March 08, 2008

PERSONA (2000) - Chiaki Kuriyama - behind the mask

(2000, Japan, Kamen Gakuen)

No, no, not the one by Ingmar Bergman

Need mystique and allure? Who ya gonna call? Time for another Chiaki movie...

A schoolboy arrives in class wearing a featureless mask. He says it’s to disguise himself from bullies. As other students start wearing masks, the ploy works because he’s no longer recognised. As masks begin to catch on around the city, pushed by an influential fashion guru, one schoolgirl sets out to investigate who’s making the masks and why. She even finds a secret society clubhouse hosting a type of Eyes Wide Shut masqued orgy. But, when a mask burns someone’s face off, she teams up with a reporter to solve the mystery of the masks.

From the downbeat opening, I was hoping for a supernatural thriller. But this strangely turns into a typical Japanese mystery movie (like any of the Kindaichi series). It starts off teasing that something spooky is afoot, but in fact there’s a more Scooby Doo explanation. Which is a shame, because the film starts powerfully and mysteriously, exploring themes of identity, invisibility, and even anonymous sex (though the teenage orgy gets no more racy than open-mouthed kissing).

There are still some early startling mask scares, certainly enough to send mask-o-phobes behind the sofa. But halfway through, it settles into a dot-the-dot Murder She Wrote mystery among some 80’s style fashion shows. Surely curly perms and new romantic make-up weren’t still around Japan in 2000?

Although this is directed by Takashi Komatsu, who made the interesting Kidan, I really wanted to see this for Chiaki Kuriyama. She only has a small role, but it’s good to see her alongside Tatsuya Fujiwara just before they were in Battle Royale together.

Though this almost looks like a two-part TV special, with a critical shift in tone in the second half, the perky lead, Maya Kurosu, manages to hold it all together. The potential of the story could have been explored more thoroughly - what if Hachigatsu could remake the second half…

Persona seems to be a rare title on DVD outside of Europe. I watched the UK region 2 PAL release from Terra.

If you want more Chiaki Kuriyama, this obsessive website is scarily thorough...

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