In most time-twist dramas, audiences are torn between trying to follow the ins and outs of the loops, paradoxes and dovetails – which will eventually make their heads hurt – and just going with the flow and hoping to be pleased by the outcome. Junta Yamaguchi’s first feature, scripted by Makoto Ueda, not only fits this pattern exactly but makes the conflicting impulses central to the emotional throughline … with an added level that it uses an apparent single take so that subliminally throughout the viewer is also constantly astonished by a perfect interplay that must have been fiendishly tricky to pull off. Some, but not all, the secrets are revealed in snippet-like behind-the-scenes footage in the end credits. The film is in the same wheelhouse as One Cut of the Dead – as much for its hard-won sweetness as its intricate smarts – but has a freshness all of its own. The Droste Effect, stressed in the Japanese title and talked up in the dialogue, refers to the packaging of a brand of chocolate – in the US and UK, the reference would be to the infinite regressions of the illustration on a box of Quaker oats.
Kato (Kazunari Tosa), a slightly glum fellow, lives above a café he owns or manages, but thinks of himself as a musician – when he comes home just after his ditzy emplyee (Riko Fujitani) has shut up shop his most pressing worry is whether to ask Megumi (Aki Asakura), a neighbour he likes, to come to the first gig of his band Kyoto Barista. However, in his room, he is addressed from a TV screen by a version of himself from two minutes in the future, communicating via a screen in the café below. Future Kato tells him where to find a lost guitar pick, then Present Kato has to go downstairs to keep the timeline safe by telling Past Kato the same thing. Three of Kato’s slackerish pals show up and are more excited by the phenomenon than he is – he becomes disillusioned when future him lies about how well he’ll do if he calls on Megumi, persuaded by the others to maintain the spell. Then, everyone in the café tries to work out how to use this two-minute wormhole to their advantage – and the canny Ozawa (Yoshifumi Sakai) suggests they haul the TV from upstairs down (it has an unfeasably long cable) and place it opposite the screen in the café to create a hall of mirrors or Droste/Quaker Oats effect that’ll allow for seeing further into the future, if only in increments of two minutes.
Naturally, such miracles have a cost – this one at once gets the gang in trouble with some crooks who live in the building but also shows a way to battle them … and two strange fellows loitering around (with rayguns) seem likely to know more than they’re saying. The spine of the film, though, is the evolving rapport between Kato and Megumi, who get off on the wrong foot but obviously have sparks, with the suggestion that any two minutes might be a precious time one wouldn’t want wiped off the slate. Kato, who is still bruised from the world not ending in 1999 (thanks, Nostradamus) or 2012 (screw you, Mayan calendar), is reluctant to invest in another prophecy … while his friends, all of whom are slightly childish but ingenious, sieze the opportunity to tinker with time as if the wormhole were an escape room with high prizes. Ueda, who wrote Masaaki Yuasa’s The Night is Short, Walk On Girl, sets Yamaguchi a number of logistic challenges as different versions of the characters talk to each other across the two minute gap then we see the conversation from the other side … eventually, with more and more future/past versions chipping in. It’s a miracle that the result feels so breezy.