Jam (2018) review [Camera Japan Festival]

Introduction

After approaching romance from the perspective of an angel in Chasuke’s journey (2015), exploring the notion of happiness psychologically in Happiness (2016), and highlighting the inescapability of our own past in Mr. Long (2017, Sabu returns to the kind of the narrative he is most known: a narrative fueled by the accidental encounter and the consequences, wanted and unwanted, these encounters causes.

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Review

When local Enka singer Hiroshi (Sho Aoyagi) leaves the concert-hall to return home, he is approached by one of his biggest fans Masako (Mariko Tsutsui). She urges him to drink the soup she made for him, not knowing he’s being drugged in the process.

After his release from prison, Tetsuo (Noboyuki Suzuki) decides to taking revenge on those yakuza who put him in jail. The havoc he causes turns him, as can be excepted, into a target for retribution.

While Takeru (Keita Machida), who beliefs that three good deeds will bring back his comatose girlfriend, has been a faithful practitioner of this belief for a while now, there has not been a single change in her condition. One day, the local kami tells him that his girlfriend will regain consciousness after three more good deeds.

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What immediately stands out in Sabu’s latest filmic creation is the fine structure by which his narrative unfolds. While those unfamiliar to Sabu’s oeuvre might think that Jam concerns three independent narrative threads with only some visual and vocal references to each another, this is, as can be expected from a Sabu-an narrative, not the case at all (Narra-note 1). The plot of Jam is born from the interweaving of the three narrative threads – Takeru’s girlfriend’s condition is, for example, directly linked with the reason of Tetsuo’s imprisonment and Hiroshi’s abduction is made possible by ‘three good-deeds a day’ Takeru. This interweaving also enables one, as a sort of side-effect, to experience the spatiality of the space in which the three narratives interweave in a continuous way (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2).

Another aspect worth mentioning about Jam’s narrative is the subtle caricatural flavour that marks  many of the characters. Nevertheless, due to the subtleness of these caricatures, Sabu succeeds in keeping his characters within the confines of realism and the framed interactions of our characters remain, to a certain extent, ‘true-to-life’. This caricatural flavour is most evident in Sabu’s depiction of the dynamic between Hiroshi and his fans, especially Masako. Not only in the way the fans interact with him, but also in the way that Hiroshi, even if his boredom shines through, is forced to please his fans as if he was a subtle seducer (Narra-note 2). As this caricatural dimension empowers the situational comedy of the narrative, it should not come as a surprise that the most effective moments of comedy are to be found in Hiroshi and Masako’s interactions.

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The first theme that governs Sabu’s narrative concerns the impact of the imaginary dimension on the way we interact with others. In Masako’s narrative of extreme fandom and obsessive love, this theme is made present by the tragi-comic dimension of imaginary competition. Masako’s desire to have Hiroshi write a special song for her is not only born from her obsession but from the very imaginary competition – a competition to be publicly acknowledged as his biggest fan – she (mentally) installed between her and another fan. Hiroshi becomes victim of a competition he as subject has no role in – he is abused as image, as the Enka-singer(-image) he embodies.

In Takeru’s narrative – a narrative marked by some melodrama, the dimension of the imaginary is to be found in his blindness for the other’s intentions. It does not take long for the spectator to realize – contrary to Takeru – that his desire to do good often benefits those who intend to do bad. This aspect beautifully underlines that each act we perform has consequences beyond our control, precisely due to our failure to question the image – the face that hide the true intentions – the other projects towards us.

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Last but not least, Tetsuo’s gritty and violent path of revenge illustrates that the kind of violence born from imaginary conflict can never escape the dynamic the imaginary imposes. This kind of ‘senseless’ violence, violence that evades symbolic mediation, can only escalate until one or the other meets his death. The fact that Tetsuo becomes somewhat paranoiac – fearing retribution of the yakuza he attacked –  further underlines the destructive truth of the dynamic of violent revenge.

