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Ulises [Celluloid 11.12.08] movie review

Year: 2005
DVD Release date: November 18 2008
Director: Minoru Kawasaki
Writers: Minoru Kawasaki / Masakazu Migita
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Amazon: Link
Review by: Ulises
Rating: 10 out of 10 (if 10 = The Most Absurd Thing I’ve Ever Seen)

The Bottom Line: A cult film all the way, Executive Koala never pretends to be anything other than an absurd, off-the-wall, whacked-out comedy-drama about a giant koala being accused of murder. Take it (and this review) seriously at your own risk.

There’s a line in the middle of Executive Koala that’s funny not just because of what it says, but because of how it’s said. As a concerned psychiatrist grabs his sobbing, self-doubting patient, he declares with a perfectly straight face, “You’re as normal as the next koala.” The patient just happens to be a six-foot tall Japanese salaryman named Mr. Tamura. Oh, and a giant koala.

Welcome to the world of Japanese cult cinema, where a giant koala in a three-piece suit works tireless hours for his pickle distribution company, and where no one seems to think this odd. Then again, Mr. Tamura’s boss, the president of the company, is a giant rabbit. And across the street from his shrink’s office, a giant frog mans the convenience store. So keeping a perfectly straight face is par for the course for the humans in this movie.

For us, not so much.

Writer/director Kawasaki Minoru’s film about love, murder, revenge, and koalas is about as absurd a movie as you’re likely to see, and he’s not even trying to keep a straight face about it. Now that I think about it…why should I? I was going to write that this movie should only be watched with friends—preferably very drunk friends who think reciting the alphabet is funny. Because the off-the-wall storyline, the totally ridiculous dream sequences that do little beyond stretching this into feature-film length, the live-action-anime narrative devices, the ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me’ devolution into Korean and Koala martial arts, and the totally WTF ending can best be enjoyed through an alcohol-induced perception of reality.

So here’s my straight-faced review of the movie. Really.

Executive Koala is a heartwarming, gut-wrenching exploration of koala sensibilities and socio-political struggles as seen through the eyes of its downtrodden koala hero, Mr. Tamura. The film is Kawasaki’s stab at the question so many filmmakers have wrestled with but ultimately failed to grasp: are koala’s capable of murder? In Kawasaki’s version, the answer is most definitely…maybe, perhaps, yes, but possibly no.

The film opens—ominously enough—with a credits sequence that’s lifted right out of Anime. In fact, the film looks, sounds, and plays out like a live-action Anime episode, perhaps as an homage to that other Oscar-worthy Anime-esque masterpiece, Battlefield Baseball. We meet Mr. Tamura, an overworked, overwhelmed, and overly furry giant koala. He’s a salaryman for a pickle distribution juggernaut, and he’s trying to put together a big business deal with a South Korean company. He’s an insecure soul in torment, a distraught koala plagued by the disappearance of his beautiful wife, Yukari, who vanished three years ago.

At least Tamura has a girlfriend, Yoko, who soothes his pain and finds it kind of sweet that he still whimpers Yukari’s name in his sleep. It’s a complex, brilliantly formulated, and nuanced relationship that brilliantly underscores the polemical subtexts commonly associated with interspecies love affairs. Really. So complex and nuanced, we only need 15 seconds of it to get it. And the moment their brief love scene ends, we find that Yoko has been murdered. Oh masses, weep for Yoko.

As you’d expect from any of the great koala-murder dramas (like…that one film…and that other one…the one with the guy?), Mr. Tamura is the main suspect in Yoko’s murder. And the good-cop, bad-cop detectives sent to question him diligently pursue their interrogation of the sobbing koala. One of them, Detective Ono (hmmm…a girlfriend named Yoko…a detective named Ono…that’s a reference to something. Something from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, I think), is so diligent, he begins to follow and stalk Mr. Tamura. He discovers Tamura is actually seeing a psychiatrist.

You see, Tamura is plagued by the mysterious disappearance of his wife, Yukari. What troubles him is that he has so few memories of her to begin with. So much so, he’s convinced he’s blocking out some painful memories about her and her eventual disappearance. But alas, the good doctor assures Tamura that he’s as normal as the next koala. With a perfectly straight face.

