We all need to escape, once in a while, from being serious people in the real world, trying to ace the big test, land the big contract, or earn an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. Rinko Kikuchi, who accomplished the last feat for her turn as a hearing-impaired high-school girl in “Babel,” evidently thought so when she signed to star in “Zukan ni Notte Nai Mushi (The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia).”
This comedy by Satoshi Miki (“In the Pool,” “Damage”) has about the same relationship to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s deep-think drama as a marijuana-fueled giggle fest does to an academic conference on cross-cultural communication. (Though a cynic might argue that the babble of the former and the pontifications of the latter are roughly equal in comprehensibility.) In any case, it’s obvious that Kikuchi and the other cast members had a great, goofy time making this film. They also put paid to the claim, much beloved by comics, that “comedy is harder than drama.”
“To be a real grown-up playing this sort of totally idiotic role and these sorts of idiotic scenes — this is a precious experience I may never have again,” commented fellow cast member Yusuke Iseya in a program note. That just about sums it up.
Does this mean “Zukan” is a private joke — hilarious for insiders, dull for outsiders? Yes and no. Miki — whose day job is a TV variety show director, working with such big-name talents as Tamori and comic duo Downtown — inserts gags that nearly anyone with a functioning cerebral cortex (or TV set) can understand, but are nonetheless clever and uncliched. Vomit gags in films are usually the very definition of moronic humor, but Miki has come up with one that is actually imaginative — and effective. A middle-aged hippie (Matsuo Suzuki) loses his lunch on a hot car hood, flips the result after a short, sizzling interval — and, voila, okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake). Nothing in-jokey about that, is there?
The film is filled with similarly funny nuggets, as the highlight reel on the credit crawl makes clear. Plot-wise, however, “Zukan” is a mishmash — the Japanese equivalent of a Hollywood stoner/slacker pic made by real-life stoners/slackers too discombobulated or lazy to pull together a coherent story line. (Not that the workaholic Miki is necessarily either.) All of Miki’s films, even the mostly brilliant “In the Pool,” share this problem of narrative noodling, which looms larger in a feature film than a five-minute TV skit. That said, you just keep coming back for the nuggets, as well as for the mental break from the world of “fighting 24 hours a day” that waits outside the theater doors. (Once a slacker, always a slacker, I suppose.)
Miki’s hero is a scuffling freelance writer (Iseya) who gets an unusual assignment from the mildly deranged editor (Miki Mizuno) of the appropriately named rag “Kuroi Hon (Black Book)”: Have a near-death experience and write a piece about the afterlife. The writer, after some arm-twisting, sweetened by a hefty cash advance, accepts the assignment.
In his search for a death trip he can survive, the writer enlists the dubious assistance of Endo (Suzuki), the above-mentioned hippie. First, though, they go looking for the writer’s photographer buddy, Mashima (Yutaka Matsushige) — and discover that he has vanished from his disaster zone of a flat.
Soon after, they encounter Sayoko (Kikuchi), a former S&M club performer who is contemplating suicide, as well as a pudgy gang boss, who yearns to start a new life, and his scrappy female underling (Eri Fuse), who dresses, talks and acts like a guy beamed down from Planet Yakuza.
The writer’s investigations lead him and Sayoko to a “near-death show” staged by an eerily grinning hanbun otoko (a fellow whose lower half has gone missing) and his voluptuous femme fatale assistant.
Though the show is a carny flimflam, the hanbun otoko tells them of a mysterious master (Noboru Mitani) who has the real return ticket to the other world they’ve been looking for.
The master, they hear, lives on an island populated by homeless folk. When the writer, Sayoko and the rest of the gang arrive there, they find the master all right, as well as much else they hadn’t bargained on.
The story is less a journey into what lies beyond than an excuse for comic mucking about on the fringes of society and the edges of sanity. Miki, who also wrote the script, finds his targets in the scruffy world of tabloid mags, the S&M scene (the funniest bit being trash-sorting day at an S&M club), as well as lowlifes and eccentrics of various stripes, including a bearded, pipe-smoking ship captain who is a tourist shop carving brought to life.
A Hollywood director would soon zap his hero, “Flatliners” or “What Dreams May Come” style, into the other world, but Miki has his reasons for waiting — the biggest being that he is too fascinated by the strangeness of this life to concern himself overly with the next, save as comic fodder. What does the title mean? Who are the “insects unlisted in the encyclopedia?” Maybe Endo can tell you after he’s smoked a spliff or two. It will make as much sense as anything else in this sporadically funny, frustrating mess of a movie.