Fantasia 2014: ‘Puzzle’ is a morbidly humurous film to wrap one’s head around
Written by Eisuke Naito, Makoto Sasaki, and Yusuke Yamada
Directed by Eisuke Naito
Human beings are flawed individuals, all too often succumbing to vice. Most cannot help themselves for the power of greed, lust, jealousy and the like is too much for simple mortals to resist. Do these weaknesses make humans evil creatures? The reassuring answer is ‘no’, given that people also sport a conscience, faculties to differentiate right from wrong, and, in the event that a wrong has been committed, a compulsive desire to feel regret. This balance makes people what they are: far from perfect but capable of great good. What of those who pay no heed to compassion or understanding, people whose desire is to do harm unto others? What sort of beings are they if not monsters? More frightening is the possibility of a monster awakening from within someone who did not know they were capable of embracing evil, the very topic of the Japanese black comedy Puzzle.
Shigeo (Shûhei Nomura) is a troubled teenage boy to say the least. His relationship with other schoolmates is nonexistent despite their efforts to include him in their community. If others are willing to give him a chance, then why does he isolate himself ? It turns out that Shigeo is not just any ordinary teenager with a case of the blues, but a psycho, a methodical killer who concocts elaborate, circus act schemes that put his targets in painful and humiliating contraptions that draw out the process of their grisly demises. With each and every plan he wears a sunflower mask and broadcasts his messages to whomever he has chosen to challenge in foolhardy games that may or may not secure the victims’ release. Much to his surprise, he seems to have found a partner in crime in the form of Azusa (Kaho), a girl from his school and recent suicide attempt victim. He sees something in her that, if unlocked, could prove to be devastating for all of his future victims. Thus begins a brand new challenge for Shigeo and a journey of self-discovery for Azusa.
For some movies, blunt descriptions are most apt, not because they aren’t worthy of more eloquently woven words of praise or analysis, but because of the attitude they themselves bring to the table equals and is therefore deserving of said bluntness. With that in mind, let it be said that Puzzle is ‘messed up’. Director Eisuke Naito and his team of screenwriters cook up an unapologetic, low budget, grungy, grimy and filthy story about the inherent madness in one character and his mission to unlock the dark side of a potential companion. Azusa and Shigeo form a perfect union of madness and mayhem even though Azusa doesn’t know it at first. She is initially repelled by Shigeo’s stomach-churning shenanigans by which he reeks havoc across a town and its people through a series of twisted puzzles. The demonic hooligan’s instincts eventually serve him right, however: there is a bad side to Azusa that only required awakening in order for her to relish the opportunity to maim, torture and kill. The fragility of her emotional and psychological balance is due in large part to a nightmarish episode involving her school’s principal that haunts her still. Once Shigeo taps into the cerebral scar said encounter has left on her, there is no turning back. In other words, Puzzle is about the making of a monster, how there is a bit of a monster in all of us. Provided the circumstances are just right, anyone can turn bad.
Naito packages this descent into hell with black humour and disgusting, unnerving visuals that clearly denote the lengths to which Shigeo is willing to go in order to have his way with people. It isn’t just that the live recordings he dispatches are eerie for their content, but the obvious joy the antagonist reaps from putting his victims (both the kidnaped and the sorry souls lured into futile games that never end well anyways) through mental and physical torture. The director finds the oddest ways to infuse humour into proceedings that in the hands of most other filmmakers would be blanketed in an impossibly bleak tone. In a sense, the film is trying to have the viewer understand the story through Shideo’s eyes rather than, for example, the police detective tracking him down. That would have been a simpler approach and invited the film to embrace a strictly humourless identity. As it stands, seeing someone calmly ride on a bicycle in the street when his seat suddenly explodes is hilarious even though the reason for it exploding is horrible. Puzzle is ostensibly a Saw picture if Jigsaw’s challenges took on the allure of what Jack Nicholson’s Joker might conjure up.
Puzzle proudly takes a stance in the oddball category of films. There won’t be much like it released during this or any other year. The film is quite nihilistic, offering virtually no sense of hope, yet still strives to put as funny a spin as possible on certain scenes. ‘Weird’ scratches but the surface of what Eisuke Naito has in store for those feeling a little adventurous with their movie watching. Viewers needn’t say they were not warned!
— Edgar Chaput