Among the more prolific of young indie talents currently emerging in Japan with five features released since his 2015 debut Slum-Polis, Ken Ninomiya is fast becoming the go to chronicler of Tokyo’s contemporary club scene but unlike The Limit of Sleeping Beauty or Chiwawa, Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro (とんかつDJアゲ太郎) is a surprisingly wholesome take on the same phenomenon as an otherwise clueless young man begins to step into himself after accidentally falling love with the live house vibe.
As his slightly amusing name implies, Agetaro (Takumi Kitamura) is the third generation heir to a tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet) restaurant. It’s not that he doesn’t want to take over the family business, but admits that he’d largely be doing it because he doesn’t know what else to do. His rather nerdy friends, all sons of small business owners in an area of Shibuya with a distinctly small-town vibe, are in much the same position. Ironically remarking that Agetaro always loses at The Game of Life as they hang out playing boardgames, the guys eventually find him with a pair of binoculars staring at a girl in an apartment opposite they are convinced inhabits a different word where people eat prosciutto and cheese and drink fancy wine. Agetaro gets an unexpected chance to meet his unobtainable crush, Sonoko (Maika Yamamoto), when he’s summoned to deliver a bento to a dance club after hours for a moody DJ, Oily (Yusuke Iseya), who describes tonkatsu as the area’s “soul food” and rates Agetaro’s dad’s as the very best. Allowed to step onto the dance floor, he finds himself blown away by Oily’s set and determines to become the very first tonkatsu chef/DJ partly in the hope of impressing Sonoko.
Though set very much in the present day, there’s a pleasingly retro quality to Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro that recalls old school Showa-era musical youth movies in which young guys from humble backgrounds make something of themselves by working hard and staying true to their roots. Agetaro’s problem is that he’s caught in a moment of adolescent anxiety, resentful of his father (Brother Tom) whom he feels looks down on him, refusing to let his son anywhere near the fryer while making him chop cabbage all day and reminding him he doesn’t have to take over the shop if he doesn’t want to. Agetaro’s dad won’t teach him to fry because he thinks he doesn’t take anything seriously, and he might be right, but as his sister (Natsumi Ikema) says he’s worried about him too secretly trying to be supportive by standing at the back of the room when Agetaro gets his big break at the local club.
Despite being mentored by Oily, however, Agetaro blows his first opportunity failing to get the crowd moving with a rather naff set designed to entertain his equally nerdy friends. But failure, crucially, only endears him to Sonoko who had previously been put off by his cheesy attempts to become a viral YouTube star with a series of gimmicky videos featuring himself and his friends wearing novelty “tonkatsu” outfits. Where he thought of giving up, Sonoko’s reminder that everyone makes a mess of things once in a while and no one should expect success right out of the gate helps Agetaro realise that what he needs to do is bring all of himself to his set which in this case means understanding that the thing is learning do something well and in that there’s no difference between frying the perfect cutlet and finding the perfect beat. Simply put, he needs to become the Tonkatsu DJ for real.
Attracted to DJing because of the freedom it offers, Agetaro eventually finds his “heaven” on the dance floor marrying both sides of himself as he accepts his tonkatsu legacy and claims his space within the club scene which here is unproblematically joyful, a warm and welcoming space in which young people come together to enjoy good music, dance, and have wholesome fun. Simply put, it’s hard not to fall in love with a film which makes space for an unironic and unapologetically joyful moment of catharsis featuring Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is Place on Earth. Shifting away from the slick music video aesthetic of his earlier work, Ninomiya hits lowkey charm in his tale of minor slacker success as his feckless hero finally figures himself out and learns how to cook up a storm in the store and on the floor.
Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro screens on July 4/6/9 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF)
Original trailer (English subtitles)