Sabu’s “Chasuke’s Journey” – 2015 Hong Kong Film Review

Kenichi Matsuyama (left, as Chasuke) and Ito Ono (as Yuri) in "Chasuke's Journey." (still courtesy of the Hong Kong International Film Festival)
Kenichi Matsuyama (left, as Chasuke) and Ito Ono (as Yuri) in “Chasuke’s Journey.” (still courtesy of the Hong Kong International Film Festival)

What would be an experiment in absurdity for most film directors has become the signature raison d’etre for Japanese maverick Sabu.  While his latest, “Chasuke’s Journey” (天の茶助),  is not his best work, it nonetheless is a solid example of the types of stories that the cult director-screenwriter has penned for nearly 20 years.

The name Chasuke in the movie’s title refers to a lowly tea server in heaven (played by Kenichi Matsuyama), whose main recipients are screenwriters hand-selected by God – referred to in the English subtitles as “The Man” – to create with calligraphy brushes on scrolls the fates of various earthlings below.  It is The Man’s lone appearance as a windstorm and the shrill echoing command of “Avant-garde!!!” that sends these scribes into a panic.  In other words, The Man thinks that the movie he is watching of the human beings on Planet Earth is too boring and conventional.  As the writers scramble to come up with more plot twists and turns, the scroll is yanked from their hands and submitted to The Man – meaning that there is no time to revise the fate of one young mute woman, Yuri (Ito Ono), from being hit by a car in just a few hours’ time.  This horrifies Chasuke, who has followed the lives of all these “characters” over the years but has become quite taken by Yuri in particular.  Push comes to shove, and he finds himself on earth, trying to use his free will to overpower a pre-determined script.

Chasuke proves to be an effective narrator as he recounts the life stories of Yuri and the other human beings who enter her life; after all, he has fervently followed their scripts over the years, in particular Junichi Taneda (a lowly antique shop owner who takes him in) and Joe Hikomura (a ramen chef who ends up becoming a link between Chasuke and Yuri).  But now, without the advance knowledge of what his colleagues looming above are about to write, he begins to second-guess his actions, particularly when some of his own become pre-dictated as well.  Determination to change many forlorn characters’ stories, not just that of Yuri, overcomes Chasuke’s initial hesitation, even if it means fighting the plot twists that his colleagues toss in to satisfy the demands of The Man.  When he discovers that he possesses supernatural healing powers to right the perceived wrongs of his scriptwriting colleagues, Chasuke is forced to face philosophical choices – not before, of course, stumbling through a typical Sabu series of humorous timeline hiccups.

Up until this point, “Chasuke’s Journey” is an entertaining rollercoaster ride.  It is a bit of a shame, then, when it screeches to a halt in its conclusion.  It was as if heaven’s writers – and Sabu himself – overexerted themselves and simply gave up on their respective scripts, wrapping their resolutions in boxes, and topping them with bows and greeting cards.  It also could have done with fewer characters, although this is not to take away from the actors’ performances, particularly from steady Sabu regular Susumu Terajima as a yakuza member and 17-year-old Vivi Magazine model Tina Tamashiro in her film debut as Chasuke’s no-nonsense sister.  Still, these are minor quibbles in a story that once again shows why no other director can match the insane inner workings of the mind that is Sabu.

“Chasuke’s Journey” makes its Asian Premiere at the 2015 Hong Kong International Film Festival on Apr. 4 at 6:45 p.m., and will screen again Apr. 6 at 3:15 p.m.  It will be released June 27 in Japan.