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Friday, April 21, 2006
The art of stealing food, slowly
"Tachiguishi Retsuden (The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters)," Mamoru Oshii's new animation about junk-food-crazy scam artists, is a daring, if doomed, leap past tired anime conventions. It derives, though, from both his previous work and other films melding human actors and animation, including Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" and Masaaki Yuasa's "Mind Game." Imagine the gritty, sepia-colored look of "Avalon," Oshii's 2001 live-action exercise in futuristic noir, transposed to Showa Era Tokyo, but more smokily stylish, surreal and manga-esque.
"Tachiguishi" also reaches back to kamishibai (picture plays), in which a narrator tells a story while shuffling through an upright stack of illustrated cards. Though hardly unique to Japan, the kamishibai tradition is still strong here -- and has informed the aesthetic of anime, including Oshii's, for decades.
Western animators may use limited animation reminiscent of kamishibai -- see "South Park" for one popular example -- but from Chuck Jones (the Road Runner) to Brad Bird ("The Incredibles") the masters among them have long preferred smooth, fluent, expressive motion. (Jones often said he knew a cartoon was good if he could follow its story with the sound turned off). Japanese animators, however, often slow down and savor the moment -- or stop the flow dead for an iconic image. They are also more likely to tell the story than show it, with the characters in even space operas for kiddies rattling off reams of dialogue.
Oshii takes both tendencies to a tiresome extreme in "Tachiguishi." The film's dulcet-voiced, quick-tongued narrator (Koichi Yamadera) reels off pages of kanji-dense text, while the on-screen action resembles a digital slide show on slo-mo. For long stretches at a time there is little motion at all, save for wisps of hair blowing in the breeze or stray bursts of slapstick. In fact, you could follow nearly the entire story from the soundtrack alone -- the opposite of Jones' dictum.
Oshii has long tended toward prolixity, but where his seminal 1996 SF anime "Kokaku Kidotai (Ghost in the Shell)" and last year's "Innocence" wrestled with weighty issues of human identity and purpose in an inhumanly digital world, "Tachiguishi" is a comedy about scamming fast-food joints for free eats. Think "Tampopo" -- Juzo Itami's comic quest for the perfect bowl of ramen -- as repurposed by a logorrheic pop-culture maven with an elephantine sense of fun. All right, it's not quite as bad as that -- "Tachiguishi" is visually and even comically inventive in a goofy, dreamy way -- but it's also the slenderest of shaggy dog stories (with real dogs popping up here and there), as told by Oshii and his anime industry pals, drawn out to infinity.
The story starts in 1945, with shots of a burned-out Tokyo and its ragged inhabitants, scratching out a living on the black market. Then out of nowhere appears a tall, spectral, silver-haired gent, Tsukimi-no-Ginji (Kaito Kisshoji), who has a thing for tsukimi soba (buckwheat noodles with a raw egg on top). Wafting into a grotty-looking noodle joint, presided over by a scowling, ratty-bearded cook, he orders his favorite dish with precise instructions for its preparation ("Put the egg in first"). When the cook shoves over the bowl, he gravely inspects it. "What beautiful scenery," he intones, but somehow he neglects to pay before wafting out.
Flash forward to 1960 and the riots protesting the Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty. Into another noodle shop slinks Ogin (Mako Hyodo), a mysterious woman with a craving for kitsune (deep-fried tofu) soba with croquettes. She may, we learn, be a radical terrorist, but she fades away into the mist, chopsticks stuck in her hair, before we can determine her identity. In any case, she leaves no coins on the counter.
We meet a total of eight tachiguishi (fast-food grifters) representing various postwar eras through the 1980s -- that is, the end of the Showa Era. Among the most flamboyant is Gyudon-no-Ushigoro (Shinji Higuchi), a bruiser with a nose ring who bosses a gang that drives a certain gyudon (beef bowl) chain to ruin. Another is Hamburger-no-Tetsu (Kenji Kawai), a chap with dyed hair who has a violently xenophobic grudge against foreign burger chains. Still others are Frankfurt-no-Tatsu (Katsuya Terada), who grifts free hot dogs on the amusement park circuit, and Chuka-ra-no-Sabu (Shoji Kawamori), an Indian-looking fellow who works eat-and-run scams at curry stands.
Mostly played by Oshii's friends and associates, the grifters and their various victims are not required to act so much as pose -- or rather mug. Character and plot development get lost in the kamishibai shuffle. The grifters are little more than markers for Oshii's meditations on postwar society -- something like the cartoon figures used to liven up the news analysis shows on NHK.
Which leads to the next question -- why a movie? The short answer is that, after three, largely successful decades in the animation business, Oshii can make nearly anything he wants, including this elaborate private joke. Which is, for the audience, the ultimate grift.