films from japan
Obsession, irrationality, heightened emotional responses… what does “being a teenager” mean? Adolescence obviously happens at a certain point in life, but then, in another sense, it never really goes away. I was lucky enough to attend the world premiere of Maruyama the Middle Schooler (Chūgakusei Maruyama, 2013) at a festival in Italy, where it was memorably classified in the guide as a “self-fellatio comedy” – that label suggests that the eponymous protagonist’s ambition to give himself a blow-job is the driving force of the film. But it is and it isn’t: while it dominates Katsuya Maruyama’s plot-line, which is undoubtedly the film’s centrepiece, equally important are the lives and drama of the other characters: like Katsuya’s mother, who is hopelessly smitten by the Korean man who comes to repair her DVD player as a result of his being physically identical to the star of the soap opera she’d been trying to watch in the first place; or the old man who seems to neither see nor hear the world around him, yet angrily seizes an electric guitar from a street performer and gives a virtuoso punk performance before slouching off into the background again. These are less sub-plots, and more re-iterations of a central theme: what does “being a teenager” mean? Even Katsuya’s younger sister, years away from the onset of pubescence, fits into the patchwork of repetitions when she asks the previously mentioned old man to be her boyfriend (a storyline that you just can’t imagine making its way into a Western comedy, at least not without overt and paranoiac attempts to defuse the audience’s supposed fears of paedophilia). The desire to perform “grown-up” roles, the immature yet self-assured understanding of what love means – these belong to our vague and sprawling idea of what a teenager is, and are reminiscent of perhaps literature’s most famous teenager, Holden Caulfied of The Catcher in the Rye.
But to compare this film to “high art” is misleading: it’s a genre film, and has a specific style, drawing on pop culture references and surreal clownery as the characters’ imaginations get the better of them. Its over-the-top nonsense is usually prefigured by the image of a spark of electricity coming from Katsuya’s body, which was in my eyes a flaw: it was as though the filmmakers were giving the audience a visual cue to prepare them for insanity, drawing a clear divide between “reality” and the world of the imagination. Thankfully, the division blurs and then vanishes almost entirely by the end of the film, but we could have done without it from the start. The struggle and interconnectedness between dreams and reality that our desires propel is, after all, the gleaming thread that ties these stories together.
Among the people who were with me at the world premiere (I just won’t get tired of emphasising that), I was the only one who really liked this film, or so it seemed to me. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t very funny – at least, I didn’t think so. Of all the genres, comedy is perhaps the most unforgiving of its works – just because a horror doesn’t give you chills or a romance doesn’t move you to tears doesn’t mean they fail entirely, but if a comedy doesn’t make you laugh… Here, then, I found an exception (although I did laugh, once or twice). Perhaps it was just refreshing to be presented with the idea that being a teenager is not restricted to middle school, and that, if a tendency to irrational fantasising is what we mean by “teenager”, then perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing to be one, perhaps it’s one of the most vividly human modes of being available to us. But the film doesn’t moralise. Tsuyoshi Kusanagi convincingly plays a character who recognises the importance of dreaming and encourages Katsuya to dream relentlessly: the fact that Kusanagi’s character’s irresponsibility and reckless pursual of his and Katsuya’s fantasies has a negative outcome creates a convincing counterpoint, and the film is anything but preachy in its celebration of passionate daydreaming.
Not too funny either, perhaps, but ridiculous, wild, and even touching: when Katsuya ‘s sister kisses her supposed boyfriend near the end of the film, the old man asks if it’s her first kiss. After her nod, he sighs, and says, “It’s probably my last.” So much more than light humor! I was smiling with sadness at that sweet image of love and life on the screen. Far from a masterpiece, but it does something special to me, this one…