Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 10, 2018 11:44 am 
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Japanese ganja bromance

Whether you take the action in Smokin' on the Moon seriously or not, it's fun to watch this first feature by Osaka-based musician and filmmaker Wolf (aka Yuichiro Tanaka) for its playful way with formats and punk visual style (including two animated dream sequences), which, except for the beginning, is vibrant without being overwhelming. Based by Wolf on his own manga, the film was shot by dp Hiroo Takaoka in a manner that's intimate, yet clear, and gives the action and main characters a naturalism to counteract the fantastic stoned element. The main characters are appealing, and the story comes to a sweet, touching end. Wolf gives an engaging feel to his grungy slice of life with Hiroyasu Koizumi's intentionally decrepit set and production design (notably for the pair's mess of a flat supplied them by a wannabe rapper), idiosyncratic fast edits, and deliberately unrelated scene shifts. That's balanced by up-close camerawork of people that's surprisingly intimate, aided by the charm of the two main actors.

The early scenes, a Kaleidoscopic whirlwind of vignettes of the guys' lifestyle, seem like pure visual play, as they introduce the frivolous, wigged out pair of buddies, thirtyish Sota (Arata Iura) and twenty-something, scrawny-stylish, tattooed and red-haired "rooster" Rakuto (former model Ryo Narita), who work at a Tokyo bar and deal marijuana on the side. Their affection for each other is the emotional anchor of the film. We meet other colorful characters, including an oversexed landlady (LiLiCo) and a loud-mouthed rapper and pot dealer called Jay (Yasu Peron).

Slackers are a poignant element in a Japanese society that doesn't afford a productive or lucrative spot for all its citizens. And we need to have sympathy for the two stoner pals in the foreground. They do most of the smokin', and spend life in a pleasant weed haze. That will end as the film moves along, going from stoner movie to crime story to medical melodrama, but the drug-inspired vibe and the spirit of visual play never completely disappear. A scene of extreme violence is mitigated, aestheticized, even, by casting it in low-resolution black-and-white, with splashes of red.

The guys' constant high numbs them from from the real danger posed by the yakuza toughs who come into their Tokyo lowlife sphere as part of drug dealing. That works for them till Jay is executed by the mob, and a sadistic baddie called Hatta (Kanji Tsuda) turns up to make sure Sota and Rakuto are in the dark about this. Sota is shocked by this encounter into the realization that at thirty-four, he needs to get serious about his life, while Rakuta considers going over to the yakuza side in a peripheral, safe capacity; a "straight" job isn't much of an option for a middle-school dropout with flaming red-dyed hair and arms full of tattoos. Sota's dad (Eiji Okuda) runs a restaurant in Okinawa specialized in okonomiyaki grilled pancakes, and this is an obivious legit birth for Sota. He left that life because it seemed boring, but his eight years in Tokyo have yielded nothing but one strong friendship, with Rakuto.

Flashbacks toward the end - the editing is constantly deft and playful - illustrate why Rakuto has nothing to go back to. He deeply resents his mother for not protecting him, or herself, from a stepfather who beat them every day - also in Okinawa. Now, perhaps to give back good for bad, he has become a surrogate dad for a little boy and his mother Tsukimi (Mary Sara), an old friend who's trying to kick a crack habit.

The shift from slacker bromance to addiction drama to crime story to a focus on child abuse, drug addiction, and a fatal case of Hodgkin's lymphoma may seem a bit much, and certainly turns sentimental. It's hard to take it all seriously. But while the visual dynamics make it still fun to watch, Wolf's sincerity never seems in doubt. As Rakuto, Ryo Narita is an irresistible boy-man who's sweet and nice. It's all so various and playful that the two hours pass smoothly, at least for this viewer.

Smokin' on the Moon / ニワトリ★スター ("Rooster [chicken] star"), 119 mins., screened for this review as part of the NYAFF, its North American Premiere, where it's showing Tues. Jul. 10, 2018 at 9:15 p.m. including a Q&A with diretor Kanata Wolf.

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