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by Jay Seaver

"Psychological sci-fi premise #31, done well enough to be interesting."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Kiyoshi Kurosawa has gotten even more interesting in the past few years, after stepping away from horror to do 2008's drama "Tokyo Sonata", then immersing himself in teaching before doing a television series, a short feature that's probably as much record promo as stand-alone project, and this bit of science fiction. The interesting thing here is that this is still very much the work of a guy who knows how to scare you, making a pretty straight line between slick futurism and a contemporary world becoming more and more strange.

The science fictional elements are an old standby, an apparatus that one person can use to enter the dreams of another, in this case husband Koichi Fujita (Takeru Sato) trying to reach his wife Atsumi Kazu (Haruka Ayase), who has been comatose since a suicide attempt one year ago. He finds her constantly revising the horror manga she's drawing, saying she could finish and leave the apartment if he could just find a picture of a plesiosaur she drew in fourth grade. He searches for it outside her dream environment, first finding an unpublished comic and then following that to Hikone island where she grew up (and he spent that fourth-grade year), where a buried memory awaits.

The material itself isn't necessarily the most creative - technology to get inside the heads of coma patients is a classic bit of sci-fi - but Kurosawa and his co-writers (and original novelist Rokuro Inui) come up with neat details, such as "philosophical zombies" and jumbled-up dreams. His particular genre-film background comes in especially handy here, as it's no particular surprise when the subconscious mind of someone who writes and illustrates horror stories for a living contains zombies of a non-philosophical bent and other monsters, but beyond that, Kurosawa has always been one whose movies played on the idea of a world where things suddenly don't make sense, perfect for this sort of movie. He's also accomplished enough to pull off an impressively constructed "how'd they do that" scene where Koichi and Atsumi walk into fog in one location and out in another despite it being a single tracking shot.

The main cast of Takeru Sato and Haruka Ayase is decent, even if both spend much of the movie restrained, not realizing it's a dream or afraid to break the spell lest it do some damage. They're good, just a bit mannered with little but short bursts of intensity until toward the end, when they do become more engrossing to match the material. They're surrounded by a fine supporting group, though, including Miki Nakatani and Keisuke Horibe at the hospital as well as Joe Odagiri and Shota Sometani in the manga magazine's office.

Yutaka Matsushige has a memorable spot as Atsumi's father, though, and when the film shifts to Hikone, it takes on a special extra level of eeriness, with the island a strange combination of beauty and decay, a memorable setting that the film could have perhaps benefited from getting to sooner, both for how it contrasts with the city-bound settings and calls forth a fascinatingly dystopian result of poorly-planned development that seems like it could be the basis for a movie on its own.

On a couple levels, though, I kind of wish Kurosawa & company had quit while they were ahead. One plot twist seems almost obligatory by now, and in a movie where you're often learning about characters through symbols and analogs, it's disruptive to diminishing returns. Speaking of symbols, I love that we're at a spot in moviemaking right now where Kurosawa can use a plesiosaur rampaging as a big, destructive metaphor, and I wouldn't want it gone, but given that the scene is taking place inside a character's head, I'm not sure it represents exactly what it's used for. In both cases, we're not really getting inside someone's head, but getting an impression of what someone else thinks is inside someone's head.

It's an interesting change of pace for an interesting filmmaker, and even when it doesn't quite measure up, the sense tends to be that Kurosawa should keep exploring these new areas. His next few films should also see him leaving the horror box, and "Real" certainly indicates that he can thrive out there.

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originally posted: 09/15/14 13:48:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Written by
  Kiyoshi Kurosawa
  Sachiko Tanaka

  Takeru Sato
  Haruka Ayase
  Joe Odagiri
  Miki Natakani

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