Directors often find themselves boxed in by fan expectations. If a filmmaker who is known and loved for quirky pieces does a serious film or two, fans tend to complain he or she is sliding down a slippery slope toward dreaded respectability.
One who has blithely escaped those expectations is Nobuhiro Yamashita. His early films, such as 1999’s “Donten Seikatsu (Hazy Life),” 2002’s “Baka no Hakobune (No One’s Ark),” and 2003’s “Riarizumu no Yado (Ramblers),” were exercises in deadpan absurdity featuring loser heroes, with the sly jokes emerging from true-to-life (if inherently ridiculous) situations.
Following his international breakout with the high school dramady “Linda, Linda, Linda” (2005), Yamashita could have indefinitely repeated its formula of observational humor served up with youthful energy and charm. Instead he tried different genres, such as comic murder mystery (“Matsugane Ransha Jiken [The Matsugane Potshot Affair]” from 2006) and 1970s-era political/personal drama (“Mai Bakku Peji [My Back Page]” from 2011), with varying box-office results.
His newest, “Kueki Ressha (The Drudgery Train)” is something of a throwback to his black comedy beginnings, but deeper as a character study and more adventurous as a film. Based on an Akutagawa-Prize-winning novel by Kenta Nishimura, “Kueki Ressha” resembles films that have been based on the semi-autobiographical fiction of American writer Charles Bukowski, from “Barfly” (1987) to “Factotum” (2005).
The Bukowski character in these films, Henry “Hank” Chinaski, is viewed as a cool loner rebel, despite his marginal existence as a drunk living in rented rooms and working at menial jobs (when he works at all). By contrast, Yamashita’s hero, Kanta Kitamachi (Mirai Moriyama), is a loser with absolutely no social skills who blows his warehouse wages on sleazy peep shows and cheap izakaya (pub) booze. He bad-mouths nearly anyone in range once the liquor is in him, while groveling to his disgruntled landlord for another couple days of grace on the rent. Obnoxious and contemptible he is. Cool, he is not. It’s hard to imagine Mickey Rourke (“Barfly”) or Matt Dillon (“Factotum”) clamoring to play him in a Hollywood remake.
In fact, it’s a wonder the film got released by major distributor Toei, since in almost every scene, Kitamachi violates the first commandment of a hero in a commercial film: Thou shalt inspire sympathy. But as portrayed by Moriyama, fresh from his success as the similarly socially challenged hero of “Moteki (Love Strikes!),” Kitamachi also happens to be funny and — as a seeming contradiction to everything I’ve just said, likable in his sheer cussedness.
The story has the ingredients of a typical coming-of-age drama. Kitamachi, a junior high dropout whose father was sent to jail for a sex crime, is toiling as a day laborer in a warehouse when he is befriended by Shoji Kusakabe (Kengo Kora), a new hire who is attending a nearby trade school. A good-natured, straight-arrow oddball, Kusakabe soon becomes Kitamachi’s boon companion and social facilitator. When Kitamachi reveals that he has been eying a pretty clerk at a used-book store (without adding that he lacks the courage to say hello) Kusakabe smilingly serves as a go-between.
The clerk, Yasuko Sakurai (Atsuko Maeda), turns out to be interested in the same sort of mystery novels as Kitamachi, who is a devoted, if unlikely, bookworm. Miracle of miracles, they become friends and Kitamachi starts to dream the impossible dream: Unpaid sex with a willing partner. To top it all off, he gets promoted to forklift driver. Life, for once in his 19 so-far-pointless years, is wonderful. Of course it can’t last.
In an ordinary film, the ensuing crises — mostly caused by Kitamachi’s own rock-headed stupidity, would be growth experiences, leading to a wiser, happier hero. But working from a script by pinku eiga (erotic film) maestro Shinji Imaoka, an original talent in his own right, Yamashita turns this formula on its head, with inspired gags that subvert every “learning moment.”
At the same time, “Kueki Ressha” has a realism not found in similar local films with women-less, prospect-less young male heroes. This goes beyond Kitamachi’s many superficial resemblances to creator Kenta Nishimura, from his family background to his tastes in literature: He is not the usual slacker comedy cartoon, but a fully realized character whose blunders and crimes are painful as well as funny to witness, since his victims (including himself) are recognizably human and his actions have not-always-pleasant real-world consequences. But the film is not a downer drama, just as it is not feel-good entertainment.
Instead it’s a lot like life — though I hope not like yours.