Monday, January 19, 2009

Big (and bizarre) in Japan: “Executive Koala”

I’m sure Japanese pop culture doesn’t fully deserve its stateside reputation of being bizarre almost to the point of obscenity. I mean, obviously it can’t all be sadistic game shows, Hello Kitty underpants and tentacle porn. Some of the most thoughtful pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen came out of Japan, and the works of Haruki Murakami are evidence of a lyrical, forward-looking literary scene. Sure, the Japanese imports that make it to American shores tend to lean toward inscrutable TV commercials and hermaphrodite manga, but I like to tell myself that has more to do with cross-cultural filters and lazy stereotyping than a national tendency toward the gonzo.

But then I see something like Executive Koala and I’m right back to wondering what the hell is the matter with those folks. At first blush, this looks like a by-the-numbers psychological thriller, as a milquetoast businessman uncovers repressed memories of a sordid past that may include robbery, spousal abuse and even… MURDER! It’s the same type of hackneyed plotline we’ve seen in a dozen mediocre movies starring Michael Douglas/Richard Gere/Harrison Ford, but with one fairly noteworthy twist: the executive is a six-foot-tall, Japanese-speaking koala in a business suit.

If you’re familiar with director Minoru Kawasaki, that bit of bestial stunt-casting probably won’t catch you off guard. This is, after all, a man whose body of work includes films about a crime-fighting hairpiece and a squid who aspires to be a professional wrestler. I came into Executive Koala with only a cursory knowledge of Kawasaki’s work and was pleasantly perplexed at the way the film unfolded.

Early on, Executive Koala plays things pretty much by the book, following the koala through the mundanities of life at a thriving pickled foods company. The protagonist’s marsupial nature is treated as no big deal, even though the rest of the film’s populace is almost exclusively human. The only exceptions are the koala’s rabbit-headed boss and the frog-man behind the counter at the local grocery store. As the movie proceeds along familiar thriller lines, no explanation is offered as to why these freaks live and work among regular folk. Strange as all that seems, I spent much of the film’s first half disappointed that Executive Koala wasn’t weird enough.

Around about the midway point, however, Kawasaki starts to take things off the rails. As more and more details emerge about the koala’s ugly past, the movie’s tongue sinks deeper and deeper into its cheek. Before the show’s over, we’ve seen a series of absurd martial arts showdowns, one gut-busting musical number, a bit of animation and the revelation of a fantastically ludicrous motive behind all the madness. I could have done without a couple of meta-textual winks to the audience, but aside from that, it’s a helluva strong finish. The bizarreness of the second half casts a different light on the comparatively sedate beginning, making the “straight” scenes hilarious in hindsight.

It’s tough to imagine anything as peculiar as Executive Koala coming out of the U.S. Even an over-the-top studio like Troma would layer the production with a smirking self-awareness that’s mostly absent here. In fact, it’s difficult to think that something like this could be made anywhere but the home of heroic, flying turtles and Segway-riding chimps. Much as I hate to reinforce tired-out cultural stereotypes, there’s only one conclusion I can draw from Executive Koala:

Those Japanese are fuckin’ weird, man…

- Ira Brooker

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