issue. I was witnessing the general problem that holds Sogo Ishii back — his willingness to experiment but without an end goal.
As I said, the opening to “That’s It” is phenomenal. It effectively displays key features in Ishii’s style of telling a story through an intense filmmaking form. Of course an entire movie cannot be built out of that but it initially seemed as if there was going to be an interesting story that centers around “ghosts” — children being abandoned who then become homeless teenagers/adults without an identity. A great concept for someone like Sogo Ishii. The story continues to evolve and change during the runtime and “That’s It” goes from a piece about unwanted, displaced youth to some bizarre over-the-top story about subordinates in a gang trying to overthrow the cartoonish villain that controls them.
And you can have a story that continues to change as it progresses but the problem with “That’s It” is that it doesn’t feel like a natural progression. It feels like the movie resets itself. Granted the inexplicable change from sepia tone to full color didn’t help the matter any, but it feels as though the story changes completely. The character’s traits stay the same but their purpose doesn’t. Actually, I don’t know what any of the characters were trying to accomplish. Our main character, Samao Diakoku (Shota Sometani) steals the contents from a locker (for some reason) and finds a hard drive that contains the birthrights for a number of homeless people. The movie indirectly hints at the fact that Diakoku is going to use this information to find his father so he can kill him. Fine, that’s easy enough. But all of that is muddled when Diakoku starts fighting against the gang leader, Boss Kan Senju (Gou Ayano). Is Diakoku part of Senju’s gang? No idea. However, the plot soon turns into Diakoku deciding he has to kill Senju, partially for revenge, but mostly so he and Ami Nanmu (Erina Mizuno) can escape and live the life they want. Okay, that’s also fine. The movie sets up why Diakoku wants revenge against Senju but it never goes into why killing this person will fix everything. Not only that but the hard drive sub plot is completely ignored in the second half. Turning it into nothing more than a McGuffin and making you feel like your time was wasted on a plot line that didn’t matter.
Amongst the shifting plots and motivations it also seems like there’s a contradiction in tone. There’s a great deal of real world implications and meaning that you can derive from the idea of these forgotten people are trying to get ahold of something that would give them an identity. Something that would allow them to integrate back into the society that rejected them, instead of being left in the gutter to be ignored. But you lose that to the overlapping story of Daikoku and Nanmu taking on an extremely powerful gang. Out main characters fighting for freedom would have made for a fine story, had the plot been streamlined and it built up to the climax. Unfortunately, when the end of the movie hits, and you have Daikoku and Nanmu shooting up the gang’s headquarters, it is done in such a lifeless manner. Not only is the ending anti-climatic but it takes on a completely different style and starts taking on over-the-top cartoonish like quality.
“That’s It” has a lot of problems but it’s not all bad. There are some parts of the movie that I genuinely loved; the cinematography is fantastic (for the most part), a punk band is used to create an effective score, and it has energy to it. It’s just unfortunate that the movie, as a whole, feels disconnected. The movie is constantly shifting in unnatural ways, characters are superficial, there’s a complete lack of emotion in the ending, you don’t know what the stakes are in the story, but worst of all, the movie slowly loses all sense that this is a Sogo Ishii movie.
I wasn’t a fan of Sogo Ishii’s last movie, “Isn’t Anyone Alive?”, either but it wasn’t a bad movie. Just a little flat is all. I had an overwhelming feeling of disappointment with “That’s It”. Partially because the movie has an amazing and solid opening but then the film slowly deteriorates over time and it loses that Sogo Ishii distinction in the work. There are little moments that remind you who’s behind the camera but there’s a lack of personality to this movie. What makes it feel worse is that the personality and the defining traits are there, strongly, in the beginning, but by the end, there's nothing.
At the same time, I can’t ignore the fact that I’m also being overly critical of the movie due the excitement that I had going into it but only having disappointment by the end. Even while writing this review I still haven’t removed enough of my own emotional involvement to properly assess the film with complete objectivity.
Part of me wants to say “That’s It” is a bad movie, but if I’m being completely honesty, I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate because it is still watchable and enjoyable to a certain extent. At the very least, calling it a bad movie would be a disservice to the parts of the movie that are well done. I think the best way to describe “That’s It” would be to call it flawed. It might even be Sogo Ishii’s most flawed movie. The reason I say that is you can look at his other movies, like “Burst City” or “Isn’t Anyone Alive?”, which both have problems, but they have cohesive direction which is what “That’s It” lacks the most. “Electric Dragon 80,000v” is probably the most comparable to “That’s It” and the reason that movie worked is because, while the characters were simple, they were well defined. And the way in which “Electric Dragon” was made is reflected in the tone and style of the movie. Where as “That’s It” comes across as if Sogo Ishii was unsure of what to do with the material and was trying to figure it out as he went along making it.
Which, in a way, breaks my heart to say because I am a fan of his and I do think it’s a shame that his work still exists more on the fringe than someone like Shinya Tsukamoto. However, after watching “That’s It”, I understand a bit more as to why that is. While it is admirable that Sogo Ishii is never one to settle; he continues to take chances and is willing to still experiment this late in his career. That attitude is also a detriment. While Sogo Ishii was trying something new, you had someone like Tsukamoto honing his style — establishing his voice. When you watch a Tsukamoto movie, you know you are watching Tsukamoto movie even when the concepts between movies are vastly different from one another. While Sogo Ishii does have certain style choices that are uniquely his, when you watch his movies, you don’t always hear his voice in the work. That much is apparent with “That’s It”.