Acclaimed as a comic genius in Japan, actor/scriptwriter/director Kankuro Kudo has been slower to find recognition abroad. His brand of hyperactive comedy, with its machine-gun dialogue and many references to local pop culture, is not the easiest for foreign audiences to understand, though his two previous films as director, “Mayonaka no Yaji-san Kita-san (Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims)” and “Shonen Merikensack (Brass Knuckle Boys/The Shonen Merikensack)” certainly have their fans overseas.
His third, “Chugakusei Maruyama (Maruyama, the Middle Schooler),” is sure to build that fan base, despite its references to old Japanese superhero shows and its frantic, fragmented storytelling.
First, instead of a feudal-era gay couple (“Yaji and Kita”) or retired middle-aged rockers (“Brass Knuckle Boys”), his eponymous hero is that universal figure: a sex-crazed 14-year-old boy. Like adolescent male erotic experimenters everywhere, Katsuya Maruyama (Takuma Hiraoka) bends himself like a pretzel in the semi-privacy of his bedroom (which he shares with his nosy, obnoxious younger sister) in a vain attempt to touch his trouser snake with his tongue.
Unlike most, however, he refuses to give up — and when he cracks his spinal column (signaled by glowing eyeballs and a sound like lightning striking) he finds himself in the world of his wild imagination, including a vision of loveliness in denim shorts who descends a ladder in the sky and invites him to share a pear in his bunk bed, now miraculously transported to a sun-soaked beach (with the aforementioned sister looking bemusedly on from a discreet distance).
The story proper begins when Maruyama encounters Mr. Shimoi (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), an oddball single father who wheels his infant son in a buggy everywhere in their danchi (public-housing complex) while poking his nose into everyone’s business, including Maruyama’s (though his “knowledge” of Maruyama’s solo contortions is more apparent, at least to Maruyama, than real).
Meanwhile, Maruyama’s Korean-drama-fan mom (Maki Sakai) becomes infatuated with a shy Korean electrician (Yang Ik June) who comes to fix her DVD player — and resembles the star on the stuck DVD. Outside, his little sister follows the wanderings of a dementia-afflicted old man (Kenji Endo), who turns out to be a shredding rock guitarist, much to her surprise and delight.
Things take a more serious turn when bodies start turning up around the complex and being reported on the local news. Inspired, Maruyama begins to draw a sort of manga about danchi superheroes riding to the rescue that he shares with the now-sympathetic Shimoi, starring his health-nut dad (Toru Nakamura) as the muscle-bound Captain Fruit.
This being a Kudo film, Maruyama’s wacky fantasies turn out to have a wacky reality, though sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which — and this actually enhances the enjoyment of the film.
Similarly, the characters, Maruyama most of all, are recognizable contemporary types as well as comic grotesques. Also, while still inventively unhinged in the usual Kudo style, the gags rely less on cultural in-jokes, more on close observations of strange and silly human behavior.
Underlying it all is Kudo’s affection for his people, even ones who prompt Maruyama’s darkest, most blood-soaked imaginings. And the climax, which might sound bizarre in a bare description, is both funny and energizing, though you probably won’t want to imitate it anytime soon.
The cast, beginning with Hiraoka as Maruyama (who was nearly the same age as his character during the shoot), mostly underplay to laugh-out-loud effect rather than mug away in the local commercial-comedy style. The one keeping the straightest face, however, and getting some of the biggest yuks, is Kusanagi as Shimoi.
This member of the megastar SMAP pop group is to be applauded for not only his comic chops, but for taking the role in the first place, since the film blatantly references Kusanagi’s own well-publicized drunken, naked romp several years ago in a Roppongi park. Whether or not he wins any acting awards for his “Maruyama” work, he deserves a Good Sport Prize.
Fun fact: Kankuro Kudo wrote a humor piece for a weekly magazine about the description of his new film “Chugakusei Maruyama” as a “self-fellatio comedy” in the Udine Far East Film Festival program.