Marijuana was a subject for comedy back when I was taking my first clumsy steps into stoner culture: The comedy routines of Cheech and Chong, the music of Commander Cody, the midnight screenings of the unintentionally hilarious 1936 film “Reefer Madness.”
In Kanata Wolf’s “Smokin’ on the Moon,” Japanese movies finally see the funny side of pot. Its best-buddy heroes, Sota (Arata Iura) and Rakuto (Ryo Narita), work at a Tokyo bar, but deal weed on the side and float through life in a ganja-induced haze. Their interactions with oddball characters, from a randy landlady (LiLiCo) to a loud-mouthed rapper named Jay (Yasu Peron), highlight the black-comic aimlessness of their existences.
But Sota’s strange dream (surrealistically animated by Alexei Nechytaylo) of being turned back at the gates of heaven by a creepy golden angel, who subsequently commits suicide, suggests darker psychic currents. And there’s nothing funny about Rakuto’s relationship with Tsukimi (Mary Sara), a crack-addicted single mother.
But even as his story turns serious, Osaka-based musician and filmmaker Wolf (aka Yuichiro Tanaka) does not completely abandon the druggy vibe of the opening scenes. Also, though he never quite settles on one genre — he goes from buddy movie to crime thriller to medical melodrama — he does maintain a cool music-video aesthetic.
This may make “Smokin’ on the Moon” sound like an exercise in hipster posturing, but its two principals — Osaka homeboy Sota and Okinawa native Rakuto — are likably unpretentious types whose friendship is ultimately about sharing more than joints.
Their supplier, Jay, is a tool of a small yakuza sub-gang whose depraved boss, Hatta (Kanji Tsuda), tries to recruit our heroes as pushers of more dangerous drugs. Sota wants nothing to do with him, while Rakuto, with little in the way of prospects, drifts into his orbit. The two friends quarrel and the 34-year-old Sota, seeing zero future in Tokyo, returns to Osaka to help with the family okonomiyaki (Japanese-style pancake) restaurant. Meanwhile, Hatta sees Rakuto as just another tool to be used and discarded.
The film’s violence, which ranges from the sadistic to the psychotic, tends to the extreme end of the spectrum, but after many similar shocks over the decades (see the early work of Takashi Miike for some flavorsome examples) it no longer feels special. Also, depictions of gay characters, particularly a flamboyant couple who run a bar the heroes frequent, are cartoonish and retrograde.
More interesting is Narita’s Rakuto, whose street-kid rawness and vulnerability recalls the title character of “Ryuji,” Toru Kawashima’s 1983 classic about a low-level yakuza who chooses his wife and child over his gang but is drawn irresistibly to death. Model-turned-actor Narita registers every shift of Rakuto’s mercurial emotions, particularly his un-gangster-like devotion to the addicted Tsukimi and her young son.
Also excellent is Arata Iura as Sota, who seamlessly transitions from lost druggy to dedicated okonomiyaki chef. Key to this change is his good relationship with his easy-going dad (Eiji Okuda), who was no doubt wild himself in his long-ago youth.
This reviewer has also left his dope-smoking days behind him, with no desire to revisit them. Having fried my brain once, I see no need to refry it, even if an angel were to stamp my ticket for the Ultimate High. It might be just another pusher with wings.