Japanese comics have been translated into English and other languages by the hundreds, but overseas publishers have long overlooked one of the biggest local genres: gag manga. Their usual excuse is that Japanese humor, which relies heavily on untranslatable wordplay and cultural in-jokes, doesn’t travel well.
But on the evidence of Daigo Matsui’s “Afuro Tanaka (Afro Tanaka),” a laugh-till-you-hurt comedy based on Masaharu Noritsuke’s award-winning gag manga, they are missing out on some comic gold.
Or maybe I’ve been too far East too long. Real Americans (i.e., those who did not raise gag-manga-loving kids in Japan) may well raise their eyebrows at the joke of a Japanese boy with a huge cloud of 1970s-style Afro hair. But the hair, as the movie explains at the beginning, is natural, which makes the young hero a target of playground bullying.
Growing into a long, lanky teen, Hiroshi Tanaka (Shota Matsuda) wears his rare genetic inheritance as a big, puffy badge of punk defiance, if one that is hopelessly retro. (Afro hair, as this survivor of the 1970s well remembers, was once worn proudly by Japanese of both sexes. Today, though, it exists only as polyester wigs sold in the “party goods” sections of stores.)
The film’s laughs come less from a questionable sight gag, more from Tanaka’s odd-squad character. Though possessed of the usual hormonal urges, Tanaka is a unique combination of sincerity, insecurity and literal-minded stupidity, who unerringly makes the wrong moves, sexual and otherwise.
This may make “Afro Tanaka” sound like a local iteration of Hollywood slacker comedies. Not quite, since American screen slackers, as played by Seth Rogen and company, are typically beta males from comfortable suburban backgrounds. Tanaka, by contrast, drops out of a provincial high school on a whim and ends up as a manual laborer in Tokyo who poses as a tough guy, though most of his muscle is between his ears.
His four best buddies at school are also working-class zeros, though when he reunites with them at age 24, after receiving a wedding invitation from one, he realizes they each have something he lacks: a girlfriend.
Anxious to end his still-virgin state and bring a live woman to the ceremony, as per a promise the five friends once made each other, Tanaka launches a campaign to woo and win a member of the opposite sex. But he blows off stunners who are obviously attracted to him, while being laughingly rejected by the looks-challenged. By rigidly following the precepts of an online dating manual, Tanaka has brief success with one young lovely — that he clumsily turns into failure.
When all hope seems lost, he bravely rescues his next-door neighbor, the cute Aya (Nozomi Sasaki), from a fierce cockroach and romance starts to bloom. But Aya is as strange in her own sweet way as Tanaka is in his, with an ex-boyfriend lurking in the shadows to boot. Tanaka, who knows nothing about women, faces a steep learning curve.
Though plentifully seeded with gags from the source manga, the film is less a succession of black-out skits than a comic character study that achieves a sort of completeness. By the end we have not plumbed Tanaka’s depths — he has none — but we know him and his milieu, from his nervous frizzy-haired mom (Emiri Henmi) to his laid-back goateed boss (Lily Franky), in all their many cracked facets.
Centering the story is Matsuda, in a role 180 degrees different from his hard-fisted street tough in last year’s “Hadoromanchikka (Hardromanticcer).” While playing his manga hero with a cartoony brio, Matsuda doesn’t goof on the role. Instead he becomes Tanaka totally, until the Afro starts to seem, if not real, an integral part of the character’s persona. His performance is all of a (hair) piece.
Meanwhile, first-timer Matsui directs the action with a precise comic timing that keeps the laughs coming in steady waves rather than explosive bursts.
To find any of this funny, of course, it helps to be a male who has ever entertained idiotic delusions about sex, romance or life in general. A category that includes almost half the human race.