Operetta Tanuki Goten
Directed by Seijun Suzuki

Artistic Value: * * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * * *

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When Azuchi Momoyama (Mikijiro Hira), an aging nobleman living in feudal Japan, learns from a supernatural being, Old Maid Virgin (Saori Yuki), that his son, Amechiyo (Joe Odagiri), is more beautiful than he is, this jealous father sends his heir to an enchanted mountain to die. There, Amechiyo meets a stunning young woman (Zhang Ziyi) who just happens to a princess of the tanuki, and these two quickly fall in love. She then takes him back to the tanuki's palace, where the couple face a number of difficulties, including Amechiyo's being imprisoned by the boisterous supernatural creatures and his father's continuing efforts to do him harm.

Seijun Suzuki's Operetta Tanuki Goten may sometimes be less than perfectly realized, but it is such a wildly eccentric, ecstatically vibrant film that it is always entertaining.

The tale the director tells often draws on folkloric themes, which give it that sense of timelessness only such works have, but it is also peppered with so many idiosyncratic details that it has a truly unique personality. In fact, there is hardly a moment of the film that does not present the viewer with some strange, artificial, and utterly beguiling vision that is alive with an intoxicating joyousness and a likeable silliness. The moviegoer, mesmerized by such qualities, is sure to forget about all the world around him and to find himself immersed in the weird universe Suzuki has conjured up.

Fortunately, the performances of most of the actors are helpful in bringing out the movie's otherworldly eccentricity. More often than not, Operetta Tanuki Goten feels, thanks to their efforts, more like a play than it does most other movies. Several of the characters seem to have stepped directly from a Kabuki performance into the film, and others are just so energetic that they are a pleasure to watch. Azuchi is a deliciously overwrought villain; the tanuki princess moves from a stately elegance to a vibrant insouciance, and Old Maid Virgin is just hilariously odd.

The feelings elicited by the actors are raised to a nearly feverish pitch by the numerous musical numbers the director has included. At different times, he allows Amechiyo and the tanuki princess to sing sweetly to one another of their love, Old Maid Virgin and Azuchi to perform a bizarre and genuinely amusing rap, and the hosts of tanuki to perform one celebratory song after another. The movie is so filled with these that it rarely slows down even for the briefest of moments.

In addition to such virtues, Operetta Tanuki Goten is one of the most visually distinctive films I have ever encountered. While I must admit that some of the director's images are less than entirely successful, there is not one that is not indicative of a real imaginativeness. Happily, most are delightful. Much of the film is, for example, performed before obviously artificial backdrops. Some of these resemble sets from a play, but others are either colorful, computer generated abstract forms or paintings of flowers or mountains upon which the actors have been digitally superimposed. Not only are these landscapes themselves peculiar, but they are combined with one another in often disconcerting and clever ways. Snowy forests, for instance, lead to sunbathed beaches, and an icy waste through which Amechiyo wanders on his way to retrieve the Frog of Paradise to heal his beloved is transformed by orange lights into a desert.

What is more, the gorgeous, often stylized, and always sumptuous costumes and make-up are just as wonderful as are the sets. Azuchi, with his long pointed moustache, looks like a Kabuki cat, the tanuki princess is graceful, and her subjects range from goofy drummers with flame red hair and guards with gigantic fake bellies to adorable children and courtly ladies. Whether a given visual element works well or not, the film does have a rarefied beauty that is bound to captivate the viewer.

I will hardly claim that Operetta Tanuki Goten is Suzuki's best film, but it is inventive, colorful, and truly fun to watch. It is, in fact, a very good movie.

Review by Keith Allen

Note: Operetta Tanuki Goten is available on DVD at YesAsia.

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