I may be a critic, observer, and self-taught scholar of film. But that does not entirely excuse me from the process of filmmaking, I may just be more of the last step than the first. And as we warm-up for the always-lucrative summer season, it’s never a dreadful thing, reminding oneself of the emotional mishigas of belonging to the early side of building cinema. And all done, very tongue-in-cheek, in a tight 90 minutes. Takayuki Hirao’s adaptation of Pompo: The Cinephile, previously a manga by Shôgu Sugitani, is a genuine, often-relatable love letter to the art of movies, no matter what level they are. Even the cheap, concise, and heavily formulaic B-movie formula of eras past. Though a bit more especially the desire of filmmakers to broaden, take risks, and shake the system. All while shedding a very delicate, but necessary light on creative burnout. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, but it is real. Even in anime.
It was like looking into a mirror with the film’s lead, an average guy named Gene Fini (Hiroya Shimizu). Having spent the last few years as a production assistant in the slightly fictional, subtly cat-friendly Nyallywood, he’s gained an understanding of all facets of the filmmaking process. And working under the tutelage of hotshot writer/producer Joel D. Pomponette (Konami Kohara), “Pompo” for short, every day is a crash course in something. Whether it’s menial lunch orders, or quickly cutting together a 15-second teaser for international sales, Gene is always on his toes, chugging cola to fight persistent fatigue. The inherent bags should prove he hasn’t slept much in ages under strict deadlines, if at all.
When Pompo finds genius striking after having written a script for a deep, thought-provoking prestige picture involving a broken orchestra conductor looking for one last chance at glory in Switzerland, she trusts the nascent Gene to take on the reins as director, needing just two actors. One’s a screen vet with a slight ego, the other a relative nobody with no prior experience, whom Gene slowly falls for while filming on location. He’s quick to lose his head when building a relationship with the naive Natalie (Rinka Ôtani), eventually becoming his creative muse while working on the dodgy challenges of editorial and completion assurance. The latter requires reuniting with a long-lost friend, investment manager Alan, a stubborn challenge merely being shoe-horned in for no purpose.
Such is the business side of cinema, one can’t run out of time or money, further proving how real the crunch is on the other side. Something tells me Sugitani’s manga, better details everyone’s contribution or detriment to the dwindling sunset of a major deadline. Particularly the title character, best described as a cross between Darla Dimple and Jason Blum. She’s a sweet, hyper girl, with sharp business savvy and lore-heavy writing proficiency. As evidenced in non-linear flashbacks, Pompo’s grandfather was the legend of their industry back in the day. Sort of Sugitani’s homage to Roger Corman. Pompo may be the antithesis of that old-school B-movie flair, providing a youthful exuberance to modern-day leadership strategy. The mixture of which takes a bit of time to connect with, even as it does fall a bit flat.
Eventually, you feel a bit more for Gene than anyone else. Persistently tired but driven by the passion he instills for his work. In the editing room, as he perceives it, it’s a road of complication. It’s not simply a film or a mere work of fiction he’s trying to organize and mold into a linear form of artistic expression. With a figurative blade, he’s slicing through the clutter of unnecessary footage. Or, to a much deeper analogy, the blindness of purpose. In which we’re living our dream, but effectively losing sight of what else is out there and falling into unhealthy habits.
It does feel a trifle convoluted, Hirao (Magical Sisters Yoyo and Nene) not fully latching onto his source material with full confidence. And yet he gives Gene, as well as Shimuzu a strong voice for never letting go of one’s goal. Even if it comes at a price. Time, money, health. One should still prioritize one’s health over everything. And yet Gene still works toward that finite balance we’re all trying to strive toward. The struggle feels real, candid in Hirao’s splashy style aesthetic iconizing that old Hollywood sparkle, with a modern firm-footedness.
That’s the other thing Gene is weary to recognize. To stay grounded on one’s pursuits, even when the ceilings are nonexistent. There must be a line in the sand before perfectionism grows exhausting, and life starts to imitate art. Not the other way around, in this case. There’s a pinch of thematic ground not being delved on a more profound scale here. Enough to gain an understanding of the characters, where they all fit in the system of filmmaking. But not a hefty curveball gaining air on why certain directors, editors, and producers all do what they do with an understanding of the market.
The story may come up short on the practical details, but Hirao finds no trouble overcompensating with a satirical spin on recent cinematic trends. How they can be too long, or too confusing. At a tight 94 minutes, Pompo: The Cinephile does its darndest to skate past that territory, and poke a little fun, aware of its obstacles. It may not be the expose on ethics one would’ve liked, nor is its study on singular influences completely empathic to every corner of the industry (think Ed Wood with the corners dulled). But it is still a delightful, sappy, smile-worthy piece with a tendency to romanticize the importance of artistic license and mindful creativity. It honors the business, the people, and until a certain point, the emotional experiences linking it all. Lean a little harder on the latter, this would’ve been a more substantial adventure. We’ll settle for the occasional revisit here and there. (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Pompo: The Cinephile opens in select theaters in both subbed and dubbed versions (including five in the Seattle area) on April 29; film not rated, though the content best represents a PG or PG-13; 94 minutes.