It's depressing when you think about it. Film is one of the more formidable artforms out there, and yet few moviemakers actually explore the literal meaning of said term. Sure, there is something to be said for a writer and/or director who can create high quality marketable fare, and within your typical mainstream medium offering there are lots of obvious aesthetic conceits. But with few exceptions - David Lynch, The Coen Brothers, E. Elias Merhige - creativity usually gives way to commerciality. Yet in foreign countries like Japan, the filmmaker can still be a passionate artist, wary of the bottom line but not married to it. Such is the case with celebrated animator Mai Tominaga. Noted for her formidable work in TV, CGI, and standard pen and ink, Wool 100% represents her first feature film. And just like another noted cartoonist turned auteur, the future looks bright for this astounding visionary and the efforts of her unlimited imagination.
Sisters Ume-san and Kame-san have lived in the same house all their lives. Having reached the twilight of their years, they still lead a very active - if eclectic - routine. Every morning, they get up and eat breakfast. Then they head out into the neighborhood scavenging for junk. When they find items they like, they bring them back to their cluttered dwelling. There, they clean them, catalog them, and file them away for later. When they stumble across a basket of red yarn one day, they delight in the discovery. But after bringing it home, they fail to recognize something - there is a literal string attached. On the other end is Aonamishi, a frightened girl who incessantly knits a body length sweater out of the wool. After she's done, her disgust with the results has her screaming in agony and feverishly working to refashion the garment. This goes on for months, and Ume and Kame can't stand the havoc it wrecks. Not only does it try their patience, but Aonamishi's presence seems to evoke painful memories of the past - issues apparently buried in every piece of garbage in their home.
Like the Brothers Grimm given a legitimate Terry Gilliam gloss (not the phony Miramax kind), Wool 100% is an inspired, incomplete triumph. As a metaphor for letting go of the past, as well as the disturbing remnants of a life left unfulfilled, director Tominaga forges an unconscious masterpiece. The images and ideas swirling around this complex celluloid canvas are so delightful and dense that they threaten to swallow us whole. On the other hand, the mannered way in which the Japanese aspire to acting is also in full effect. This is not a subtle film. The symbolism may seem elusive, but once you've figured out the connection between the images (yarn as life, cataloged junk as memories), the director's multidimensional purpose comes crashing to the fore. Simply speaking, Wool 100% is a fable about discovering the importance (or lack thereof) of personal history. It's an allegory about avoiding the trap of old feelings and habits, and the freedom and joy that can result from living in the 'now'. Certainly, it's a scary and sometimes nerve-wracking experience, but as Tominaga also points out, it can be beautiful and uplifting as well.
Embracing the maxim that old habits die really, really hard, the narrative centers on two old sisters so stuck in a rut that they appear almost robotic. Actresses Ky˘ko Kishida and Kazuko Yoshiyuki are so porcelain perfect in the roles, so iconic in the way they illustrate the ennui of a life lost in insularity, that when they disappear from the narrative (in a flashback to their former, younger selves) we really miss them. Far more problematic - at least on the ears - is young Ayu Kitaura. As the disruptive banshee that comes wailing into the ladies' lives, this blank faced demon is pure destruction. Beginning with the women's sleep patterns, and carrying over to the East meets West breakfast routine, the red sweatered knitting machine with her narcoleptic bouts of exhaustion is like an unhappy spirit in a house filled with ghosts. The uneasy alliance that develops takes up most of the movie's first half. Between feedings and bouts of unusual unrest (it ruins the daily hording schedule as well), the presence of Aonamishi creates the perfect catalyst for some manner of seismic change.
But Tominaga does get to such a shift right away. Instead, as our heroines begin to purge their home of all manner of junk, they stumble upon a doll house that mirrors their quaint little cottage. It is here where the film flies back into the past, using carefully carved figures and a heightened sense of hyperrealism to show how a tragedy shaped these characters' future. It is this portion of Wool 100% that requires the most attention. It is here where the various strands of the story start interweaving. We see certain things very clearly (the mistaken belief that babies come from labor, not love) while other elements (the workman who suddenly enters the picture) are purposefully oblique. Like other examples of dream logic and optical incongruity, we frequently feel like we stumbled into an Eastern Eraserhead. While the themes are clearly delineated, how the filmmaker finally achieves them can cause more questions than conclusions. Without the kind of epiphany that someone like Lynch can create, this otherwise ethereal stunner slowly stumbles to its fanciful finish. Still, while we're tuned into its wavelength, Wool 100% is wonderful.
Offered in an evocative 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, Cinema Epoch has done a bang up job with this transfer. The colors practically jump off the screen, and the darker, more somber moments are captured in detail-oriented clarity. There are no technical miscues, no Region switch issues like flaring or ghosting. Indeed, this is a remarkable looking movie, instantly evoking the works of Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, or Tim Burton.
With an evocative horn score that sounds like Angelo Badalamenti channeling The Residents (it is credited to one Hiroyasu Yaguchi) and a wonderful balance between ambient noise and dialogue, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix here is excellent. The subtitles are never intrusive and seem to capture the flavor and dynamic within each scene rather well. Even when Aonamishi is screaming her head off, there is never any distortion or aural defects.
As far as this critic could tell, the only significant bit of added content, the minor Making Of featurette, is presented without subtitles. No matter what menu buttons were pressed, a translation could not be found. This may be a glitch in the disc mastering, or an oversight on the part of the distributor, but even processed through the PC, no English track or transcript could be located - and it's a shame. Hearing from the older women, as well as the artist behind the camera, would have been an incredibly insightful experience. Aside from a trailer, that's all the bonus material offered.
Wool 100% won't satisfy everyone. It doesn't offer the easy answers of most fanciful films, and remains intangible even when it's being blatantly obvious. Some will see it as all style and little substance, while others will marvel at the outlandish imagination on hand. Taken as an attempt to tell a familiar story in a sensationalized manner, Mai Tominaga deserves a lot of credit. As a result, her efforts earn an easy Highly Recommended rating. For the striking combination of visuals and meaning alone, the final product is at least worth a look. They say that most artists don't have their efforts fully appreciated during their lifetime. That it takes posthumous perspective and eventual consensus before any true evaluation can be secured. In the case of movies, that's only partly true. Sometimes, pure creativity in all its glory is instantly recognizable. Such is the case with the fascinating, flawed Wool 100%. It's something we can be grateful for today.