Starting with his first film “Donten Seikatsu (Hazy Life)” from 1999, director Nobuhiro Yamashita explored slackerdom, Japan-style, with a laconically knowing eye and a laidback sense of humor. Rejecting the broad approach of so much local comedy, he developed gags from off-beat, spot-on observations and delivered them with impeccable timing.
Abroad, he is best known for “Linda, Linda, Linda” (2005), a comedy about a struggling high school girl band. Korean actress Bae Doo Na charmed as the band’s substitute vocalist, while the band’s performance of the title rocker was a rousing crowd pleaser.
The film traveled widely on the international festival circuit, including the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, for which I served as a program advisor. Yamashita, who came as our guest, enjoyed the film’s raucous reception by the Udine audience, but with his neatly trimmed beard and air of a hipster intellectual taking in the scene with a sharp eye and wry smile, he was also a little like the unkempt, clueless heroes of his earlier films.
Not much had changed appearance- or personality-wise when I recently met Yamashita again at the Tokyo headquarters of Toei, the distributor of his latest film, “Kueki Ressha (The Drudgery Train).” But “The Drudgery Train,” which is based on Kenta Nishimura’s autobiographical novel about a junior high dropout working as a manual laborer, would seem to be a throw-back to his beginnings.
While agreeing that the new film may also end up in the “slacker comedy” bin, Yamashita said that, to him, it differed from his others in the genre: “In the past I made films about slacker heroes that were like clones of me. This time, I made a film about a character I wanted to see and found interesting, but that I could view more objectively.”
This objectivity also extended to the source material, which Yamashita notes “was considered unfilmable.” Instead of adapting it faithfully to the screen, he and scriptwriter Shinji Imaoka took what Yamashita describes as “hints from other of Nishimura’s works” in which the writer used characters from “The Drudgery Train,” particularly Kitamachi.
“I know that people like him are called good-for-nothings but to me he’s not so bad,” Yamashita continued. “He causes trouble for others, but he’s also a strong person. He’s doesn’t have friends, women or money, but he does have a kind of life force. That is, he lives powerfully, so I don’t think you can call him worthless. It may be going too far to call him ‘cool,’ but I do feel something likable about him.”
Fresh from his success as the nerdy, but somehow sexy hero of the hit comedy “Moteki (Love Strikes!),” Mirai Moriyama was a natural choice for the role of Kitamachi. But Moriyama himself, Yamashita admits, was initially not so sure:
“He was worried about playing two characters that might be described as losers. For me, though, his character in our film is not at all like the one he played in ‘Love Strikes.'”
While changing the novel’s story, including the addition of a cute used-book store clerk (AKB48 member Atsuko Maeda) Kitamachi meets and awkwardly dates, Yamashita remained faithful to its 1980s setting. “I could have set the movie in the present,” Yamashita admits, “but I thought there was an intriguing contrast between the era of the 1980s — when the economy was booming and even 19-year-olds could find cushy part-time jobs and enjoy a rich student life — and the situation of Kitamachi, a junior high dropout who can only find manual labor work.”
For Toei, a major studio and distributor, “The Drudgery Train” is a glaring departure from its commercial norm. If fact when I posed the question of why the company agreed to take on the project in the first place, everyone in the room, including Yamashita and Toei PR man, burst into nervous laughter. “After we finished the film (scriptwriter Shinji) Imaoka and I were having a cigarette and wondering if we were on the right track,” Yamashita said once the hilarity subsided. “(Toei) gave me a lot of freedom, but even so this film is something out of the ordinary for them. I am a bit worried about this film going out all over the country in big multiplexes, but on the other hand I think it’s interesting that they should do this.”
“Interesting” may not be the word Toei executives will choose after seeing the box office numbers, but it certainly describes what is for Yamashita a return to comic form. “I wanted to make something that I myself felt was entertaining,” he added. “My early films made people laugh, so I wanted to do that again.”