Manga artists have one great advantage over live-action film directors: They can fantasize and satirize and otherwise have fun with their characters without worrying how flesh-and-blood actors will interpret them. As American comic artist R. Crumb once told his readers, “It’s only lines on paper, folks!!”
Instead of making manga characters more realistically human, actors in Japanese film adaptations of popular comics typically imitate the originals, which leads to a lot of odd, over-caffeinated performances.
In bringing Hikaru Nakamura’s hit manga “Arakawa Anda za Burijji (Arakawa Under the Bridge)” to the screen, director Ken Iizuka (“Sairen,” “Summer Nude”) abandoned any attempt at realism from the get-go, opting instead for tongue-in-cheek stylization in everything from the outlandish costumes to the clipped line deliveries. The film, however, is not the quirky romp promised in its trailer; in its final act it devolves into a preachy, overwrought melodrama on that eternal theme of Japanese films — father-son miscommunication.
It begins promisingly enough. The hero, Kou Ichinomiya (Kento Hayashi), is the straight-arrow, messed-up son of a robotically remote company president father (Takaya Kamikawa). Dad’s mantra, which he has drilled into Kou since boyhood, is “never owe anyone anything.”
When his father orders him to spy on homeless folks squatting on land by Tokyo’s Arakawa River earmarked for a grandiose building project, Kou obediently sets out in suit and tie. Before he can infiltrate his targets, however, he tumbles into the drink — and is miraculously rescued by a mysterious blonde-haired woman (Mirei Kiritani). Calling herself Nino-san (a play on the label reading “2-3″ [ni-no-san] on her track suit), she claims to be from the planet Venus, but is living by the Arakawa.
Anxious to erase his debt to Nino, Kou asks her what she wants for saving him. Her answer: “Your love.” Feeling honor-bound to oblige, though a stranger to that emotion himself, Kou decides to move into the homeless encampment as Nino’s platonic lover-in-training.
First, though, he has to be vetted by the encampment’s “mayor” (Shun Oguri), a guy in a kappa (water sprite) costume who testily claims to be the real green-skinned deal. Once Kou receives the mayor’s blessing, as well as a new name, Rikuruto (“Recruit”) or “Riku” for short, he finds himself in a strange world in which everyone looks and acts like members of a bizarre cosplay club. There is Hoshi (Takayuki Yamada), a rock star manque who wears a yellow star mask — and hates Riku for his instant winning of Nino. There is also Sister (Yu Shirota), a tall, menacing guy who walks around in a nun’s habit brandishing lethal weaponry. This homeless village, in other words, is hardly paradise.
Even so, the easygoing ways and good hearts of its denizens soften Riku’s company-man shell. It is Nino, though, who finally breaks through and teaches him the meaning of love. But she is also homesick for Venus. Will Riku and Nino’s planets ever align?
As is often the case with film adaptations of long-running manga — Nakamura’s debuted in Young Gangan magazine in 2004 — “Arakawa” tries to cram in as many characters and incidents from the original as possible, which wearied this nonfan. It’s somewhat as if “The Wizard of Oz” had introduced each and every Munchkin.
More problematically, the goofy-if-sweet love story of Riku and Nino ends up taking second place to the turgid histrionics of Riku’s vexed relationship with his tyrant of a father, including a riverbank standoff that unfolds in geologic time.
Much funnier as comedy and more satisfying as drama is “Kin’yu Hametsu Nippon: Togenkyo no Hitobito (Shangri-La),” Takashi Miike’s 2002 black comedy about homeless folks who aid a suicidal printer bankrupted by a devious supermarket magnate. But the film had no best-selling manga behind it and appeared when Miike was still considered a video hack at home, a crazy “king of cult” abroad. So like the real homeless residents of Arakawa’s banks, who live under blue tarps rather than in the film’s hippy-resort encampment, “Shangri-La” fell between the cracks.
Will the same fate befall “Arakawa”? The casting of Hayashi, Oguri and Yamada — hot male stars all — may draw the female demographic, fans of the manga or no. If they can see past the funny masks, that is.
For many guys, though, the film will peak with the arrival of Kiritani as a radiant angel of salvation, offering bliss at hello. Venus, here I come.