After the dismembered body of a young woman is found in Tokyo, a friend investigates revealing an out of control spiral into decadence and despair…
The theme of troubled youth comes to the fore again in Japanese writer-director Ken Ninomiya’s Chiwawa, following the tragic story of a young woman whose life spirals out of control. Based on a work by manga artist Kyoko Okazaki, whose Helter Skelter and River’s Edge were also adapted for the screen, the film is a similar mix of the exuberant and the tragic, depicting a directionless generation clamouring for sensation and attention against a backdrop of bright colours and a relentlessly thumping dance music soundtrack.
The film opens with news reports on the discovery of the dismembered body of a twenty-year-old woman in Tokyo Bay, identified as Yoshiko Chiwaki (Shiori Yoshida, The Anthem of the Heart). The news shocks her friends, who only knew her as Chiwawa and who realise that they really didn’t know much about her beyond her constant smile and wild behaviour. Miki (Mugi Kadowaki, Samurai Marathon) is the only one who really seems to care, and she starts to investigate the dead girl’s life, from her introduction to the group in a nightclub, through to her time as a model and her descent into depravity and emptiness.
From the very first frame, Chiwawa slaps the viewer in the face with its hyperactive, hallucinogenic aesthetic, Ken Ninomiya trying hard to recreate the giddy pace and pinball kaleidoscope of his young protagonists’ lives. He certainly succeeds in this respect, the film feeling very much like an extended music video, packing in pretty much every visual and editing technique in the book, and bouncing along at a fast, bewildering clip as it leaps with a shaky camera between the past, present and future without warning, often in the course of one scene or nightclub set piece. Accompanied by a constant, loud electronic dance music soundtrack, the film is stunning and at times breath-taking, though ultimately exhausting in a way which will likely test the patience and stamina of some audiences, feeling at times like a collection of YouTube videos, skilfully edited together though with only a cursory glance towards narrative and meaning.
Certainly, like the character of Chiwawa herself, the film is very difficult to pin down, either as a statement on lost youth, failed dreams or the desperate search for meaning and attention. Veering wildly between the highs and lows, the film is both nihilistic and in places upbeat, with a lack of moral judgement that recalls the works of Harmony Korine as both writer and director, including Spring Breakers, which it leans towards visually and, perhaps even more so, Kids, with which it shares a sprawling sense of near-inexplicable chaos. The Korine connection is furthered by the film’s omnipresent voyeurism, and although there’s little in the way of actual nudity or sex, the young female cast spends much of the running time in their underwear or bikinis – perhaps tellingly, these scenes are mainly framed through the lens of a young male filmmaker character, who on the surface seems primarily interested in shooting his friends without their clothes on.
Fittingly, though jarringly, Chiwawa does slow down considerably during its final third, when Mika’s investigation takes over, the non-stop partying perhaps having taken its toll on the narrative, Ken Ninomiya suddenly remembering that he had to work in some kind of plot. At this point, the film becomes a great deal more conventional, trying to generate some mystery regarding Chiwawa’s death and the final parts of her life, while providing bits and pieces of closure for the other characters and how they end up. While this does at least push the film to a conclusion of sorts, it inevitably feels rushed, and though Shiori Yoshida is likeable in the lead role, making Chiwawa easy to feel sorry for, if not to understand, there’s a lack of the kind of earned emotional depth needed for any real impact.
As much as anything, this highlights the fact that Chiwawa is a film which seems to want to be both a visceral stream of consciousness trip, and a proper story about the problems faced by the young generation in Japan. Though Ken Ninomiya doesn’t really manage to pull this tricky balancing act off, the film is nevertheless a hi-octane, often dazzling piece of cinema, for audiences with the energy to keep up with its breakneck pace and frantic characters at least.
Chiwawa screened as part of Fantasia 2019.
Main image © 2019 CHIWAWA Chang PRODUCTION COMMIIEE (TOEI VIDEO, VAP, KADOKAWA, GEEK PIKTURES, TOEI ADVERTISING).