If you’re not already familiar with the work of Tetsuya Nakashima, you should be, because at least three of his films deserve a place in your collection. Kamikaze Girls – made in 2004 – is a funny, charming, quirky little movie like nothing you've seen before. With all its surreal charm and outlandish flavours, Nakashima’s movie was made for high definition TV screens. Colourful, refreshing and fun, it’s the dictionary definition of dreamy, whimsical, bubblegum pop – light on substance but heavy on flavour.
Memories Of Matsuko (2006) is a beautiful tale - bewitching, intoxicating and persistently tragic. In Nakashima’s world, however, tragedy has never felt so uplifting. Live action, animation and CGI – a trademark of Nakashima’s – combine perfectly, bringing the characters and dance numbers to life with sparkle and vigour. With Confessions (2010), Nakashima takes a significant step forward, shifting his attention to the blues and greys of modern Japanese society and grounding his heart-wrenching tale in gut-punching reality. The result is no less hypnotic, but in removing the comic book framework of previous pictures, Nakashima has made perhaps his best film to date.
Two years before Confessions, Nakashima turned his attention to family entertainment. Not that you would have guessed it, judging by the English subtitles on this DVD release. Be warned, there’s plenty of swearing in this edition of the movie, which doesn’t quite sit with the childlike wonder and fairytale trimmings. It’s a minor distraction, especially for film fans like me, who don’t have to justify watching movies like this by bringing their children along. I’m not sure what a young western audience would make of Nakashima’s work anyway, but there’s a good chance they would love the sugar rush of it all. Paco and the Magical Picture Book is colourful, camp and mad as a thousand hatters, but from what I’ve seen of children’s TV in recent years, that pretty much sums up everything they’re watching anyway.
Inspired by Goto Hirohito's play, Paco and the Magical Picture Book is a children's film at heart, but it plays out in much the same way as the Grimm fairytales always have. The film follows an orphan girl called Paco, who lives at a very strange hospital. Though in all honesty, the term psychiatric ward would probably be a better description. Child actress Ayaka Wilson plays the film's titular heroine, holding her own alongside Yakusho Koji (Retribution), and an all-star cast that includes Tsuchiya Anna (Sakuran), Tsumabuki Satoshi (The Magic Hour) and Kase Ryo (I Just Didn't Do It).
After losing both her parents in a tragic car accident, Paco (Ayaka Wilson) ends up in a hospital full of looney tune nut jobs, including biker-chick nurse Tamako (Tsuchiya Anna), disillusioned former child star Muromachi (Tsumabuki Satoshi), and Onuki (Yakusho Koji), the grumpiest man in the world ever. Every day, Paco wakes up with no memory of the day before, and everyday she asks Onuki to read her favourite pop-up picture book, about a frog king and a crayfish wizard. Onuki however, wants nothing to do with the world outside, especially cute little girls who outstay their welcome. Even the hardest hearts can melt though, and when Onuki learns the truth about Paco’s past, he begins to show a softer side. It’s time to put on one last show, a performance that even Paco will remember.
In all fairness, it’s highly unlikely you could ever forget a movie like this. As well as the characters, there’s also a demon nurse staking a claim on Onuki’s money, a singing transvestite, and a wonderful array of animated delights. Nakashima really goes to town on this one – Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko look positively dull by comparison. Paco and the Magical Picture Book is one of the most hypnotic, colourful films you are ever likely to see. In fact, it reminded me of Tim Burton’s take on Charlie and the Chocolate Family, with the brightness turned up and the soundness of mind toned down. CGI effects, traditional animation techniques and live action combine beautifully, with the final act drowning in a sea of colour, creation and wonder.
Anyone familiar with children’s TV – or Japanese filmmaking for that matter – will already know what to expect from the actors involved. It’s a big, bold, bright and audacious movie, with performances to match the mood of the piece. If you’re asked to live in a world created by Tetsuya Nakashima, you have to be willing to turn it up a notch or two, and that’s exactly what our supporting cast members do. It can be a little distracting at times, and some of the characters seem excessive at first, but each and every one of them has a part to play in proceedings, and in most cases, their story arcs are just as rewarding as the films central duo. Ayaka Wilson and Yakusho Koji steal the show, adding depth and heart to proceedings, without which the film would have probably jumped off the rails.
For all its mischief, colour and creativity, Paco and the Magical Picture Book is a dark and disturbing tale, one that refuses to shy away from loneliness, hurt, anger and pain. Nakashima weaves his tale in such a beautiful way; the aftereffects might not hit you until the sugar dissolves and the flowers fade. He also resists the urge to have his cast members burst into song every five minutes; not that I’m opposed to the occasional song and dance number, but Paco doesn’t need to walk that path. Nakashima wraps his fairytale adventure in genuine emotion, digging deep with surprisingly effective drama. Twists and turns are handled beautifully, and the final act – where the pages of the book are quite literally brought to life – is simply breathtaking.
Enchanting, heart warming and completely off its rocker, Paco and the Magical Picture Book might be a little too anarchic for some, but for the rest of the world it’s a giddy delight from start to finish. With great performances, candy coloured imagery and a director who can do no wrong, Paco is an undiscovered gem for each and every child, both young and especially old. AW