But is the doctor wrong? Is Tamura blocking out the memories of the circumstances leading to Yukari’s disappearance? Is there something weird about the fact that his boss, the giant bunny, fully supports Tamura, even as he’s being accused of murder? Is there something strange about the Korean businessman who keeps a pet giant flying squirrel named Momo? And by that, I mean, why does he name it Momo? Doesn’t he know that’s the name of one of the most popular brand of pencil erasers in Japan? And why does the Korean businessman know Yukari? And why does he have pictures of Yukari, battered and bruised, and a letter from her claiming she was domestically abused? All these things just don’t add up.

At least, not until Tamura’s first of several extended dream sequences that delve deeper into the layered, complex terrain otherwise known as koala psychology. From there, we discover, something really is up with this furry salaryman, and it’s not just the evil red glowing eyes. It’s something else. Something darker, something more sinister. Possibly a fascination with bacon and axes.

The truth, as in all epic, koala-related dramas, will be revealed. And through it, we discover not just the truth about Tamura and Yukari, but also about the giant bunny, the giant frog in the convenience store, the Korean businessman, Yoko’s death, and, oh, about the mass extermination of koalas that led to all this bloodshed in the first place. It’s a tidy, well-plotted summation that takes all these seemingly random, nonsensical elements, and pieces them together the way great filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Christopher Nolan wouldn’t.

From a cinematic standpoint, Executive Koala is a work of vision and genius, whose intrepid foray into disjointed, piecemeal, and ‘let’s throw as much absurdity into this as we can’ narrative structuring pays homage to the best school play productions of “King Lear” and “The Little Square Dancing Dinosaur.” Kawasaki’s ability to weave koalas, bunnies, frogs, Korean martial arts, reincarnation, the ancient Korean art of resurrection, Alcatraz, double-crossing, lost love, found love, confused love, domestic abuse, and ax murders into a narrative that kinda sorta not really makes sense is nothing short of remarkable.

Then again, the strong performance of the actor inside the Tamura costume gives Kawasaki’s vision its power and voice. Tamura the Koala—last seen cheering on the Sidney State Fighting Koalas—gives a breakout performance for the ages with nothing but hand and head gestures. The facial expressions on the plush koala head are limited, and so the actor must rely on his gestures to convey his emotions. And does he ever. We understand and feel Tamura’s heart wrenching pain, his agonizing anguish, his cataclysmic despair, his confounded sense of confusion, and his murderous rage and martial arts prowess, through nothing but exaggerated head rolls, wide waving of his arms, and really sloppy roundhouse kicks. Even the dummies that fill in for Tamura’s victims—the ones he slams and crushes against prison bars and telephone poles—convey an amazing depth of personal introspection and soulful pain as they’re mangled into inhuman contortions. The one shame about these great performances is that Tamura and the dummies might steal votes from one another at next year’s Academy Awards.

And so, where does Executive Koala rank in the pantheon of great films of all time? Not quite as good as Saving Private Ryan, but perhaps more inspiring than Watership Down. It’s a film that’ll no doubt break ground for koalas the way Short Circuit did for robots, and it’s about time. Because while robots have seen their apotheosis affirmed with the recent elevation of Wall-E, koalas have been waiting a long time for one of theirs to be recognized alongside the Oliviers, the Travoltas, and the C3POs. And with Executive Koala, the world will know the time of the koala has come. Which is good, because the last I heard, it was the time of the orc that had come, and that didn’t sound like fun.

So if you’re going to watch Executive Koala, remember. Invite friends over. Lots of them. Drink. Lots. To the point where you all think fluorescent light bulbs are the funniest thing you’ve ever seen. Then you’ll be ready.

(And in case you missed it, I was being tongue-in-cheek about this whole thing. It’s a cult film, and it’s distinctly Japanese. So watch it if you enjoy things like “Battlefield Baseball” or “Calamari Wrestler” or “Lady Death Ninja Vs. Columbian Mafia Clown College Vampire Assassins,” and then shake your head in amusement/disapproval/disbelief as necessary.)

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