Fuku-Chan Of Fukufuku Flats (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 106 minutes approx.
It is not much of an exaggeration to suggest the Japanese have cornered the market in quirky slice-of-life films (or anime for that matter). It seems almost endemic in their culture that their everyday life is just as fanciful and quixotic as the marvellously esoteric fiction they create.
Writer-director Yosuke Fujita, who gave us 2008’s laconic Fine Totally Fine, returns with another bittersweet look into life in modern suburban Japan. The titular “Fuku-chan” is thirty-two year-old Tatsuo Fukuda (Miyuki Oshima), a tenant at the rundown Fukufuku flats apartment block. A painter by trade and kite-flyer in his spare time, Fuku-chan is a big-hearted chap who is unlucky in love, a result of a traumatic rejection by his childhood crush as a youngster.
One day Fuku-chan receives a visitor, Chiho (Asami Mizukawa), a woman with ambitions of becoming a professional photographer. She apologises to Fuku-chan for her part in the bullying incident twenty years earlier when she broke his heart, triggering Fuku-chans’ fear of women. But does Chiho’s return into Fuku-chan’s life bring resolution or just further pain for him?
It should be no surprise to anyone who is familiar with Fujita’s work, or indeed Japanese comedies in general, to learn that the world of this film is inhabited with a curious and colourful bunch of people. If we were to take this seriously we’d believe that Japan is made up of those people on society’s fringes and the polite, smart suited salarymen are the real aliens!
Fujita uses these harmless oddballs to measure the true worth of their heart and their place in the world over the perception and pressures of confirming to whatever “normal” is. Fuku-chan is among the most normal of this whole cast – which includes over emotional snake owner Mabuchi (Okito Serizawa) and reformed panty stealer Nonoshita (Takeshi Yamamoto) – and while is posited as the main target for our sympathies and support, he acts more as a central catalyst for the others to get their lives into order – sort of.
Fuku-chan’s extinct love life is a concern for his gormless friend Shimacchi (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa), who has done all right for himself with his pretty wife Yoshimi (Mei Kurokawa). Shimacchi’s hand at matchmaking by introducing Fuku-chan to a work colleague of Yoshimi’s, Katsuko (Maho Yamada) is of course a disaster. Fuku-chan never reveals what the issue is but tears Shimacchi off a strip for interfering in his life.
The root of the problem is finally revealed in flashback during Chiho’s subplot in which her dreams of becoming a photographer are dashed when her eccentric idol Nakamura (Toshiyuki Kitami) makes a pass at her. Depressed, Chiho is encouraged by a wise bar owner (Kimie Shingyoji) to make amends for any past transgressions which leads her to Fuku-chan, which rekindles her passion for photography.
All this sounds fine and dandy and Fujita explores the effects and hypocrisy of superficial judgements made by everyday folk with an acerbic yet sensitive while avoiding the melodramatic clichés such a story would inspire. The problem is that it takes almost the first hour of this 106 minute film to reach the main story, somewhat flying in the face of the often just accusations that Asian cinema is too long by having the beginning run too long! Not that the time isn’t abused but it does meander a little before hitting second gear.
This makes the developments following the Fuku-chan/Chiho reunion feel a bit rushed with important steps in the rebuilding of the relationship glossed over in favour of keeping the pace going. It’s not all without its charm however, and Fujita even manages to throw in some surreal Python-esque humour for good measure, perhaps as device to avoid the usual conventions and maybe to make-up for the sobering tone the final act brings with it.
Speaking of these surreal moments they do stand out as rather incongruous and arguably jar against with the gentle but idiosyncratic aura of the rest of the film. The scenes with self-proclaimed “world famous” Nakamura are comparatively abstract when juxtaposed with the scenes around them; a confrontation at a curry restaurant where they refuse to serve water is just as daft but less of a style clash, and – more importantly – quite amusing.
But the most amazing aspect of the film is in the casting of Fuku-chan. Many people on this side of the world may not be aware of this but Miyuki Oshima is one of Japan’s most popular comediennes – yes, a woman! A brilliantly subversive move by Fujita that pays dividends via a superbly astute and perfectly realised performance from Oshima. To illustrate her dedication to making her role as a male totally convincing, Oshima shaved her head, put on some weight and perfected the male mannerisms to a tee.
Even knowing this in advance one never once suspects this chubby, often coarse but well mean good guy is female, the portrayal is that authentic. Fujita couldn’t resist some ribald in jokes at Oshima’s expense, such as Shimacchi discussing Fuku-chan’s apparently impressive manhood. It helps that as distraction, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa as Shimacchi is similar in appearance to Fuku-chan, with the same shaven head, so Oshima’s image doesn’t stand out as obvious.
It is this gender-bending casting which is in fact the central conceit of the whole film around which the other themes of love, loneliness, redemption, social and personal acceptance are equally engaging supplementary bonuses. In addition to this, the photography is a notch above the standard indie fare, as demonstrated by the outdoor kite flying scenes and Third Window’s transfer, even on DVD, looks great as a result, although the subtitles could have been a size or two bigger.
Once the main story kicks the film into second gear Fuku-Chan Of Fukufuku Flats is another welcome entry into the milieu of eccentric but wholly enjoyable character driven comedies from Japan. It’s a bold and passionate work that revels unabashed in its offbeat attitude.
Japanese 5.1 Surround Sound
Interview with Director Yosuke Fujita
Discussion with Actress Miyuki Oshima, Director Yosuke Fujita and Producer Adam Torel
Rating – *** ½
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