“There’s definitely nothing good about him at all” is the verdict on the Tsukaguchi, the irredeemable hero of Kenya Okubo’s eventually intense psychological drama MANZAI Conflict (令和対俺, Reiwa tai Ore). Not even his stage partner Kunimatsu is prepared to defend him as a person, but still refuses to end their partnership insisting that Tsukaguchi is funnier than he is though to everyone else evidence of Tsukaguchi’s funniness is thin on the ground. “Manzai” is a form of double act comedy particular to Japan often involving high speed, surreal narrative skits thrown back and for between the funny guy (boke) and straight man (tsukkomi). For these purposes, Tsukaguchi is the funny the guy in that he leads the narrative while Kunimatsu occasionally chimes in with a note of realism, but the problem is that Tsukagichi’s comedy, like the man himself, is stuck in the 1970s and his series of poor taste jokes simply aren’t very funny.
Okubo signals his intentions early on. The film opens with a riff on the classic Toei logo, a studio closely identified with the yakuza genre and most particularly of the 1970s. Even the opening credits are presented in classic blood red calligraphy just like those of a retro gangster picture though this is not a gangster film even if Tsukaguchi broodily walks about in a trench coat and three-piece suit, smoking away and generally behaving like a street thug angry at a world he doesn’t understand. When he and Kunimatsu, at this point calling themselves the Ashtray Brothers, are banned from the rundown, tiny comedy club where they usually perform because of one of Tsukaguchi’s off-colour routines, Tsukaguchi tracks down another performer who criticised his act and brutally assaults him in the street eventually getting arrested.
Tsukaguchi keeps harping on that he’s only one who truly understands manzai and everyone else is just a hack while the audience are simply too unsophisiticated to appreciate his art. We occasionally see brief flashbacks to the two men rehearsing which appear to show them laughing together happily suggesting that Tsukaguchi may have been conventionally funny at some point in the past when he wasn’t doing lewd routines about his grandmother’s sex life, but as a TV exec points out no one want a loose cannon like Tsukaguchi around which is why he’d like to hire Kunimatsu independently as a fill-in artist for his variety show. Loyal to the end, Kunimatsu resists and tries to bring Tsukaguchi with him, but the offer along with the failure of Tsukaguchi’s relationship with his live-in girlfriend whom he beats and attempts to rape, provokes a kind of crisis in the mind of the already troubled “comedian” born being forced to switch sides from funny guy to straight man now standing stage left rather than right.
After the TV show, which might not even be “real”, Tsukaguchi’s mental state becomes ever more fluid drifting between fantasy and reality in confronting differing versions of himself playing straight man to his girlfriend’s funny guy before snapping back to take out his masculine frustrations on the calmer Kunimatsu who has renamed their duo the “New Cigarettes” and written a much more conventional routine better suited to a variety show audience which ironically also includes an onstage wedding. “If you stray from the path of manzai I’ll fucking kill you” he dramatically declares, an abusive partner onstage and off seemingly fragile in his masculinity and intent on dominance unable to accept either of his partners creative or romantic has the right to break with him even as his internalised self-loathing fuels his continually destructive behaviour.
Yet Okubo in a sense refuses to condemn him. The film’s Japanese title translates as “Me vs Reiwa”, painting Tsukaguchi as a man who was simply born in the wrong time as if he’s a refugee from one of Toei’s grittier yakuza flicks where his intense misogyny and destructive male pride might have seemed even “normal” given the values of the time. Tsukaguchi literally defaces the modern society, beating it to a bloody pulp attempting to assert his own dominance while unable to escape his sense of impotence and futility. Shot in 4:3 and in a variegated muted colour scheme travelling from stark digital monochrome to a softened ‘70s grain, Okubo’s psychedelic psychodrama travels in a decidedly unexpected direction as its defiant anti-hero discovers that you can’t beat an era into submission.
MANZAI Conflict streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.