The films of Sabu – aka actor-turned-director Tanaka Hiroyuki – are typically about guys on the move, be it as a troubled soul on a journey (Blessing Bell) or a crook on the run (Unlucky Monkey). The object is usually laughs, though Sabu has also essayed serious drama (The Crab Cannery Ship) in a two-decade career.
His latest, Jam, is another in a long line of Sabu-esque absurdist comedies, if with dips into heart-warming drama and sharp social commentary. But its structure – three separate storylines, all set in a small provincial city – is something new, as is its backing by LDH, a production company and talent agency that represents the boy band Exile and its various sub-groups and spin-offs. Not surprisingly the cast is heavily populated by LDH talents.
The script is a Sabu original, if with references to Rob Reiner’s Misery and the Lone Wolf and Cub samurai swashbuckler series. The aim: A fun ride with a clever, unexpected final destination.
It begins with an enka (Japanese ballad) singer, Hiroshi (Aoyagi Sho), performing for a small-but-devoted band of older female fans in a rundown hall. At a meet-and-greet session later, one woman opines that Hiroshi should change his set list while another defends his choices, a little too fervently for everyone’s comfort, including Hiroshi’s. Later, as he is wending his way home, the zealous fan, Masako (Tsutsui Mariko), steps out of the shadows to offer him home-made soup, which he dutifully chokes down.
Next we see an ex-con, Tetsuo (Suzuki Nobuyuki), pushing an elderly lady in a wheelchair down a deserted shopping arcade. He has, we learned, just revenged himself against the fellow gangsters who put him behind bars. But the survivors are planning payback.
Then we meet Takeru (Machida Keita), an earnest young guy driving an ancient Nissan President Sovereign – once the car of choice for elite bureaucrats and businessmen. He is searching for folks to help, in the belief that doing three good deeds a day will help awaken his comatose girlfriend. Hiroshi is soon in dire need of his assistance.
The fates of all three heroes finally intersect, though on the way the film takes detours to describe events in their pasts and glimpse into the near future. Despite various twists and turns, their stories are easy to follow, with its most entertaining and enlightening being that of Hiroshi and Masako.
One reason is that Hiroshi’s repertoire – specially composed tunes with lyrics by Sabu – is the real, overripe enka deal. Another is Aoyagi’s on-key performance as Hiroshi: Crooning and communing with fans, his boredom and desperation come blazing through.
Meanwhile, Tsutsui Mariko plays Masuko with a fine-tuned blend of comic craziness and scary determination. Yes, she may be referencing Kathy Bates, who played the mad fan in Misery, – but she make Masuko sympathetic, with a little help from a bullet and a windshield.
Minus her the movie would dry toast without the – Dad Joke Alert! – jam.