(contains MINOR spoilers)
Thunderous clank of industrial machines, the very heartbeat of the city, opens the film. City moans, crashes and rustles like some metallic yet living creature. Fumes of smoke rise to sky, everything is ragged, worn and so, so gray.
Opening shots of Hideaki Anno's Shiki Jitsu open our eyes to harsh beauty of polluted, urban landscapes like few films have.
And then, on railroad tracks, Girl meets Director and Director meets Girl, setting the plot and starting the careful, subtle character studies of Girl and (to lesser extent) Director, Anno's alter ego just as much as Shinji ever was.
Discounting main characters, strange man with bandage and Girl's mysterious, somewhat threatening Mother (who is always looming just beyond act of answering phone) there is no other characters in this movie.
Ayako Fujitani contributes one of all time greatest portrayals of creeping madness and loneliness. Her magnificent performance and sheer charisma born out of mix of talent and very personal nature of her character* is one of best virtually unknown performances in history of cinema. Legendary indie director Shunji Iwai debuts as actor in role of (surprise surprise) Director and does mighty good job that is sadly out shined by Fujitani's brilliance. But then again, focus of movie is Girl and she gets most of characterization.
(*after all Shiki Jitsu is heavily modified version of short novella she wrote based on her experiences of alienation as multicultural child in L.A)
Compared to characters (which embody themes oh so similar to those of us who have seen Anno's magnum opus Neon Genesis Evangelion) plot is secondary, something that just happens half accidentally alongside with character interactions instead of it propelling the movie. Plot is merely background canvas for all that takes place, yet it IS there and is quite complex affair. And of course interest of more plot oriented viewers is sustained by Anno's trademark titles. They don't just introduce each new day, they also count days to... what exactly? Girl's suicide? End of their short acquaintance? Something more? Something less?
With plot out of focus great part of film relies on great performances and character interaction, but even more on movie's undiminishable highpoint: It is brilliantly directed and features top notch formalism and cinematography.
Anno's framing, camera-work and cinematography are absolutely wonderful with healthy doze of motifs and his trademark fish-eye lens thrown in for good measure. Brilliant pacing and rhyming of shots and scenes is deeply interwoven with wondrous colour schema of red, blue and white. Some long shots are worthy of Tarkovsky and the defining moments of film - such as when Director finally "takes action" near end of film in Girl's basement - stand among most beautiful, best shot photography ever put on film and among my all time favourite scenes.
Framing brings forth constant feeling of entrapment and together with the magnificent set design - the abandonded apartment house (or some such) Girl lives in - with its dazzling peculiarities and ever present ominous staircases come to form very physical and very living metaphor for Girl's psyche out of the very mise en scene. When Director enters "the secret basement" for the first time he literally walks among darkest and deepest forming structures of her mind.
The way Anno blends normal movie camera and hand-held camera is absolutely brilliant and for this film Anno perfected the use of cinema verité camera-work, adding just enough counterpoint for perfectly build shots that create main bulk of movie. Exceptionally effective is the scene in which Director is having party with his old acquintances and friends. Director's nervousness, uneasiness and anxiety among old friends and their high moods is brilliantly evocated by film material that could've been filmed by your neighbor in last new year's eve. Anno has always had eye for such small defining moments of human contact and failures of it.
Shiki Jitsu isn't perfect however; Occasionally Girl's inner world is depicted in blend of live action footage and animation; one of these scenes work really well, one is OK, but unfortunately biggest one of them was just stupid. Luckily this is very minor flaw when looking at grand picture. The Wall continues to be only movie that has brilliantly mixed together animation and live film I fear... Voice-over narrative either isn't the best thing in world, but mostly it works well and is occasionally even crucial and interesting. But then again just as often it's just needless underlining of characters, something Anno skillfully avoided in NGE days.
Despite these flaws this film is firmly rooted in my Top Twenty, over dozen of "perfect" films including likes of Godfather. Emotional heights of performances and brilliance of audiovisual storytelling in this film are really hard to match.
Shiki Jitsu is (sadly) unknown masterpiece of cinema and is whole heartily recommended. You can get DVD with English subtitles from Amazon Japan