332. SURVIVE STYLE 5+ (2004)

“What is your function here?”–Hitman, Survive Style 5+

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Gen Sekiguchi

FEATURING: , Ittoku Kishibe, Vinnie Jones, Kyôko Koizumi, Yoshiyuki Morishita, Jai West, Reika Hashimoto, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa, Hiroshi Abe

PLOT: A man has killed his wife, but she won’t stay dead. In an initially unrelated story, a foul-mouthed, short-tempered English hitman with a translator in tow is expanding his operations into Japan. Their plotlines intersect with those of a middle-class father who has a disaster with a celebrity hypnotist, trio of teenage burglars, and an ad exec whose absurd commercial ideas amuse only herself.

BACKGROUND:

  • This is Gen Sekiguchi’s only feature film. He has also produced two short films and an entry in the 2011 anthology film Quirky Guys and Girls. He comes from an advertising and music video background, where he collaborates with screenwriter Taku Tada. The pair won the advertising award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.
  • Survive Style 5+ received little distribution (it garnered zero reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and has never been released on DVD in North America), but word of mouth on the Internet has made it into an underseen cult hit.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: One character flying away on another, to the tune of “I Will Survive.” (Sure, fans already familiar with the movie may complain that this pick is a spoiler—but the new viewer will have trouble figuring out how things get to this point, right up until the very end.)

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Assassin with translator; pop as a microwave turkey; flying away

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Survive Style 5+ interweaves five stories–variously comic, absurd, supernatural, campy, and/or bizarre–including a series of surreal commercials imagined by one of the many oddball characters. It’s polished and stylish, yet consistently wild and unpredictable; an underground cult film that’s survived years of subpar distribution through enthusiastic word of mouth, and is just waiting to take off into the stratosphere.


Brief clip from Survive Style 5+

COMMENTS: Survive Style 5+‘s most memorable scene may be the introduction of Vinnie Jones’ nameless Cockney hitman. He is about to arrive in Tokyo on an “Angel Atlantic Air” flight (a fictional airline notted for its Pepto-Bismal-pink cabins) when the attendant asks him to raise his seat back, a request conveyed to him by his translator (smartly dressed in a yellow plaid jacket and matching tie). An annoyed Jones complies, but then calls out to the attendant “Oi! Come back here!” When she complies, he asks her “What is your function here?” She gives him her job title, but he angrily objects, “That’s not what I mean. What is your purpose for living?” She is naturally taken aback by this line of questioning, and as she attempts to come up with an answer, Jones grows more insistent. The translator barks out followup instructions to the increasingly flustered woman. This query becomes Jones’ trademark, and the wrong answer usually ends up badly for the interrogee. But is there any answer that can satisfy such an open-ended question? (One character does supply an answer acceptable to the killer, though I won’t spoil the correct response.)

It’s obvious that this is no ordinary hitman, just as this is no ordinary movie. Jones’ character, a chaotic outsider storming into the already unsteady lives of a number of Japanese oddballs, is the catalyst for three of the other stories, setting one major plotline into motion and resolving two others. Although each of the stories impacts the others, one does not fit together perfectly. Yoko, the advertising executive, plays an important role in the story of Mr. Kobayashi, the salaryman who undergoes a hypnotism-based identity crisis. But besides that, her plotline exists to one side of the others, operating mainly as an excuse for a series of interstitial gags based on her absurd ideas for ad campaigns (including a bit with a two-faced man with a rotating head who quarrels with himself). These ideas crack her up, but have little to nothing to do with the sponsored products, and impress no one else. Since the writer/director team come from the advertising world, Yoko likely expresses their own frustration with the need to bend their creative wills to the requirements of their wealthy corporate patrons. Her presence helps explain the free-wheeling, “no reason” nature of the project before us. Survive Style 5+ is the authors’ opportunity to cut loose without having to answer to the moneymen’s demands for a practical purpose. Like Yoko, they’re only out to please themselves here.

The script flips back and forth between the five stories, gradually revealing connections; but the individual set pieces work in isolation, each constructed as a standalone wonder. Here again we see the virtues of the filmmakers’ commercial training—they’re used to delivering catchy entertainment in bite-sized morsels. There are many weird details here to soak up: Morishita‘s astoundingly nasty teeth. The surreally large banquet the dead wife serves her husband on her first night back from the grave. The hypnotist’s stage show, which for some reason includes a musical prelude about a rabbit, not to mention the tiger’s head affixed to his crotch. Martial arts legend Sonny Chiba in a funny cameo as CEO of a headache tablet concern. An elementary school teacher who criticizes her student’s artwork as “too normal.” The schoolgirl attacked by crows. The picture frame that animates when thrown. Ittoku Kishibe imagining himself in the microwave. The filmmakers mix these micropleasures with the macropleasure of seeing the plotlines all converge into a satisfying whole, keeping us continually entertained on multiple levels.

