“Wieners are stuck to the body, they can’t go flying!” a confused father attempts to convince his toddler son, but as the young boy had said that isn’t quite the case. The hero of Shinichiro Ueda’s Popran (ポプラン) has been, well, to put it bluntly, a bit of a dick to just about everyone in his life but when even his bits seem to have become tired of his schtick it can’t help but provide something of a wakeup call. More surrealist morality drama than scatological comedy, Popran’s heart at least is in the right place as its hero attempts to, literally, piece himself back together to repair his fractured integrity.
As we first meet 30-ish entrepreneur Tagami (Yoji Minagawa ), he’s being interviewed for a documentary that wants to explore the real lives of well-known people. As might be expected, the opening questions are fawning, pointing out his vast success at such a young age as the developer of app and manga publishing platform but the atmosphere soon changes when they stray into less positive territory. It seems Tagami’s success might have come as a result of betraying his old friend and business partner, while he also abandoned his wife and child to chase success in Tokyo and apparently has become estranged from his parents. His well-meaning PR shuts down the interviewer’s attempts to ask anything remotely challenging, yet it’s obvious that something inside Tagami is dying even as he reads out a cheesy speech he’d written about the importance of following the compass of your heart from a cue card held up by his assistant.
We can see what kind of man he is or has been when an excited employee approaches him in the corridor about an exciting project but, feigning politeness, he has to ask his assistant who the guy was once he’s gone. At a birthday party for one of their writers, he leers over a woman sitting behind him and offers to introduce her to their editing department when she tells him she’s interested in writing something herself despite his clearly stated policy of not running original material only buying rights to distribute perennially popular series. It’s after taking her to bed with false promises that he discovers his penis is missing.
More than a symbol of his masculinity, the errant penis is an indictor of his misplaced desires and lack of both moral fibre and impulse control. To achieve success he’s screwed over countless people besides the young woman who seems to have been the last straw for his literally alienated genitalia leaving a trail emotional chaos in his wake. After discovering that he is not the only one to fall victim to the “Popran” phenomenon he is forced to face himself, his moral cowardice, anxieties, and fears, and reckon with his sense of inadequacy and disappointment. Just as in the message he’d delivered to the youngsters watching the documentary, he too needs to take a look at the compass of his heart and realise he’s been reading it wrong chasing down his penis with a butterfly net before realising he knew where it was all along he just needed to go back to where it all started and remember who he really is.
Then again, there is perhaps something of frustrated masculinity in Tagami’s quest. As his friend point out, he makes all his money exploiting other people’s labour while offering nothing new of his own. In the interview, he’d said he wanted to be a mangaka but felt he wasn’t good enough so decided to become a distributor instead setting up the company with a colleague from the manga cafe where he was working. But they parted ways because his friend wanted to publish original material and with his eye on the bottom line Tagami forced him out. Where his friend is now running a small studio from his apartment and even while not wealthy creatively fulfilled, Tagami has become rich but empty. Obviously that’s not to say there’s no value in the kind of work he does, but he’s begun to appropriate others’ success as his own with no real thought for their well-being. Chasing his dick around is also in its way a desire to regain his creative mojo as symbolised in his re-energised commitment to publishing original material rather than simply raking in royalties from safe and stable classics.
As is often pointed out to him, his fantastical tale sounds like something out of a manga though Popran is certainly less reflexive than Ueda’s previous efforts telling a story which is much smaller in scale though also in its way heartwarming as the hero is pulled around by the penises of past and present if not future before reaching a moment of emotional maturity that allows him to exercise a more healthy control over his desires knocking his dickish behaviour on the head to wise up and realise being a man’s about treating others with respect and dignity. Some things you can’t just stick back on if they fall off, but you can at least acknowledge that you should have treated them better and resolve to be happy that they have at least found better futures as you might yourself if only you can figure out which compass to follow.
Popran streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
Images: Ⓒ ”Popran” Film Partners