Movie Review – Poison Berry In My Brain (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: A fun romantic comedy that just so happens to be very similar to Pixar’s Inside Out.

REVIEW: Before I start talking about the movie (and its similarities to Pixar’s Inside Out), let me talk about the main actress, Yoko Maki. Being in the unfortunate position of being known in the West in a small role in The Fast and the Furious – Tokyo Drift, I think that she’s one of the most under-appreciated actresses in Japan today. Her performances have great restraint that rings human; she shows strength and authority in a compelling way and she has surprisingly comedic chops that are underused. Great examples of her work are in Before the Vigil, The Ravine of Goodbye, Like Father Like Son and fittingly, Poison Berry In My Brain. Despite sharing many similarities to the Pixar film, Poison Berry In My Brain is nonetheless, a very funny romantic comedy that has enough innovations to make it fresh and worthwhile to watch.

Yoko Maki stars as Ichiko Sakurai, a smart and talented woman who recently got fired from her job due to her indecisiveness and her impulsiveness. But in an optimistic fashion, she uses her time off to work on her long-gestating novel. It is in her daily life, where she has problems with making decisions in general. Every time she has to make one, it is brainstormed in her head, represented as a committee of five people including the chairman Yoshida (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who represents reason; Ishibashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who represents optimism; Ikeda (Yo Yoshida) who represents pessimism; Hatoko (Hiyori Sakurada) who represents impulsiveness and imagination and Kishi (Kazuyuki Asano) who represents memory. There is also another member of the committee that suddenly appears when Ichiko meets Ryoichi Saotome (Yuki Furakawa), and it starts a tumultuous relationship that could see the committee and Ichiko go for a bumpy ride.

I’ve already written enough praise for Yoko Maki (also in Lion Standing Against the Wind) already so…I’m gonna do it again. In this movie, she displays everything from vulnerability, strength when it is needed and her comedic chops are in full display, especially when she struggles to hold in her sexual urges and feelings towards Saotome. She also never feels like she’s a guest in her own film as she stand her ground as a character, which was a problem for me as I watched Inside Out, as the main character felt like she was benched out. As for the supporting cast, most of them are great, while some are just present. Hidetoshi Nishijima is amusing as a timid leader and when he finally shows authority, he becomes compelling. Kazuyuki Asano shows adds credibility in the dramatic scenes as well as amusing asides during the comic arguments. The duo of Ryunosuke Kamiki (also in Bakuman) and Yo Yoshida lend plenty of laughs with their confrontations while Hiyori Sakurada (who was good in The Furthest End Awaits) is a hoot as Hatoko, who stands on the delicate line between overly cute and pure hilarity. Even when she stands in the background, doing nothing, she just comes off as hilarious. But unfortunately, the performances of the male characters that want to court Ichiko are quite frankly, bland. It may not be the actor’s performances but it might be their character archetypes. Granted, they are more developed than the norm of romantic comedies, but it doesn’t offset the fact that these characters are still bland. It makes a bit of a dramatic vacuum since we don’t really care about who Ichiko chooses out of the two.

There are many blatant similarities to this and Pixar’s Inside Out. Both feature a female protagonist with a committee that represent five different personalities and both revolve around a major part of a person’s life. In Inside Out, it revolved around a child’s adolescence, but in Poison Berry In My Brain, it revolves around a person’s love life. Though there are plenty of opportunities for depth and nuance, the film doesn’t take that route that much (except for the climax) due to the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. The story itself can be predictable but the addition of the committee is what makes the film stand out. The visuals of the committee looks quite good and I liked how it was set in a castle, which conveys Ichiko’s world of fantasy and imagination, especially when she’s a writer of romantic stories. And I really liked the choice of choosing a beautiful woman, dressing eerily close to BDSM, representing Ichiko’s sensualist emotions, impulsiveness, and how she easily overrules the committee.

Regardless of similarities, what it lacks in substance, it makes up for it in laughs. And besides the performances, the editing is another reason why the film earns its laughs. With the careful timing of cutting back to the committee’s reactions of Ichiko, it earns many laughs and thankfully, the filmmakers never overdo it to the point of tedium or attempt it at the wrong time like during a dramatic scene. The dramatic scenes can work although at times, the music can be used a bit too much just to get a rise out of the audience. The substance in the film still counts as the film can be a bit more than just a romantic comedy, but it can be seen as a commentary about love and happiness. And it definitely rings true in the climax.

Speaking of dramatic, the climax earns its poignancy thanks to the capabilities of the cast alone and the journey of Ichiko is very well-traveled. Her character arc is nothing new, but it is portrayed enough to drive its point home. I would like to see a sequel to this film just to explore other major life events that Ichiko might come by, as this film only explores love (in every sense of the word).

Poison Berry In My Brain is a fun romantic comedy that applies more effort than most of its kind and when you add Yoko Maki, the talented supporting cast and its innovations (derivative or not), it becomes more than just fluff; it has brains.

Quickie Review

PROS

Yoko Maki gives an understated,  charming, “emotional” and very funny performance

The supporting cast (committee) are all great

Many different diversions to make the romantic comedy template seem fresh

CONS

Boring male romantic leads

The music can be a bit overused

Those who have seen “Inside Out” may be put off a bit

SCORE: 7.5/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Yoko Maki, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Yuki Furukawa, Sungha, Yo Yoshida, Hiyori Sakurada, Kazuyuki Asano

Director: Yuichi Sato

Screenwriter: Tomoko Aizawa, based on the manga by Setona Mizushiro

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