Parks: Written and directed by Natsuki Seta. Starring: Ai Hasimoto, Mei Nagano, Shota Sometani, Shizuka Ishibashi, Ryu Morioka. Running Time: 118 minutes.
Parks, just the second feature film directed Natsuki Seta, a protégé of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, is the sort of adventurous, experimental film that I wish more directors, young or old, would attempt to make. It’s a tribute to a 100-year-old park that throws in chapter titles, a mystery, a romance, dream sequences, and (because why not) a massive dance number. It constantly seeks to bend the rules of storytelling and blurs the line between reality and fantasy in ways that, thankfully, work more often than not, making this film one of the more enjoyably unique experiences I had at Nippon Connection 2017.
The core thread of the story is Jun’s efforts to finish her Communication Studies thesis. Bereft of a topic, her inspiration comes when a strange girl appears at her doorstep, claiming that an old flame of her father’s lived in this same apartment once upon a time. Intrigued, Jun joins her in her search for the woman’s identity, and soon meets said woman’s grandson (the woman herself has passed away). Together, they uncover a demo reel of a love song that the girl’s father apparently wrote for this woman when they were still an item, inspired by the park they all live near. The demo is damaged, though, and they can only hear part of the song, so they decide to put their heads together and try to finish it in time for a special music festival to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the park’s dedication.
This is a relentlessly upbeat film, breezy and fun; not even a breakup can get anyone down for very long in this world. This can come close at times to making the film too unrealistic or insufferable, but the actors are so dedicated that it never crosses that particular line. The male character, whose name I honestly can’t recall for the life of me, is an aspiring rapper, and his terrible lyrics are a regular annoyance, but thankfully he’s not the focus of the show.
What really makes the film hard to pick apart is when it breaks through normal storytelling conventions. The girl who enters Jun’s life is obsessed with finding out more about her father (her goal is to write a book about him), and soon these figures from the past enter the film as characters in and of themselves that she talks and interacts with. Is she dreaming? Hallucinating? Or is some legit transgression of the laws of physics taking place, allowing her to cross time and dimensions? Is, perhaps, the entire film simply a figment of her imagination?
To the film’s credit, these bizarre tangents jibe well with the tone of the rest of the film, and it never tries to explain any of it. Any attempt to have all this make sense would inevitably be a let-down from whatever the viewer wishes to dream up, and seriousness is not how these people roll, man.
Parks is brought down by, occasionally, being a bit too unhinged for its own good, but though it occasionally comes close, it never falls apart entirely. It is a compelling and mysterious experience, and even the chances it takes that don’t work are worthy ones. Natsuki Seta might not have quite stuck the landing this time around, but I am confident that one day, she is going to truly blow our minds.