Shugo Fujii has never disappointed us. With Red Line Crossing (2017) he delivered one of the most powerful pleas for more serious attention to mental health in Japanese society and with his Mimicry Freaks (2019) he enthralled the spectators with a gripping exploration of the cycle of abuse and the horrors child-abuse quite often lead to. Can his latest film, Frantic (2021), thrill us in an equal manner? Find out in our review.
One day, during an audition, the ambitious Sho Oyamada (Takahiro Ochi) is forced to give his interpretation of a weak-willed person, a personality that does not suit his acting-style. Before leaving the audition room, he passionately asks the director if he could try again by doing a different role. Yet rather than taking his ambition seriously, the director plays him for a fool.
Tatsuji Sugiyama (Toshiki Kudo), actor and part-time convenience store worker, is continuously pestered by his father to get a real job, but he is not ready yet to give up his seemingly unattainable dream. Yasu Kawamoto (Rei Yamashita), Tatsuji’s friend and fan, dreams of shining on the stage together.
One night, while drinking, the somewhat dorky Koichi Hamaguchi (Mochizuki), actor/youtuber, proposes to his friends to make a film to gain exposure. Sho retorts that they don’t have any money, while Tatsuji desires to do another play. The same night, Sho and Tatsuji has a run-in with the Mitsutake family and are burdened with a debt of 1,500,000 yen. To get their money back as soon as possible, the yakuza force Tatsuji into doing a scam job for them. Luckily, the money he is set to gain allows him to organize a stage-play and a film at the same time.
Frantic is a narrative that succeeds to explore, in a fresh and quite exhilarating fashion, the rather obsessional wish to attain one’s dream – i.e. the dream to make it as an professional actor as well the more fundamental desire that hides behind such wish, i.e. the desire to be loved. All the bloody drama and criminal impulses of Frantic are, in truth, born from the inextinguishable desire to be recognized, to be loved.
Even though the desire to be loved marks most main characters in some way or another, the subjective impact of such desire is most clearly exploring in Tatsuji’s trajectory. As evoked in the beginning of the narrative, Tatsuji is subjected to the weight of his father’s signifiers, signifiers echoing the societal expectancies residing in the Other. Yet, it is not simply the reverberation of the signifiers of the Other that causes his existential crisis and his failed suicidal acting-out. The echo of the Other only attains this power because Tatsuji’s failures to make it as a professional actor and his unfortunate encounters with organized crime give his father’s signifiers a seemingly unescapable truthfulness.
What calms Tatsuji’s existential crisis somewhat is nothing other than the dimension of romantically desiring a female subject. This state of being-in-love with his co-worker Yukino (Ayaka Yamakami) fuels his passion for acting and film, but Fuji beautifully underlines that this sudden burst passion also has a darker and more fatalistic side. The lashing out of his romantic desire is, in this sense, not only an attempt to avoid a fall into the deathly abyss, but also a leap of faith that puts his own existence in the hands of his possible romantic success. Is it this intermingling of a frustrated desire to be loved and a subjective acceptance of the existential command ‘perform or die!’ that compels him to take the audience hostage after one of its actors has been murdered?
The composition of Frantic stands out due to its dynamism. To visualize his story, Fujii utilizes a rich variety of handy-cam-style dynamic and static shots, and, in some cases, he even blends cinematographical decorations like slow-motion, re-winding, and split-screen moments into his energetic visual cocktail (Cine-note 1,). Fujii’s thoughtful use of the cut gives Frantic a pleasing pace and, in some cases, an even frantic rhythm (Cine-note 2). Moreover, those moments where the composition attains a frantic visual rhythm give the narrative at times a subtle impressionistic flavour.
Yet, the rhythm of Frantic is not only function of Fujii’s energetic style of composing, but also of the musical elements that accompany his visuals. The visual rhythm is, in other words, fully supported by the musical accompaniment as well as by the musical decorations, e.g. Suzu bells. Beyond ensuring that the narrative has an engaging pace, both elements are also instrumental in infusing a certain emotionality or heightening the tension whenever the narrative asks for it.
What allows Frantic to become such an engaging narrative is its narrative structure. Yet, the beauty of this structure is not simply due to the fluid shifts between present and past, with the unfolding of the past slowly solving the mysteries lingering in the present, but the natural and visual way by which Fujii emphasizes the ‘riddles’ in the present and introduces cliff-hanger-like moments (Narra-note 1). It is this style of visual emphasizing that keeps the spectator alert and captivates him from start to finish. The finale, for that matter, thrills the spectator with its twists and turns and succeeds to deliver an emotional punch in the gut.
With Frantic, Fujii delivers his best movie yet and, quite possibly, the cult-film of the year. Even though Fujii is not able to fully hide the low-budget nature of his narrative, the marriage of his exquisite narrative structure with his effective dynamic composition engages the spectator from start to finish and delivers a powerful confrontation with how close desiring to be loved is to descending into madness.
Cine-note 1: Fuji also succeeds integrating zoom-outs and zoom-ins naturally into his composition.
Cine-note 2: Some spectators might feel that Fuji sometimes utilizes the cut too much. Yet rather than being a sign of bad editing, the jarring effect this cutting often causes is a stylistic choice.
Narra-note 1: Despite being engaging throughout, Fuji is not able to tie up all its loose ends of his narrative in a satisfactory fashion.