Princess Raccoon (PG)

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Such tough stuff and steamy dramas as Gate of Flesh, about post-war prostitution, have earned Suzuki the adulation of genre hard-nuts such as Quentin Tarantino and Korea's Park Chan-wook. But in Princess Raccoon, the maestro is clearly out to please himself first and foremost. It's a fairy-tale musical about tanukis, raccoon spirits who adopt human form, and it apparently harks back to the Tanukigoten musicals about them that thrived in the Forties and Fifties. I've never seen one - admit it, neither have you - so I have no idea how much Suzuki's film resembles the originals, but I can't imagine his is a terribly purist homage. Princess Raccoon's mix of traditional elements with modern (ie rustily archaic) rock-musical trappings, plus some gorgeous digital effects, makes it unlike any musical I've seen. I'm not quite sure whether you could consider this an adult production or a children's film - or whether the categories even apply with something this mischievous.

The original title is Operetta Tanukigoten, but the film's oddly home-made quality suggests more an end-of-the-pier show than an operetta proper: this could be Japan's equivalent of Salad Days, or one of those creakily tearful Jeanette McDonald/Nelson Eddy vehicles of the Thirties.

Cruel despot Lord Azuchi Momoyama (Mikijiro Hira) plays mirror-mirror-on the-wall, only to learn that his son Amechiyo (Joe Odagiri) is the fairest of them all. He sends the lad into exile, but out in the wild, Amechiyo falls for Princess Tanuki (China's ever-fragrant Zhang Ziyi), a raccoon in human guise. The young things fall in love, but not before a giant Princess has pursued him, intending to make him into a broth. Relations between species appear to be strangely soup-centric: a ninja named Ostrich spends much of the film trying to avoid being boiled by a family of peasants convinced that he's really a raccoon.

Human, raccoon, modern, ancient - who can tell? All things blur, including genres, in a bizarre film that appears so quintessentially Japanese that you'd think it would be unexportable - yet, here it is.

Certain elements will puzzle Western viewers, and, I suspect, many Japanese viewers too, notably the presence of assorted Portuguese-speaking courtiers, and the references to Catholic theology by fearsome purple-haired witch "Old Maid Virgen" (Saori Yuki); the Jesuits were busy in Japan in the 16th century, when the story apparently takes place.

Perplexing though the film is, there's no reason why it shouldn't make perfect sense to anyone, child or adult, who enjoyed Howl's Moving Castle or any of the other fanciful creations of animator Hayao Miyazaki. But what's most unsettling about Princess Raccoon is its ceaseless shifting of tone. One minute it's outright mawkish (a remarkably annoying quartet of little girls wearing raccoon tails), the next coyly erotic (a close-up of Zhang's foot surrounded by white petals surely merits a special place in the annals of screen fetishism). One minute it's wilfully silly (Ostrich's buffoonish capers), the next startling in its formal severity (few films these days would dare make such stark use of extended silences).

It is, in fact, a remarkably beautiful film, not least for the colours: the toffee-coloured sunsets, the giftwrap purples and yellows of the costumes. Suzuki favours manifestly trompe l'oeil theatrical sets, from which he'll suddenly leap to an outdoor setting: for example, in a startling cut to Zhang Ziyi on a windswept beach, robed in Schiaparelli pink. Suzuki also uses CGI, not for illusionism, but for purely artificial magic: Zhang is first seen striding out of a real waterfall that tumbles through a drawn landscape.

As a musical, though, Princess Raccoon leaves something to be desired. It careers through a dizzying range of styles, not all of them palatable: the circus-ska parade and the Queen pastiche would be heavy going from any culture. But I defy anyone to dislike a film that's so cheeky about its use of limited resources: the fabled Frog of Paradise that everyone's pursuing turns out to be a gold-painted papier-mâché creation (it squeaks "Yaeee!", but the subtitle reads, "Ribbet! Ribbet!"). Equally cheeky is the explanation for Zhang's speaking "a strange tongue" (Mandarin Chinese) throughout: it turns out that the Princess is actually a guest from "far Cathay".

Princess Raccoon might bewilder you occasionally, and even bore you in the odd scene - but then, things always move along very quickly. In any case, it's rare to see film-makers even a third of Suzuki's age having this much fun on screen, letting their formal imagination go wild. By a freakish coincidence, there's a choice of digital raccoons on offer this week - Zhang Ziyi, or Bruce Willis in Over the Hedge. The choice seems pretty clear to me.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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