Foreign manga fans are always praising manga’s scope as compared with that of American comics stuck in a narrow superhero groove. What those fans mainly buy, however, are science-fiction, fantasy and sex, in various combinations, targeted at the younger end of the male demographic. No wonder the first manga magazine to be published regularly in English is Shonen Jump, whose core readers in Japan are preteen boys.
Meanwhile, Yoshiharu Tsuge — who occupies somewhat the same cultural niche in Japan that Robert Crumb does in the United States — remains all but untranslated into English. This is sad, but in commercial publishing terms, understandable. Tsuge’s work, which often concerns the wanderings of struggling artist types in the stranger reaches of Japan, would probably baffle and bore the boy fans who are into cool mecha and voluptuous babes. In Japan, however, his comics have achieved classic status since he began publishing in Garo magazine in 1965. Several have been made into films and Tsuge himself appeared as a character in Jun Ichikawa’s “Tokiwaso no Seishun (Tokiwa: The Manga Apartment).”
The latest director to explore Tsuge’s world is Nobuhiro Yamashita with “Realism no Yado (Ramblers).” A selection of the 2003 Toronto Film Festival, “Realism no Yado” is less a Tsuge homage than Yamashita’s own contemporary interpretation of his work. Tsuge’s world may resemble the Japan of his own youth (he was born in Tokyo in 1937), but with its preference for odd backwaters and its flashes of surrealism, it has a timeless, dreamlike quality. Also, it is no easier in 2003 for unknown filmmakers — the job description of Yamashita’s two protagonists — than it was for unknown manga artists in the 1960s, especially if they lack anything resembling ambition or the simplest of survival skills.
Yamashita’s heroes — the hulking, boyish Kinoshita (Hiroshi Yamamoto) and skinny, nerdish Tsuboi (Keishi Nagatsuka) — are still young enough to think of themselves as having a future — but are old enough to doubt what, if anything, that future might hold. Where other films based on Tsuge’s manga laid on the coy pathos (Naoto Takenaka’s “Muno no Hito”) or erotic weirdness (Teruo Ishii’s “Gensenkan Shujin”), Yamashita emphasizes the comedy, particularly the way the boys discover they are the punchlines of a cosmic joke.
Based on Tsuge’s close, personal observations of how this joke unfolds in real life, the film may not build wacky momentum in the usual Hollywood style (“Dumb and Dumber Do Japan” it is not), but it is so spot on, if so understated, that by the third act, in which the boys land in the minshuku from hell, I was choking on my spit.
At the same time, true to Tsuge’s spirit, “Realism no Yado” suggests the essential loneliness of human beings and the deep strangeness of the world. There is something very Japanese about its outlook, which is less nihilistic than humanistic, in the we-are-flawed-but-lovable-creatures sense. Though Tsuboi and Kinoshita find themselves down to their last yen, they do not give in to rage or despair. Wary of each other at first, they become brothers in defeat and misery — and come to laugh at the cracked hopelessness of their situation.
They don’t know it, but they are doomed from the start, when they arrive together at the station of a provincial town. Tsuboi, a scriptwriter, and Kinoshita, a director, are supposed to meet Funaki (Takeshi Yamamoto) — an actor who wants to work with them on a film. Funaki, however, doesn’t show and the boys finally set off to find accommodations.
They end up at an out-of-the-way inn where they enjoy lavish meals — that quickly eat up their money. Desperate for something to do, they go fishing, but catch nothing. Then the inn’s master (Sunny Francis), a gruff, burly foreigner, offers them his catch — for a fee. More yen notes fly away. They talk desultorily about making a film together, but Funaki still doesn’t show.
On the beach they encounter a pretty girl (Machiko Ono) walking alone, who sets them to thinking of various scenarios. Was she jilted by a lover? Is she here to drown herself? Tsuboi snags what looks to be a piece of flotsam — and it turns out to be her bra. The girl, naked, chases after them.
Her name is Atsuko and, evidently having nothing better to do, she joins Kinoshita and Tsuboi in their wanderings. A love triangle develops — and brings out a new, idiotic competitiveness in the heroes. Atsuko, tiring of the tug of war, abruptly dumps them. Now down to their last yen, they end up at a ramshackle inn that doubles as the family home of the owners. Here they begin their final descent into misery, amid watery soup, filthy bath water and the dying wheezes of an old man. Will Funaki ever arrive?
Nagatsuka’s scrawny Tsuboi and Yamamoto’s puffy-faced Kinoshita are a slacker Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy — if Stan had less of a temper and Ollie weren’t such a klutz. Their brand of comedy isn’t for everyone (including those who think Mike Myers in a fat suit is the epitome of comic genius), but I could relate, probably more than I should admit. Tsuboi and Kinoshita, c’est moi.