Laughing Under the CloudsReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/07/19 09:39:53
SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Over the past decade or so of going to this festival, I've had a chance to see a lot of films based upon Japanese comics (with live action starting to displace animation over that time), and while "Laughing Under the Clouds" is far from the most aggressively pitched to existing fans rather than new audiences, it does very much feel like most of the intended viewers are going to know whether or not this is their thing before the movie starts. It's not a bad sort of fantasy story, but probably won't win a lot of new converts.It takes place in a small town, where the three Kumo brothers tend a family shrine, a responsibility passed down for generations, meant to protect the world from a slumbering demon that is now the stuff of legend. Eldest brother Tenka (Sota Fukushi) has a reputation as a fighter that is just sort of legendary, but aims to help the local police more by maintaining an atmosphere of good cheer. Middle child Soramaru (Yuma Nakayama) is always looking to escape his brother's shadow, while Chutaro (Kitaro Wakayama) mostly gets into harmless mischief. The zeal of a ninja being transported to the prison in the middle of a nearby lake - and the strange new behavior of a prisoner who has been held in solitary confinement for years - hints that it may be time for "Orochi" to emerge. The Meiji government takes the threat seriously enough to send soldiers, who see Tenka as a lightweight amateur despite his reputation.
Given this film's English-language title, you might think that the whole "giant snake demon" thing and other bits of attendant melodrama would be played a bit more comedically, but they instead seem to be taken for granted, even when there's relatively little outside the stylized costuming to indicate what sort of heightened setting the filmmakers are playing in (at least to an outsider who knows relatively little about Japan; others may find this take on the Meiji Restoration pointed in what it emphasizes and exaggerates). It means that the film tends to get kind of muddled at times, not always entirely sure what it wants to be about or how much weight to give its supernatural and modern elements. It spends a lot of time putting light soap in the foreground for the first half of the film, enough that the shift to fantasy and action may not entirely seem like a detour, but less important despite the higher stakes.
The life-or-death stuff can seem relatively minor because the core involving the three brothers always works emotionally, even when the rest of the story is a little less aligned. No matter what else is going on, Soramaru's sibling rivalry with older brother Tenka always feels right on target, with Yuma Nakayama painting the middle sibling's eagerness to impress in broad strokes but not coming across as just a naive kid, although there's some of that. It's understandable as he plays off Sota Fukushi's Tenka, who lets just the smallest hint of a smirk emerge as he attempts to shield his younger brothers and the rest of the town from danger - though his actions generally come from good motivations and he projects an admirable calm, Fukushi makes sure one can see just how that attitude can innocently irritate. Meanwhile, Kitaro Wakayama makes Chutaro a likable kid who can shrug off his brothers' arguments and summon some bravery of his own when necessary.
It's possible that the filmmakers opted to play up this aspect because it's what fans of the source material and previous animated adaptation liked about it; everything from the colorful, modern-feeling opening to a nifty soundtrack tends to be fairly sunny that the exceptions are out-of-place. That could be the underlying point - when the audience first sees the genuinely horrific prison in the middle of the lake, it's hard to shake the impression that it doesn't fit in this story, when it should instead be seen as a sign that Tenka and his town are ignoring reality, and shutting the darkness up and hiding it away is far more damaging. That's an idea that seems like it should be central in a lot of ways but which the filmmakers seem reluctant to address directly when the audience seems to want the surface. It makes the threats that appear feel more external than they should, even when the Kumo family is directly connected.However it shakes out, there's always the feel that something is going on, even as the filmmakers wrestle with what that should be. The movie kind of a mess, but always an interesting one, and it's got a great Indiana Jones feel when it goes full occult adventure in the end. This might be more frustrating if it weren't so polished, but the things this film does well most counter the ways it often seems to trade depth for the very nice surface.
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