Yoshiko Chiwaki (Shiori Yoshida), a.k.a. Chiwawa, specializes in being the life of the party—we first meet her wearing a tight yellow blouse and exaggerated makeup, making big gestures with her cigarette as she informs information a group of fellow club kids that her nickname (“Chihuahua”) is a reference to the small dogs, that she used to drank milk to try to grow taller (“but only my boobs got big!”), and that she’s the same height as Mr. Bean. The last is a good hint that Chiwawa lives in her own reality, since she’s 5’1” and Rowan Atkinson is about 10 inches taller. When a waiter informs the group that a purse left unguarded at a nearby table contains 6 million yen, it’s not long before Chiwawa grabs it and runs out of the club, racing down the night streets of Tokyo accompanied by her gleeful entourage. That’s the kind of life Chiwawa lives—pedal to the metal and don’t ever look back.
This scene is a flashback, and must be processed in light of the preceding and following scenes, which inform us that Chiwawa’s remains have been recovered from Tokyo Bay. Her death was no accidental drowning, either, as her body had been cut up and the parts placed in plastic bags, and what was left was so decomposed that her identity could only be determined through DNA analysis. An obligatory chorus of old men appear to declare her demise a cautionary tale of “the terrible consequences of young people’s lifestyles” (translation: “let’s not investigate what happened, let’s just blame the victim and seize the opportunity to deliver some empty moralizing”).
It’s no accident that Chiwawa’s favorite hangout is called Sedgwick, where the walls are adorned with images of Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, who became known as the “it” girl before dying of a drug overdose. The parallels are obvious, perhaps overly so: like Sedgwick, Chiwawa burned the candle at both ends, died tragically young, and remained something of a mystery even to those in her inner circle. This film is no moralizing Factory Girl, however, but places itself within the world of the characters, and does its best to place the audience there as well. The main narrative of the film constructed around the efforts of one of Chiwawa’s friends to discover what happened to Chiwawa, and it gradually builds up a picture of her friends and acquaintances, including her boyfriend Yoshida (Ryo Narita), the goofy Nagai (Nijiro Murakami), a wannabe cinematographer who had a crush on her, and her pals Yumi (Tina Tamashiro), Katsuo (Kanichiro Sato), and Miki (Mugi Kadowaki).
Chiwawa, receiving its North American film at Fantasia 2019, is a distinctive looking film that constantly draws attention to its constructed nature—just as Chiwawa seems to be always performing, so does the film’s cinematic style remind you that everything you are seeing on the screen was designed for effect. Writer/director Ken Ninomiya respects his story (adapted from a manga by Kyoko Okazai) and his characters, and the latter certainly seem to be having a lot of fun (and who wouldn’t want to be as young and pretty as they are?), even if it also becomes clear that they’re all working at it a bit too hard. Chiwawa’s many interruptions of its main narrative may exasperate those who like their films conventionally constructed, and there’s certainly plenty in this film to offend the prudish viewer, even if the film doesn’t entirely endorse what it portrays. Having said that, if you’re up for something different, Chiwawa is definitely worth a look. | Sarah Boslaugh
“Chiwawa: (C)2019 CHIWAWA Chang PRODUCTION COMMIIEE(TOEI VIDEO, VAP, KADOKAWA, GEEK PIKTURES, TOEI ADVERTISING)”