REVIEW: Blister (2000)

A story about an obsessive action figure collector goes in some very unexpected directions in Blister, a 2000 Japanese comedy directed by Taikan Suga (Robo Rock).

Yuji (Hideaki Ito) works in a bar with a photographer girlfriend (Masumi Sanada), but everything in his life takes second place to his immense collection of American action figures – all sealed neatly in their original blister packaging. He is obsessed with tracking down the mythic “Hellbanker” – a figure based on an independent comic book so obscure that there may be only one of them in existence.

There is an awful lot to Blister, which is visibly produced on a low budget but packed with enthusiasm and genuine affection for Japan’s otaku culture. At first it seems to be a fairly simple observational comedy with a static vibe akin to Kevin Smith’s earliest films, but as the narrative develops a sense of absurd fantasy creeps in to produce a winning cult experience. In the end it remains nominally a comedy, but elements of science fiction, fantasy, conspiracy, and relationship drama abound. It may be imperfectly made and slightly too long, but it is also comparatively unique with an odd sense of charm. General audiences seem likely to bounce right off it, but science fiction, comic, and Japanese pop culture fans will be appreciative.

Yuji is not alone in his obsessions, with the film revealing an entire community of science fiction obsessives – each with individual specialist hobbies. Bar manager Terada (Akio Otsuka) is a Star Trek and Star Wars enthusiast who owns a DeLorean and wants to film his own low budget space opera. Hasamoto (Yuta Yamazaki) is a love-struck giant robot freak. Suga, with writer Shinichi Inozume, deftly straddles a fine line with these characters. They are broadly appealing to watch, and seem like good-hearted people, yet they are also terribly flawed with childish perspectives and poor social functions.

That is possibly why Mami (Masumi Sanada) emerges as the film’s most likeable character. She lives with Yuji and his collection in a small apartment. She gets frustrated with his hobby and his financial irresponsibility. At the same time she remains supportive of his artistic talents, and genuinely warm when it counts. He clearly does not deserve her affections, and his blinkered outlook on life forms one of the film’s critical storylines.

As noted above, Blister definitely gets weirder as it goes. Before long this group of geeks and nerds are sharing screen-time with secret underground deals, international terrorism, comic-as-prophecy conspiracies that pre-date the UK’s Utopia by 13 years, a brief gunfight, and even flash-forwards to a post-apocalyptic Earth in the far future. Finding out how such a simple premise goes so wildly out of scope is part of Blister‘s unusual appeal.

Taikan Suga seems the perfect independent filmmaker to be introduced to international audiences, just as Shinya Tsukamoto was back in the early 1990s and as Sogo Ishii seems to be at present. With any luck, some enterprising distributor will take on the opportunity and find him the enthused cult audience that he deserves.

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