The above-mentioned theme of the imaginary is only able to be expressed due to Sabu’s focus on the encounter. The notion of the encounter, which also animates the structure of the narrative, reveals the second theme of Jam: the theme of coincidence. Jam is a prime illustration of how coincidental encounters and certain choices radically changes our and, beyond our control, another person’s life’s path. For those familiar with Sabu’s oeuvre will know that he already approached this theme in earlier narratives, like Dangan Runner (1996) for instance. But contrary to Sabu’s Dangan Runner, Jam is not able to use the element of life-changing encounters to deliver a deep and powerful societal commentary. Jam fails to unite its reflections on crazy fandom, deathly vengeance, and good deeds into a powerful statement about the problematic dimension of the imaginary (Theme-note 1).

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Nevertheless, even without such powerful commentary, Jam is a fun and exhilarating experience, due to the masterful way in which Sabu blended various genres – comedy, action, melodrama, and even a pinch of thriller/horror – into a narrative whole. Even though the narrative build-up might be slow for some, the finale of Jam does not fail at satisfying the spectator’s thirst for drama, action, tension and visual absurdity.

What stands out in the cinematography of Sabu’s Jam is the effective way in which tension is engendered. While tension in action-focused sequences is mainly born from the fast-paced snappy compositions and the crude tremble that marks the dynamic frame, the tension in more thriller-like sequences originates from the subtle musical accompaniment (Cine-note 3).

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If one looks closer at the general style of the cinematography, one has to conclude that Sabu does not radically change his style over the course of the narrative. Beyond the sporadic use of a trembling frame and more snappier compositions, the framing of Jam remains characterized by fluidity throughout its entire run-time. This cinematographical fluidity is mainly born from Sabu’s  dependency on cinematographical movement – spatial movement as well as following movement (Cine-note 4). While moments of fixity are, of course, present, Sabu often prefers giving his shots a subtle spatial movement.

That one can extract such an enjoyment from Sabu’s narrative is also made possible from the fitting acting-performances. While each performance supports the genre-blend in its own way, Jam benefits the most by how Mariko Tsutui brings Masako to life. While Masako, as character, could have easily become a silly presence in the narrative space, Tsutui’s performance, a performance perfectly balancing the scary and the comical, turns Masako in the most compelling character of the whole narrative.

Sabu’s Jam is, when all is said and done, a very enjoyable experience. This is not only due to the fitting performances of the cast, but also because of the compelling narrative structure – a structure organized around the notion of the encounter – and finely balanced genre-mix that Sabu created. While Jam does lack some thematical punch, Sabu’s splendidly structured genre-mix will surely please his fans as well as charm those who are new to his oeuvre.

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Notes

Narra-note 1: One example of a visual reference is when Tetsuo slips into the Hiroshi’s narrative. An example of a speech-reference is found in Tetsuo’s narrative, where a yakuza, a few moments before he is attacked by Tetsuo, expresses his plans to steal a ring at Hiroshi’s next concert. The execution of this plan will eventually be made possible by a good deed by Takeru.

Narra-note 2:  One could even contend that this dimension in present in the contrast Hiroshi evokes between his dream to make it big and his reality of only being popular with the middle-aged housewives from the neighborhood.

Theme-note 1: Attentive readers might have realized that Sabu’s commentary of maleness is also grounded in the imaginary.

Cine-note 1: When we use the signifier ‘continuous’, we do not only mean that the space where the action takes place is experienced as a whole, but that the three narratives set in this space are experienced as taking place at the same time.

Cine-note 2: The use of flash-backs to explore Takeru’s past does not disturb the continuous nature of the narrative space. In truth, it is only by way of these flashbacks, that the link between Takeru’s and Tetsuo’s narrative is established.

Cine-note 3: The opening sequence as well as the ending sequence of the narrative uses both musical accompaniment as cinematographical dynamism to engender tension.

Cine-note 4: While there is an abundance of cinematographical movement in these character-driven moments, the movement is fluid and far more subtle.

 

 

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