The technical qualities of the film are advanced for a first feature. The acting is ace all around: cult movie staple Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer) is movingly stoic, Ittoku Kishibe performs most of his role in a post-hypnotic trance, Kyôko Koizumi cracks herself up, and Vinnie Jones lets loose with a hilarious stream of invective which (thanks to his dedicated and spiffy translator) is equally funny no matter which side of the language barrier you’re on. The set design, an updated pop-art fantasia, deserves special mention. Asano’s home is a marvel: a cubist door, a mustard entryway covered in painted flowers, geometric floors, bas relief sculptures, a freestanding staircase, a freestanding staircase, and artwork on every wall. We know nothing about his character’s occupation or backstory, but in the movie’s cracked universe, it seems perfect that he lives in a modern art museum. Similar extravagance is seen in Yoko’s Alice-in-Wonderland themed flat (complete with giant stuffed rabbit), the burglars’ cluttered stoner van strung with love beads, and the hypnotist’s storybook stage show. Creative use of Western-style rock music adds to the spectacle. An energetic punk number titled “Go Go Go” cuts between scenes of Asano taking a beating from his revenant wife and a suburban family headbanging together in the car. And the finale, as memorable as it is on its own, soars higher thanks to the accompaniment of Cake’s alt-rock cover of Gloria Gaynor’s disco hit “I Will Survive.”

How does one explain Survive Style 5+? It has no deep themes. It’s primarily a comedy. The jokes are sometimes obvious (a foreign hitman who requires a translator to deliver his threats), but sometimes completely absurd (said threats are based on an existential premise). The most important and detailed story, of the man whose wife won’t stay dead, contains horror and action elements, and culminates with an ironic twist of surprisingly deep pathos. The completed film is a tour de force of plotting, although it contains elements that don’t fit in at all (like the two schoolgirls whose diner conversations we return to again and again). The sets and musical interludes supply the style element of the title. Survive Style 5+ is all over the place, but the chaos is tightly controlled; like a roller coaster, you don’t notice the rails when you’re plummeting on a dizzying dip or sailing through the air upside down. What is this movie’s function? When Yoko presents yet another of her absurdist commercials to a corporate board, an executive objects that “Customers won’t understand the functionality of our product.” Yoko confidently brushes off his concerns: “Commercials must be entertaining, or else no one will watch.” That is as good an answer as you’ll get. Survive Style 5+‘s function appears to be solely to entertain, and that’s good enough for us.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Imagine a child’s playhouse envisioned by an art director tripping on acid and the general effect of ‘Survive Style 5+’ becomes all too clear…. all fluorescent style and no substance. Strictly for the most ADD-addled video consumers.”–Jay Weissberg, Variety (contemporaneous)

“Maybe not the most substantial, artistic or coherent of the 200-odd features shown at this winter’s Rotterdam Film Festival – but surely the most purely, wildly, deliriously enjoyable… [a] non-stop pop-surrealistic spectacular…”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (festival screening)

“Survive Style 5+ is a wacky film and for some it may be a little bit too random at times. But even then there is always something that catches the eye… The film never drags and the finale is simply perfect, however weird it may be.”–Niels Matthijs, Screen Anarchy (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Survive Style 5+ (2004)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Survive Style 5+ and the Ethics of Creative Advertising – Academic paper from January 2017 issue of Postmodern Culture (subscription required)

HOME VIDEO INFO: Survive Style 5+‘s home video situation is almost as confusing as its plot. I recommend you simply visit this link and search for a version to meet your needs. At the time of this writing, the Geneon release (see below) seems to be the only option. Survive Style 5+  has never been offered on Region 1, so North Americans will (probably) need an all-region player to view it. I watched an Australian Region 4 edition from Eastern Eye that is now unavailable, only a couple of months after I ordered it. The audiovisual quality is fine to my undiscriminating eye, but the disc comes with no extra features other than trailers for this and other Eastern Eye releases. The two major releases of the film seem to be Japan’s Geneon release and the UK’s Magna edition. Unlike the Australian DVD, both contain extras: Magna has a 28-minute “making of” featurette, while the Geneon release comes with an entire disc of supplementary material, including deleted scenes and examples of Sekiguchi’s commercials. Unfortunately, it seems that none of the supplements are subtitled into English. A substantive comparison of these two releases can be found at DVD Active. In addition, I have seen an all-regions disc advertised, but like so many other editions, it is out-of-stock as I write—but who knows what the situation will be when you read this?

Survive Style 5+ is not currently available for streaming,  rental/purchase on-demand, or on Blu-ray. This situation really needs to be rectified, because this is a minor cult classic waiting to be discovered by a wider audience.

(This movie was nominated for review by multiple readers, including  “Mike” who rhapsodized, “despite all the weirdness and disparity, the whole thing comes together in an ending that can only be described as poetic!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “332. SURVIVE STYLE 5+ (2004)”

  1. Well, you’ve made this 366’er very, very happy.

    I am curious: given that this film has no North American release, (a) how did you see it, and (b) what separates this film from other releases that you deem as ineligible because of their lack of availability?

    1. (a) Reread the “home video” segment and you’ll see I watched an Australian release that has since become unavailable. (b) Nothing is technically ineligible because of lack of availability, but we delay the review and prioritize others in case there is a release. It has happened before (The Reflecting Skin comes to mind) that we reviewed something that was only available on VHS, and then a few months later a special edition came out.

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