Well I have to admit, the title of Akihiko Shiota's entry in CineRocket's Love Cinema series did initially puzzle me, but all became clear with the opening shot of a girl with her leg in plaster hobbling up an apartment block staircase. Gipusu is the Japanese for a plaster cast, taken from the word gypsum, the soft white mineral from which Plaster of Paris is made. Yes, as its name suggests, the fifth film in the series of DV-shot features centred around the theme of "pure love" is a pretty rare piece indeed, but given some of the other films that accompanied it (Visitor Q and Tokyo Trash Baby / Tokyo Gomi Onna) perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised.
22-year old secretary Kazuko (Ono) first bumps into Tamaki (Saeki, who put in an appearance in Higuchinsky's wacky horror Uzumaki) on the way back from work. Tamaki is crawling along the sidewalk on crutches at a snail's pace, and stumbles into the young audiotypist after apparently having trouble with an ill-fitting shoe over her cast. After helping her back to her feet, Kazuko follows Tamaki back to her apartment, the two of them barely exchanging words.
Once in Tamaki's room, Kazuko is dispatched on an errand to fetch some beer, but when she returns, the other girl is in the shower. Any further chance of communication is curtailed when a young man walks into the apartment claiming to be Tamaki's boyfriend. Tamaki dismisses Kazuko, but not before throwing her a bunch of keys to her apartment and the cryptic comment "I can recognise a person who is meant to return".
And return Kazuko does the very following evening, intrigued by this mysterious walking wounded. After a fairly terse conversation in which the girls discover they are both the same age, she discovers that Tamaki's broken leg is a fake. Tamaki recounts her reason for wearing the 'gips' is due to an accident she had in high school where she was knocked off her bicycle by a car. Her new injury found her singled out for sympathy by a choral teacher, but after rebuffing his attentions, mistaking his offer to take her home as something a little more sinister, the music teacher hangs himself in the music room. Strange as it may appear, it seems that no man can resist a pretty girl in a leg brace. From this moment on, she has taken to wearing the gips in order to attract attention to herself. "Whenever I put the cast on my leg, funny things happen to me," she explains, her chance meeting with Kazuko signaling the beginning of another bizarre set of encounters.
With her leg in plaster or without, Tamaki seems a pretty odd cookie herself, continuously ringing her new found friend to invite her round, but always acting surprised when she arrives to the apartment. Kazuko hangs around nonetheless, until when Tamaki announces she is going away for the week and asks Kazuko to look after her goldfish for her, the other girl tries on the plaster cast, remarking to herself how good it feels. Later, as it becomes increasingly harder to pin down Tamaki's whereabouts, she discovers a dead body in the apartment basement.
Unlike the calculated media event that surrounded the Lars von Trier-led Dogma movement (Festen, The Idiots, Mifune's Last Song), Japan's six Love Cinema films slipped by pretty much unnoticed in their own country, intended as straight-to-video releases via a brief but exclusive run at the miniscule Shimokitazawa cinema in Tokyo. Rather than belligerently confronting suppositions of what cinema should or shouldn't be, these low-key releases from a handful of Japan's finest contemporary independent directors seem to have been intended primarily as tiny budgeted academic exercises to investigate the benefits afforded by the low-cost Digital Video medium, advantages such as the increased mobility of equipment and the low-lighting conditions available to the filmmakers.
Gips is by no means the most impressive of these. Whilst technically proficient enough, Shiota does little to fully exploit the advantages of the medium, sticking with a limited number of locations, minimal set-dressing and a visual style predominantly composed of static long shots. Only the scene in which Kazuko discovers the corpse in the apartment basement really demonstrates that just because the story is not shot on film, it doesn't have to look like a higher budget home video.
Fortunately Gips' saving grace is its script, written by Rena Horiuchi and Shiota himself. The director lets the intriguing plot unravel at a sure but steady pace, and up until the rather cryptic final scenes, the drama is compelling and highly entertaining, though admittedly much of the onscreen interest can be attributed to the two attractive young cast members.
If all of this sounds a little too negative, then it shouldn't. With Gary Ashiya's effectively twangy guitar score, the film's quirky subject matter and two charismatic leading ladies, Gips still makes for a highly watchable slow-burner, and considering the resources with which it was made, you can't really ask for much more.