Japan is gonna Japan whether or not you want Japan to Japan, and when it Japans, it Japans hard. That in and of itself could be the singular tagline for Masashi Yamamoto’s Wonderful Paradise (脳天パラダイス), celebrating its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. At last year’s Fantasia, I was lucky enough to see Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s final film Labyrinth of Cinema, a three-hour epic that compiled all of the strange, surrealist elements of Ôbayashi’s career before his death in 2020. There was a somberness to the entire affair, as I was afraid that I would simply never see anything like it from any other filmmaker ever again, and in a sense, that remains true, but only slightly. Wonderful Paradise seems to come at the perfect time at Fantasia to remind me that the influence of filmmakers extends far past the confines of their mortal lives, and that in death, beautiful, strange, absolutely batshit bonkers tributes can emerge, and in those tributes, you can find another filmmaker’s unique voice as well.
The Sasaya family, made up of father Shuji (Seikô Itô), daughter Akane (Mayu Ozawa), and son Yuta (Soran Tamoto), are moving out of their lavish home on the outskirts of Tokyo due to financial hardship on the family. Akane, looking for one last fun time in the house, posts on Twitter that there is a party where everyone is invited. Soon, the movers arrive as planned, and soon after, the children’s mother, Akiko (Kaho Minami), shows up in response to her daughter’s open invitation. Soon, the house begins to flood with kooky, goofy, and sometimes sinister characters who begin to air all of their personal grievances in the soon-to-be-empty home during a surreal turn of events.
It’s easy to look at this and immediately think “This is totally if Ôbayashi directed mother!”, and in a reductive sense, that is true, minus all of the religious parables. Yamamoto lightens the tone of that comparison though to a strangely macabre, but still insanely funny tale of too many damn people being in your house, which in and of itself is terrifying in its own right. This is a film that relies on your ability to consistently mutter the words “What the fuck?” under your breath, but requires your willingness to just go for it. The film throws so much at the wall, and it doesn’t all stick, but the explosion of that many things hitting a wall at once is almost more impressive and enjoyable than watching a few things stick.
The humor in Wonderful Paradise is perhaps some of the most Japanese shit I’ve ever seen, and that embrace of slapstick, surrealist humor is going to be one of, if not the biggest thing that determines how much you like a film like this. Honestly speaking, this sort of humor isn’t always my thing, but there is such a massive disconnect between Wonderful Paradise and reality that I found myself embracing the jokes it had a bit more. Perhaps it’s because the film plays everything, including its humor, relatively straight. Perhaps a subplot involving a child becoming a tree branch for no reason other than because Yamamoto could wouldn’t really hit if it was played up to 11, but the film’s insistence of making it a tragic affair, with genuinely dedicated performances, just makes the whole silly thing work.
It’s so difficult putting words to the wild, if imperfect, experience of Wonderful Paradise without giving away the whole gig, and it’s truly one of those films where the less you know, the better it is. It’s absurd, surreal nonsense that finds the connectors between the nonsense to create something actually cohesive out of the entire experience, which is no small feat, even with some pacing missteps and just a general “muchness” about it all. It’s hardly a film for anyone seeking anything remotely quiet, intimate, or even slightly normal, but that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t lack a sincere heart at its center. It’s an exposed, hemorrhaging heart that we’ll probably find out can talk at some point, but it’s a heart nonetheless.
Screening during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Wonderful Paradise website.
Final score: 3.5 out of 5.