Hibi Rock: Puke Afro And The Pop Star

Japan (2014) Dir. Yu Irie

Kids and their music dreams, a popular concept to explore in the arts, quite often a chance to either indulge in the tawdry excesses of chasing the rock’n’roll dream or to satirise the music industry in the process. This film is a bit of both with some added melodrama thrown in for good measure.

Takuro Hibinuma (Shuhei Nomura) is the singer and guitarist in rock trio Rock’n’Roll Brothers with drummer Akira Yoda (Keisuke Okamoto) and bassist Mamoru Kusakabe (Tomoya Maeno). After leaving school, they head to Tokyo to fulfil their music dreams, securing work and board in the seedy club Hibi Rock, in exchange for playing gigs.

One night during a typically disastrous show in front of no-one, they are heckled by a drunken girl (Fumi Nikaido), who proceeds to get on stage and perform better than they do, then beats them all up in a fight. It transpires she is in fact J-Pop idol Saki Utagawa, who sees something in the band’s earnest racket and asks Takuro to write a song for her.

Looks can be deceiving and Hibi Rock exemplifies that. From the potent indicator of the subtitle to the gregarious poster, and the initial manic, gross out comedy and cartoon violence beholden to its manga origins, we are unprepared for the dramatic twist in the second half that completely flips everything on its head.

Director Yu Irie chose to adapt just one part of Katsumasa Enokiya’s five volume saga, picking the middle segment of the event filled journey undertaken by Rock’n’Roll Brothers. Whilst the ending is left loosely open for a sequel – which honestly isn’t needed – nothing else suggests we’ve missed anything significant heading into this film.

Aside from music, Takuro and his band mates are essential hopeless and even then, their songs leave a lot to be desired although the energy and commitment is there. One thing that lets them down is their lyrics, which Saki objects to when she slips unnoticed into the club. Raucous laments about wanting to “put it in” some girl, sung while a half-naked Takuro has an inflatable doll strapped to his back won’t help the lads pop their cherries.

Remarkably, Saki finds their honest lyrics (“I can’t sing for s..t”) and chaotic, spirited performances appealing hence the unexpected request for Takuro to write a song for her. Naturally, Takuro doesn’t take it seriously until he realises who Saki actually is, recognising her visage on giant video billboard promoting her latest song, which kicks his creative juices into gear.

The seeds of a more serious side to the story are sown when Saki confides to Takuro that she is tiring of being a production line idol, having to sing what she is told to sing and being under the control of her demanding producer Izumi Kazama (Tomoko Mariya), a lazy caricature of the stern faced woman hiding behind black shades and wielding a caustic tongue.

At this point, we are heading into conventional territory, belying the freeform anarchy that preceded it and looks to turn things into a gritty rock vs. polished pop battle, the prize being the right to claim sole possession of musical integrity. Saki reveals she was once in a high school rock group but they disbanded and she instead was plucked to be an idol.

Not that she doesn’t play one style of music against the other, nor does she bemoan the fortune she has amassed but she feels empty without being given the chance to be creative, and write her own material. The drinking and frequenting the club is less an act of rebellion and defiance, more one of escape and finding some form of salvation from her micromanaged career.

Whereas we are led to believe this is turning into a critique of the fickle and exploitative world of idol pop – which it does touch on – the revelation of what drives Saki’s behaviour changes everything, whilst explaining the distinct lack of melancholy and desperation behind her professional ennui. The resulting monumental tonal shift creates a sense of schizophrenia, questioning how the madcap characters of Takuro and co. will fit in with this.

Unfortunately this wackiness threatens to undermine the gravity of this development but by the same token, Takuro’s foibles – such as walking bent over or shouting every line of dialogue – isn’t flexible enough to change with the mood, but does somehow adapt to it in his own way. The resolve is cheesy but with a residual spark of the comic tomfoolery from earlier, yet can be described as contextually satisfying in a begrudging way.

Yu Irie had the cast sing and perform the music themselves and to their credit, they pull it off with conviction. Rock’n’Roll Brothers are tasked with going all out which they all do with aplomb, but for Shuhei Nomura, often seen playing the pretty boy hunk, his metamorphosis into the hapless, shouty, nervous energy driven Takuro is acutely studied and wholly committed.

Also in a demanding role is Fumi Nikaido, at the time was enjoying a meteoric rise in her career thus seemed overqualified to play Saki – that is until the latter half shows us exactly why Irie rightly chose to cast her. For the live concert dance routine Nikaido worked with a professional idol choreographer to ensure the moves and performance were credible; this diligence paid off and Nikaido and the scene itself were impeccable.

No matter how much effort was put into this film, the confusion over its identity is its biggest handicap. I have no knowledge if the original manga is equally as disjointed but some audiences may not appreciate wondering if they are watching a cut-and-shunt of two different films.

The more forgiving viewer will take this in their stride since Asian comedy is notorious for toying with other genres, otherwise Hibi Rock: Puke Afro And The Pop Star remains a confused but well intentioned slice of hokum, which may have been better as an anime.