In the world of filmmaker Minoru Kawasaki, the typical often gets taken apart and twisted. He'll turn an athlete into a squid, a crustacean into a soccer star, and a police officer into a toupee-tossing hero. Never content to work within a specific genre, he'll add gore to a comedy, thrills to a romance, and serious political skewering into an otherwise standard disaster film. In fact, his most recent head scratcher Neko Râmen Taishô offers the stirring tale of a cutesy pie cat who longs to be a noodle chef. Oh, and did we mention that, more times than not, Kawasaki uses puppets and life-sized 'men in suit' mechanics to realize his aims? That's right, like a daffier David Lynch, or a literal costume dramatist, his films are refreshing, confusing, cheap, cheesy, insightful, unfocused, and a heck of a lot of fun. While not on the level of his previous hit, Calamari Wrestler (yes - it's exactly what you think it is), Executive Koala shows off Kawasaki's style effortlessly. And when it's this enjoyable trying to figure it all out, who cares if it ends up making little or no sense.
Keiichi Tamura works for one of Japan's top pickle manufacturers. Though he's good at what he does, and has just landed a lucrative contract with a South Korean firm to bring their brand of kimchi to customers, he is still devastated over the disappearance of his fiancé, Yukari, three years before. Luckily, his current girlfriend Yoko is there to supply support and affection - that is, until she's found murdered...and Tamura becomes the prime suspect. Soon, the police are chasing after the unassuming executive, and secrets about his abusive, megalomaniacal past start coming out. His shrink thinks he's paranoid. Naturally, his boss is somewhat supportive. And why wouldn't he be - he's a large white rabbit (or at the very least, a man wearing a bunny suit), and Tamura is a giant koala. Eventually, a conspiracy even larger than anything our hero could imagine shows its intention - to destroy the businessman once and for all.
Take a kitchen sink drama, add in a touch of Japanese work ethic, smother the whole thing in pseudo slasher serial killer craziness, and then add a man in a Australian animal suit on top, and you've got a hint at the whacked out weirdness of Executive Koala. Imagine David Lynch's Rabbits retrofitted for standard storytelling, or your favorite soap opera redesigned by a marketer of sports mascots and things become much clearer. This isn't the first time writer/director Minoru Kawasaki has worked in the zipper back dynamic. Other offerings in his oeuvre of mangled magic realism include Crab Goalkeeper, Beetle: The Horn King, and the infamous Calamari Wrestler. Clearly influenced by his native land's obsession with all things critter, Kawasaki has shrunk down the action, pitting his human sized 'monsters' against regular people in battles of the brain, not miniature set building bashing. The results are hilarious, stupid, profound, problematic, and unlike anything you've seen in a supposedly mainstream motion picture.
Different than something like The World Sinks...Except Japan, Executive Koala has no real metaphoric agenda - at least not initially. We watch as a guy in the familiar bear head and hands goes about his job. There are hints of trouble in his relationship with the very human, and very female, Yoko. Mr. Tamura's boss is a bunny rabbit - that's right, another guy in an oversized novelty outfit - and the cashier at the local supermarket is a suspicious frog. Why these characters are conceived in such a surreal manner remains the filmmaker's closely kept secret. Tamura's 'animalistic' nature is mentioned once, and nothing is ever said about the hare or toad. Part of the problem with something like Executive Koala is that you have to accept everything here at face value. When characters complain about how "freakish" Mr. Tamura is, it's not because he's a six foot koala. It's because he's so "hairy". Similarly, his potential killer instinct is not explained away as part of his wild life nature. Instead, he sees a therapist in order to probe the depths of his murderous mentality.
As an entertainment, Executive Koala is not as sound as, say, Calamari or World Sinks. There are times when Kawasaki seems to run out of ideas, letting the lunacy lag until he can work up another nifty idea. And since we can't see the parallel to the real world, since all we are really witnessing is a disjointed drama acted out by amusement park employees, we grow impatient with the ploy. Still, there is something resoundingly original about this movie, an in your face ferocity and anarchic appeal that should turn such a concept into a cult before long. Though it often threatens to overstay its welcome, and works much better as an idea than an actual narrative device, Executive Koala remains a decidedly unique experience. You may feel like you've stumbled upon a standard post-modern hand wringer while tripping on LSD or some particularly potent peyote, but that's probably the point. It is easy to dismiss this movie as a gimmick or cinematic stunt. It's much harder to ignore it as an interesting, engaging experience.
Executive Koala comes via Synapse Films in a very fine 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The transfer, taken from the original digital elements, has none of that conscious camcorder feel. Indeed, most of the time you would never guess this wasn't a straight celluloid production.
Offered in a clean, crisp Dolby Digital 2.0 mix (and in the original Japanese - no dopey dubbing here) Executive Koala provides a professional level of aural appreciation. Sure, the sonics are a tad flat and there's no real ambiance to the backdrop, but the overall quality is right up there with better, bigger budgeted films. The English subtitles are easy to read.
Following the filming of Executive Koala through its entire seven day shoot, the Making-of material included by Synapse Films as part of the DVD's added content is quite interesting. For those unfamiliar with lower budget Japanese productions, there's a real run and gun guerilla style utilized, with lots of pre-planning turning into random, off the cuff creativity. Along with a hilarious trailer, this is a wonderful bonus feature.
Executive Koala is not a halfway experience. Unless you meet it 100% on its own unusual terms, unless you tune in totally to its weirdly whacked out wavelength, you'll find it completely taxing. Nothing will make sense, and you'll believe Kawasaki isn't even trying. If you do "get it" however, you'll get the kind of warm and fuzzy feeling that only a thriller acted out by performers in animal mascot outfits can provide. From a totally personal standpoint, this critic gives Executive Koala a Highly Recommended rating. Even better, this DVD does something rare in the realm of home video releases - it instantly makes one want to see everything else Kawasaki has made. Sources suggest that Calamari Wrestler is the place to start (though the Ramen noodle making kitty seems especially insane). Wherever you begin, remember - Minoru Kawasaki doesn't play by the rules. He doesn't even care that they exist. Maverick or madman, this is one wholly original and odd film.