Wonderful Paradise (2020) review [Nippon Connection 2021]

Introduction

While Masashi Yamamoto might not be a name that rings a bell with many film-lovers, he has, since the eighties, created a small oeuvre with some peculiar and interesting narratives (e.g. Robinson’s Garden (1987), Junkfood (1995)). Now, six years after his last film, The Voice of Water (2014), he brings us Wonderful Paradise, a narrative inspired by Project X.

Review

The Sasaya family has almost finished the preparations for moving out. Shuji (Seiko Ito), the father,wanders around the big mansion and finds a photo-album reminding him of better times. His son, Yuta (Soran Tamoto), who is in the garden, tries to pat the stray cat they ‘adopted’ and interacts with the intruding homeless ‘monk’ praying to the Greek-styled statue in the garden. Yuta harbours some animosity towards his father for never being that much at home. 

Akane (Miyu Ogawa), his daughter, is also very frustrated with her grumpy father. It is, after all, due to his mistake that everything went wrong and that they need to leave the house. As a kind of acting-out, she posts “Let’s have a party today at my place. Anyone is welcome!!” on twitter. Little does she know that her post will become viral.   

Wonderful Paradise (2020) by Masashi Yamamoto

Wonderful Paradise is, as strange as it may sound, a narrative about (broken) familial relations. In the opening moments of the narrative, before the party gets going, the position of each person within the family is revealed. Shuji, the father, is nothing more than a castrated father, a father robbed of this symbolic status and deprived of the imaginary fantasies that his children clothed him with in the past, fantasies that would imbue him with a sense of fatherly worth. Can he proof his fatherly worth at the party, or will he gamble his last change of redemption for his children away?

The position of the mother Akiko (Kaho Minami) is also problematic. While Yuta, the son, still regards this woman who left them as his mother – he can still call her ‘ka-san’, Akane interpreted her departure for another man as a radical betrayal of her motherly position, an act by which she surrendered her right to be called ‘mother’. Can Akane, as the party unfolds, re-find her will to call this woman her mother again? Shuij, in this respect, sees his former wife as the ‘destroyer’ of what he once considered his family.

Wonderful Paradise (2020) by Masashi Yamamoto

Yuta is marked by clingy faithfulness towards his mother, a clinginess that dictates his own subjective logic. He is, in fact, somewhat of a hermit, refusing to go out in society and work – he is, in other words, a NEET. It is thus not surprising that he fails to engage with the crowd of people at the party and remains rather stuck on the sidelines. There is a mental barrier he has trouble to cross. Even if ‘society’ comes to him, his fantasmatic fixation on his mother and the familial unit hinders him in interacting with unknown others without any restraints. Yet, a chance to assume a functional role within society might be lurking around the corner. 

Yet even though the tensions between the family members form the backbones of the narrative, the actual focus of the narrative is the birth and growth of Akane’s party. What starts as an intimate wedding celebration quickly transforms into a middle sized matsuri-like event, a trippy unrehearsed Buddhist funeral, and a bloody marriage. This party is, furthermore, full of crazy and absurd events, ranging from pink children’s puke, crossdressing queers, rude and violently biting aunts, funky marijuana growing squatters, fantastical transformations, talking pets, suddenly established coffee-shops, to ‘dead’ bodies and spirits, a bunch of gambling Yakuza, kaiju-like monsters, murder-attempts, extramarital affairs, and prophet-like re-births.

Wonderful Paradise (2020) by Masashi Yamamoto

Yet, for Yamamoto, this goody crazy narrative mix was not good enough, as he further spices Wonderful Paradise up with a Bollywood-inspired musical sequence, a traditional ‘matsuri’ Enka performance, lots of sex, and a climax that is as nail biting as it is absurd. Yamamoto’s narrative is, despite the accumulation of absurdity, far from a traditional (Japanese) comedy. Rather, it is a lighthearted experiment of how much absurdity one can put within the narrative without destroying its consistency.    

The composition of Wonderful Paradise starts out as a rather straightforward static affair with some dynamic moments thrown into the mix – dynamic moments that are either fluid or marked by a certain shakiness (Cine-Note 1). Yet, as the party becomes bigger and more festive, the composition becomes somewhat more dynamic – utilizing more fluid spatial and tracking moments and floating fixed moments. This subtle shift to more compositional dynamism is also signaled by the samba-like and rhythmical party music.  

Wonderful Paradise (2020) by Masashi Yamamoto

Yet, the composition does not embrace the absurdness of the narrative to the fullest. While framing certain moments with a deadpan straightforwardness has its comical uses, more absurdity in the framing would have strengthened the absurdity and heightened the ability for the spectator to deliciously consume this unbelievable narrative cocktail. The failure to do so – the failure to add the ‘secret’ ingredient that would give the absurdness is true impact, ultimately turns Wonderful Paradise into an experience that is not able to fully satisfy the spectator.   

Wonderful Paradise is an entertaining and highly unpredictable ride. Yet, the failure to mirror the absurdness of the narrative with a supportive absurdness in the composition ultimately turns this otherwise innovative family dramedy into an experience that is unable to fully satisfy the spectator. Yamamoto’s Wonderful Paradise is a great experiment of the absurd, but its full potential to satisfy the spectator is hindered by its somewhat lackluster composition.  

Notes

Cine-note 1: As can be expected, the shakiness is mostly reserved for the dynamically framed ‘violent’ sequences, those sequences where two or more characters get into a fight.   

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