At last year’s New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts, I saw two films by Japanese director Toshiaki Toyoda: Monsters Club and 9 Souls. I enjoyed both, and I actually wound up liking Monsters Club more after seeing 9 Souls. Thanks to the latter, I got a sense of how Toyoda played with themes of alienation, isolation, and how people fit into larger groups, whether they be surrogate families or society as a whole.
With I’M FLASH!, Toyoda revisits these themes. While 9 Souls was a prison break movie and Monsters Club was a riff on The Unabomber, I’M FLASH explores modern isolation/alienation through religious cults. Yet the lost soul of the movie isn’t a cult follower. Instead, it’s the head of the cult itself.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Director: Toshiaki Toyoda
Release Date: September 1, 2012 (Japan)
Regardless your own feelings about religions and cults, it seems like their primary functions are building communities and making the fact of our own deaths less terrifying. To the first point, these kinds of groups bring people together under a common cause and common mindset, and the group offers surprising succor that only sympathetic company can provide. Related to that second point, it’s easier to face the world and the mysteries of the hereafter (which remains an uncertainty no matter what true believers insist) as long as you know you’re not alone.
This is what makes the irony of I’M FLASH stick out so much. Rui (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is the young charismatic leader of a religious cult, and when we see him in the film, he seems entirely alone. We only see his small but adoring flock in the background of a shot on television, and they mostly do as he instructs. With the forceful gesturing of his hands and application of his charm, he causes people to move according to his will. As a scene later in I’M FLASH shows, it’s might have little to do with spirituality — one of Rui’s bodyguards exercises the same influence when he startles hermit crabs with sudden movements as the creatures crawl along the sand. There’s something strange, off-kilter, and funny in this film that runs parallel and counter to the deeper philosophical concerns.
Rui is troubled after a car accident that opens I’M FLASH. While he’s unscathed, the woman he was with (Kiko Mizuhara) is seriously injured and winds up in a coma. The accident shakes Rui so much that he wants to leave the cult and dissolve the entire organization. Most of his days are spent in a secluded island mansion. He prays in an altar full of bones and then snorkels and fishes with a harpoon gun. These sequences should be boring but are oddly hypnotic. As he deals with his present guilt and depression, we get flashbacks of what exactly happened that night of the accident. We go back and forth between Rui’s listlessness and a gradual reveal of information, which eventually offers a portrait of a troubled soul coming to terms with what he’s done.
Throughout the film, Rui is constantly alone, or at least he seems so alone because he forges no deep emotional connections with others. This all could be a symptom of his post-accident spiritual malaise, but the accident reveals a greater emptiness that the movie hints at. On the night of the accident, he’s surrounded by women interested in him as a media celebrity but don’t actually talk to him. His family is full of eccentrics who are doing their own thing, and his sister and mother are more concerned with the cult as a money-generator. Three bodyguards (one played by Ryuhei Matsuda of 9 Souls) have been assigned to protect Rui, but they mostly hang back and wonder if the whole belief system is malarkey. They’re less like a Greek chorus and more like polite hecklers.
Maybe there’s not much ironic isolation here in I’M FLASH, though. Leaders and elders in established religions tend to have great ties to their communities/congregations, and there’s a sense of extended family or meaningful friendships. For cult leaders, they’re lonely at the top of their own dung heap, and they may worry about believing their own BS. While we get few particulars about the cult’s beliefs, the cult’s trite, simplistic motto/mantra says it all: “Life is beautiful.”
And that is bunk.
Yet Toyoda isn’t so eager to call Rui’s beliefs bunk and then let that be it. I sensed an impulse in I’M FLASH to subvert the simplicity of a phrase like “Life is beautiful” while also trying to affirm it. Rather than oversimplify life with a slogan, Toyoda wants to complicate the slogan. The dual impulses of the film might encapsulate Rui’s larger existential and spiritual struggle, particularly as it relates to death and how we deal with it.
I don’t know if Dip, who did a few songs on the 9 Souls soundtrack, was responsible for the music in this film, but something about the soundtrack of I’M FLASH reminded of them. There’s something both post-grunge and post-rock about the music of this film that was oddly fitting. It sounds cool, but there’s maybe a subtle sense of impending and yearning in those tracks as well, except for the song that plays over the credits, which is all sneering bombast and oh so 90s.
Of the Toyoda films I’ve seen, I think I’M FLASH ends on the flattest note. Both Monsters Club and 9 Souls had finales that seemed to enhance everything that had come before. The last images of Monsters Club were especially moving. With I’M FLASH, there’s something more matter of fact about it’s ending. It’s plain, as if Toyoda’s larger statement was made earlier and doesn’t need to be underlined. Or maybe it’s a way to rephrase the motto “Life is beautiful” that avoids both oversimplification and complication. Rather than restate or expand on the three words that Rui’s struggling with during the film, Toyoda seems to only want to say two words at the end: “That’s life.”