“Synesthesia” – A.J. Hakari

Synesthesia is a movie that bends over backwards to make things more complicated for itself. So many serial killer stories turn out the same, I definitely appreciate this flick’s efforts to do something a little different. But while Synesthesia is far from incompetent, it does end up taking on a heavier load than it can bear. Everything it does to make itself stand out from the pack backfires, and just when you think the flick’s found a way out, the increasingly convoluted story is right there to drag it back down.

To say high school senior Mari Michiki (Aoi Miyazaki) is having some bad luck is a vast understatement. She’s just stumbled upon the corpse of her adoptive father, the third guardian in a row she’s found in such an unfortunate position. Mari flees from the sadness at home and ends up being taken in by Shin (Yosuke Eguchi) and Takashi (Masanobu Ando), two buddies who run an illegal webcam business. However, Mari has more in common with the guys than she thinks. Shin suffers from synesthesia, a disorder which enables him to sense things in different ways (letters have particular colors, certain shapes have tastes, etc.). But how does this tie in with his new charge? Mari has apparently become the latest target of Picasso, an Internet-based serial killer whose bizarre calling card seems to indicate that he’s a synesthete as well. When the madman starts to budge into their world, Shin and Takashi make it their mission not only to protect Mari but to find out why Picasso is so obsessed with her in the first place.

As you can probably gather, Synesthesia falls pretty short of capitalizing on its premise. That’s a shame, since the film has a really cool idea on its hands, one that could’ve imbued the story with plenty of creative mojo if explored properly. First-time director Toru Matsuura gets off to a good start by bestowing most of the characters with some sort of emotional isolation. Mari’s maladies are obvious, but it’s Shin who stands out as the story’s backbone. As someone whose disorder has him living a sort of life not even other synethetes can describe, Shin turns out to be a pretty lonely guy, turning to Mari as his way of making a difference in the world. Even the flick’s alternate title, Gimme Heaven, strongly hints that there’s quite a bit of soul-searching to be had. The stage is set for a moody and introspective character study, and Synesthesia comes so close to pulling it off, you can almost taste it. But it’s at this point that Matsuura remembers he’s trying to make a quirky crime thriller, only to see those good thematic vibes go straight down the tubes.

Synesthesia is a clear-cut case of a flick that hasn’t a clue of what it wants to be or do. It spends its time pitching all sorts of concepts to the audience, none of which gel together or come to make any sort of sense. In addition to the synesthetic aspect of the story, we also get Shin and Takashi’s dealings with the yakuza, Shin’s little-seen girlfriend, a hypnotic video game, and a cop (Yuriko Shibata) hunting Picasso herself. Each of these is interesting enough on their own, only the climax never brings them into a coherent whole. Not to spoil anything, but it actually renders the story even more muddled, as Picasso’s motives are revealed to be a series of ill-conceived schemes that the guy put way too much thought into. Matsuura especially drops the ball even on a visual front; save for a cool scene near the end, viewers never understand what it’s like to see the world from a synesthete’s perspective. All in all, it’s a rather confounding time that someone like Terry Gilliam could’ve really guided into greatness.

Synesthesia isn’t so much bad as it is disappointing (which can be even worse than being a flat-out stinker). Strangers to Japanese cinema may enjoy it as a funky genre treat, but don’t be surprised if you’re left feeling there’s even more, better-realized fish in the sea.

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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