Itao Itsuji No Datsugoku-O (The King Of Jail Breakers) is a godsend. It's not a perfect film, it's not without its faults, but it recalls a time when the Japanese film industry was releasing quirky little off-beat films like these by the dozen. It's a film that lives on an island of its own, the work of a director who doesn't have the means, but has the talent to make a good, unique film. It's a film that reminds me of the reasons why I learned to love Japanese cinema.
It's not a brand new film though, Itao Itsuji No Datsugoku-O was released back in 2009 but slipped under the radar. It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that I found out about this one. Just another sign on the wall that gems like these are often ignored instead of getting the attention they deserve. Not that Itao Itsuji No Datsugoku-O is an easy sell (you could describe it as a crazy mix between Keimusho no Naka and Bronson), but at the least it deserves a loving cult following.
Suzuki is a prisoner from hell. If you were amazed by the prison-breaking skills of Bin-jip's main character, prepare to be dazzled by Suzuki. He manages to escape from every cell he's held in, but once outside the premises of the prison he hardly makes an effort to keep out of the clutches of the wardens. He also remains mute at all times, so nobody really knows what goes on in Suzuki's head as he appears stuck in a vicious circle.
The only one who takes a real interest in Suzuki is a local warden. He establishes a silent pact of trust with Suzuki, which eventually lands him a government job. When World War II starts to take its toll on Japan the warden is sent back to supervise the prisons and finds Suzuki heavily neglected in solitary confinement. His visit starts a series of events that will eventually uncover the mystery behind our enigmatic escape artist.
It's clear that Itsuji had a pretty limited budget to work with. Visually Itao Itsuji No Datsugoku-O is a solid film, with nice camera work and a muted yet atmospheric color palette, but some very odd use of CG betrays the film's micro budget. When a small night trip across the ocean looks like a leftover scene from a PlayStation game, you know there wasn't much room for excessive visual splendor. Itsuji handles it well, but can't avoid some tacky effects to progress the story.
The soundtrack is pretty limited. The few songs that made it into the film are decent enough and stand out where they have to, nevertheless as a whole the soundtrack is far from memorable. Most of the film is carried by slightly accentuated, ambient noises, giving the whole a rather soft and tranquil vibe. It's effective, but I expected a little more, especially from a film like this.
Itao Itsuji is an actor turned director, so it's not all too surprising to see him take up the lead role for this film. The warden is played by Jun Kunimura (a personal favorite of mine) who manages to put exactly the right amount of empathy and wonder into his character, without neglecting his stern warden image. The two of them dominate the film and while the secondary cast is pretty decent too, what you get is a respectful stand-off between these two characters/actors.
Itao Itsuji No Datsugoku-O is not a comedy, but there's a slightly surreal twist that makes it clear Itsuji is going for a more light-hearted atmosphere. I don't want to spoil too much, but the ending is bound to make a smile appear on people's faces and puts the whole film in a slightly different light without the need of an actual plot twist. Itsuji also manages to keep the mystery alive throughout the entire film, something I hadn't experienced in quite a while.
Despite some obvious flaws, there's is plenty to enjoy here. Itsuji delivers a unique, quirky and mysterious little film that knows how to charm. I bet this is not a film that will make it to people's list of favorites, instead it's the type of film that will be remembered with a smile. Itsuji proves himself a worthy director and makes the most of the little he had to work with. I'm glad to see he has a new film lined up, so even when this film doesn't find its audience Itsuji's efforts won't have been in vain.