There's something about the prospect of actors directing themselves in their own work that invokes shudders of dread. Sometimes it works, if the actor's persona is quirky or interesting enough - Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66, for example. More often than not, however, the results are showy, talky, unstructured and uncinematic, and for the most part a downright bore for anyone not involved in the production, or at the very worst, forced and embarrassing, as in Asia Argento's recent messy debut, Scarlet Diva.
Yusuke Iseya's case seems even more worthy of wary circumspection in that his springboard into the directorial chair was in no small measure down to his looks. In fact, he's a rather more well-known face on account of his modelling career in Japan than his film acting. Appearances in esoteric art house fare such as Hirokazu Kore-Eda internationally acclaimed After Life, where he played under his own name, and more recently in the same director's Distance may have led to more prominent roles on daytime TV dramas, but they hardly garner household recognition in the same way a full page glossy magazine spread does.
Fortunately, this first solo outing for the 26-year old pretty boy manages to avoid the same pitfalls one might associate with "an actor's film" (yet alone "a model's film"), resulting in a project that comes across less as a one-off vanity piece than an invigorating debut from someone who appears to be fully committed to film making as an end in itself. Iseya enrolled on a film course at New York University in 1998, which he funded through modelling work, and has gone on to direct this feature under the patronage of his early mentor, Kore-Eda, here acting for the first time in the role of producer.
Kakuto, a composite word made-up from the kanji meaning "Awakening Person" by the director to describe the shock sensations that inspire a young adult's initiation into maturity is an unashamed piece of fun, charting the course of its clutch of clueless slackers through the three days leading up to and including the 21st birthday of Iseya's university student Ryo. Nerdish Naoshi (Hassei), a childhood friend of Ryo's has just got his girlfriend pregnant. A one-off TV appearance when he was five has stirred unrealistic expectations of an acting career in him, but it's a far cry from the reality, toiling in his father's garage. Meanwhile Makoto (Ito), a university buddy, has just been dumped without warning by his girlfriend, Kyoko.
The three are in definite need of something to lift their spirits, and so set off to meet an acquaintance of Ryo's, Suzuki (Kameishi, who co-scripted with Iseya) connected with the yakuza to score some dope for the evening. Somewhere along the line, Ryo gets spiked with LSD and the drugs, stashed away in an empty Marlboro packet, are misplaced. Meanwhile, an ineffectual cop, first seen being given a dressing down by the prepubescent teenager he attempts to avert from buying cigarettes from a vending machine is keeping a beady eye on the apartment of Tezuka, the scrawny fresh-out-jail yakuza they just scored from (Terajima, one of the most charismatic actors working in Japan today, trotting out the usual comedic gangster shtick he's perfected in dozens of roles for the likes of Kitano or Sabu). If this wasn't enough, a confused young tearaway associate of theirs, the kleptomaniac Shinji's just-for-kicks "eat and run" shenanigans in the local cafés have escalated into joy-riding in unlocked cars, and a local duo of drug-dealers are the first to fall prey.
"What does it mean to be born in Japan?", is the question posed by director Yusuke Iseya in the catalogue for Tokyo FILMeX 2002, where the film received its World Premiere. "In few countries do the citizenry so lack a national confidence as in Japan." Yes, Japan has had a hard run of it over the past ten years, and Iseya is most certainly not the first to muse over this lack of identity, connection and purpose - Shinji Aoyama, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hirokazu Kore-Eda to name but three have all held up their films up as mirrors in order to explore this void. Meditative, metaphorical, or metaphysical, whatever the approach, there's only so many films to be made about feckless, alienated youths groping for the abstract before audiences begin to tire, and judging by the state of the industry at the moment, it would appear that they already have a long time ago.
Kakuto clearly has no such philosophical axe to grind, and works precisely because Iseya comes from that generation of financially well off, aimless young suburbanites out for nothing but a good time, and thus his characters come across not just ciphers, but fully rounded characters. His approach is not an attempt at observation or insight, but immersion in the unhampered innocent hedonism of this amoralistic world, and as such it is more likely to nudge knowing smiles from those who have found themselves in such situations as being stripped to their underpants lying face down on the street outside their local convenience store than the chin-stroking cappuccino crowd. Kore-Eda has stated that it was the lack of didacticism in the script that attracted him to the project, fitting in with his stated mission for his production work to put into motion the kind of film that he himself couldn't make - following Kakuto is the family drama Wild Berries / Hebi Ichigo, the first offering of 28 year-old Miwa Nishikawa.
Charting a now familiar terrain that has run from Trainspotting to the likes of Justin Kerrigan's Human Traffic and Doug Liman's Go, Kakuto perhaps most resembles this last film in terms of its feel and form, particularly its use of visual trickery - fast-forward/rewind time manipulation and the creeping spirals that swirl over the car interior as Ryo first succumbs to the effects of the acid - to evoke memories of those sketchy nights which from a simple intention to get off your tits rapidly spirals out of control.
I'm not going to make any overstated claims that this is a perfect film. Whilst it kicks in straightaway, builds up nicely to a peak and keeps you there for an admirable duration of time, the comedown is perhaps a little too long, and its appeal is most definitely reserved for the lads - the female characters barely get a look in here. However, ultimately Kakuto's fresh-faced exuberance, slick repartee and street-savvy cool are hard to resist, and quite frankly, for a first film effort from so young a director, this knocks the socks of some of the recent efforts of its more grizzled competitors. I think we can safely say that Kore-Eda's pet project definitely delivers, and will undoubtedly find an audience with the type of people it portrays whichever countries it plays in.