Love & Peace (2015)

Most descriptions you'll find of Love & Peace (including the next sentence of this one, I guess) focus on how many disparate genres are packed into the movie. And that's true: this is a musical kaiju fantasy Christmas family comedy, and there's no denying it's a bizarre film (which is apparently par for the course for writer/director Sion Sono). But opening with that is a bit misleading, as it implies the movie is some sort of random jumble of wacky ideas, which isn't the case. Yes, there are a lot of ingredients in this, but they're here for a reason, and the end result is both tonally and thematically coherent, even if the premise is complicated.

I'm going to get to the plot in a moment, but... ugh. This one's awkward. Because, as usual, I'm going to spoil the hell out of everything in a movie I'm going to strongly recommend, which is normally your cue to head over to the nearest streaming service, watch this absolute gem of a movie, then come back and read my thoughts. Only at the time of writing this, that's not an option. Not only is this not streaming, there's never been a US release. There was a British release, but the only way to watch that is to shell out $130 or so for a region-free disc player, then buy the imported DVD on Amazon, which... I mean... who'd do that, right?

In my defense, I'd been meaning to get a region-free player for a while, anyway (this is far from the only movie that lacks a US release I want in my collection). But it was the first movie I ordered upon getting the new player, so make of that what you will.

The point being, this is absolutely worth checking out sans spoilers if you can, but unless you're more savvy than I was (or maybe more lucky), there's no easy to do that. Sorry.

The movie's protagonist (at least for the A plot) is Ryo, a failed musician who works in an office where he's routinely (almost ritually) mocked by his coworkers, who consider him a loser and delight in humiliating him publicly. The one exception is Yuko, a woman who's kind to him and who he becomes obsessed with.

Ryo purchases a pet turtle he names Pikadon and whispers his dreams to: he wants to be a famous musician and date Yuko. He loves Pikadon and brings him everywhere, including work, where he attempts to hide the pet. But of course, the turtle is discovered by his coworkers, who mock him more than ever. In the midst of a panic attack, Ryo runs to the bathroom and flushes Pikadon down a toilet, though he immediately regrets the act and enters a spiral of depression.

Meanwhile, Pikadon is washed into a cavern inhabited by what appears to be a drunken homeless man who oversees what's essentially a live-action, sewer-based version of the Island of Misfit Toys. See, the homeless man is also something of a wizard who makes magic candies, some of which give the discarded toys and animals he collects the power to speak. So you've got talking dogs, ducks, puppets, dolls, robots... you get the idea. They're all traumatized, by the way, due to being discarded by their former owners. Most long to return home, though one (a toy cat) believes they're better off in the sewer with the man they call "Pa."

I can just call him "Santa" going forward, right? We're all on the same page? I don't really even think it would count as a spoiler here - the movie foreshadows it pretty clearly when he appears (hell, there are even Christmas lights), so it's not really a twist later on. 

At any rate, Santa gives Pikadon magic candy, but (either accidentally or intentionally) gives him wish-granting candy rather than the kind that will let him speak. I should note the candy doesn't just grant one wish, but allows Pikadon to keep making and reshaping them, which sounds great until we get the catches. The first is that it makes the wisher increase in size each time in proportion to the wish. The second is... well... the plot of the movie.

See, Pikadon's wishes are Ryo's, since he still loves his owner and was raised listening to his whispered dreams. But, as Santa warns, humans are greedy: the more success Pikadon showers on Ryu, the more Ryo wants. On top of that, as his dreams start coming true, Ryo becomes corrupted by his own fortune. He becomes ashamed of his past (including his affection for Pikadon), pushes Yuko away, and bullies those around him similarly to how he was bullied. He's dishonest to his fans, who mistake his music as subversive and progressive, and cultivates a false image to enhance his fame.

Pikadon, who's now around six feet long (so large but not monstrous) visits Ryo a couple times to sing melodies the musician then claims as his own, but is eventually captured by scientists who perform experiments on him.

By then, Christmas has rolled around, and we're into the third act. Santa, who'd promised the discarded toys and pets in his care something good would happen to them, essentially slips them magic in their drinks to make them revert to new toys and young animals, presumably without their memories or ability to speak. The implication is that he delivers unwanted gifts every year, each time hoping they'll be cherished, only for many to be discarded for him to recover again. If that sounds dark, it is - this version of Santa appears heartbroken as he loads up his sleigh.

He also visits Pikadon to give him magic candy that will let him speak. The turtle, fueled by the infinite ambition and ego of Ryo, then grows to kaiju size and breaks free of the complex holding him. He begins a reign of explicitly non-lethal destruction and heads for Ryu's big concert. He arrives, towering over the stands, and speaks, repeating Ryu's original wish. Ashamed of how far he's drifted off course, Ryu walks away from it all, while Pikadon - no longer inflated by Ryu's oversized ambition - seems to vanish. Ryu returns home to find Pikadon. Meanwhile, Yuko follows, though we're never shown for certain if they form a relationship. 

So, yes, the movie's plot has a lot going on. But at the same time, it largely reduces to a blend of a fantasy fueling a cautionary tale about greed; sort of a version of The Hudsucker Proxy set in the Japanese music industry, with a spin on The Christmas Toy used to explore the underlying humanity (or lack thereof) at risk. For all the bizarre, surreal twists, this is a fairytale at heart, and it's a good one.

Let's talk about that Santa, because I particularly love what they're doing here. I mentioned his heartbreak, both at being parted with his friends and at his understanding that mankind is incapable of holding onto his gifts (the gifts, incidentally being the titular love and peace, which are misused and discarded by humanity at large). In a sense, this concept of Santa is that of a spirit perpetually cursed to try to share magic and wonder with a world that he knows will never embrace them.

To put this in perspective, I think this is my favorite onscreen version of Santa Claus since Miracle on 34th Street, though I might be somewhat biased in favor of this direction for the character: the handful of you who read my first novel probably already noticed I played with similar ideas there.

Beyond Santa and the misfit toys, the movie also seems to play with the idea of Christmas as the beginning and end of the cyclical year. The toys and pets begin and end their journeys with the holiday, and Ryu is likewise returned to his state at the beginning of the movie. Whether he's actually learned enough to avoid the same mistakes is left an open question.

This is a thematically rich and emotionally fulfilling movie, which on its own is more than enough to recommend it. But - and I really can't stress this enough - it's also just funny as hell. Beginning to end, this is a riot, with brilliant gags that even hold up in translation.

Stylistically, it has a sort of whimsical vibe to the designs and effects. The toys look like puppets and marionettes, as does Pikadon as he grows in size. But all that's intentional - it serves to enhance the contrast between the childlike innocence of these creations with the grime of sewers and cruelty of the world.

This is a fantastic movie. Here's hoping a US streamer picks it up, so the rest of you will be able to see it without having to invest in a region-free DVD player.