Review: ‘Princess Raccoon’

Eighty-two-year-old style maverick Seijun Suzuki tips way over the precipice with "Princess Raccoon," a cultural and linguistic potpourri that plays like Kabuki theater-meets-Gilbert & Sullivan. Asian exotica fans, drawn by the idea of young Chinese superstar Zhang Ziyi performing in a Japanese costume operetta, are more likely to retreat scratching their heads after almost two hours of gorgeously gowned but stolidly helmed fairy tale antics. Beyond fest situations and highly specialized ancillary, this critter's dead in the water.

Eighty-two-year-old style maverick Seijun Suzuki tips way over the precipice with “Princess Raccoon,” a cultural and linguistic potpourri that plays like Kabuki theater-meets-Gilbert & Sullivan. Asian exotica fans, drawn by the idea of young Chinese superstar Zhang Ziyi performing in a Japanese costume operetta, are more likely to retreat scratching their heads after almost two hours of gorgeously gowned but stolidly helmed fairy tale antics. Beyond fest situations and highly specialized ancillary, this critter’s dead in the water.

Suzuki became a cult director for a series of wild genre exercises at Nikkatsu Studio during the ’50s and ’60s, many of them more interesting on paper than in the viewing. After being fired for the out-there B&W/’scope gangster yarn “Branded to Kill” (1967), he’s rarely hit such heights since, though his last movie, “Pistol Opera” (2001), came close.

Yarn begins with Azuchi Momoyama (Mikijiro Hira), lord of Castle Grace, banishing his son, Prince Amechiyo (Joe Odagiri, lead in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Bright Future”), to a desolate mountain after a prophetess (Saori Yuki) predicts he’ll become more handsome than his dad. There, he meets a beautiful princess (Zhang), who thinks she’s found her Prince Charming and carts him off to pleasure-loving Tanuki Palace. But this femme isn’t everything she seems. (Clue: “Tanuki” is Japanese for “raccoon.”)

Shot in a deliberately theatrical/studio way, with cutout sets, back projection and only a few exterior inserts, pic is undeniably a feast for the eyes. However, the plundering of every conceivable musical style from rap to operetta quickly wears thin, especially as Suzuki’s distanced, rigid helming doesn’t involve the viewer in the exercise, and the songs are hardly memorable.

Result is a desperate attempt to seem trendy in a multicultural way. Final half-hour, in which the story repeatedly appears to end, is a haul.

Zhang, who speaks in her native Mandarin Chinese throughout (and occasionally sings in Japanese, learnt phonetically), is almost unrecognizable in Nipponese duds and hairstyle, and projects none of her usual luminescence or sexiness. Odagiri is pretty-boy bland.

Original title means “Operetta ‘Raccoon Palace.’ “

Princess Raccoon

Japan

Production

A Geneon Entertainment, Dentsu, Nippon Herald Films, Shochiku Co., Eisei Gekijo Co., Ogura Jimusyo Co. production. (International sales: Dentsu Tec, Tokyo.) Produced by Satoru Ogura, Ikki Katashima. Executive producer, Nobuyuki Tohya. Directed by Seijun Suzuki. Screenplay, Yoshio Urasawa.

Crew

Camera (color), Yonezou Maeda; music, Michiru Oshima, Ryomei Shirai; production designer, Takeo Kimura; sound, in Dolby Digital; choreography, Mitsuko Tanizawa; visual effects supervisor, Norio Ishii; assistant director, Ken Suenaga; casting, Sawako Ozu. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings), May 20, 2005. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Zhang Ziyi, Joe Odagiri, Hiroko Yakushimaru, Saori Yuki, Mikijiro Hira, Hibari Misora.
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