Popran (ポプラン, Shinichiro Ueda, 2022)

“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

Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1982)

Until fairly recently, the work of Nobuhiko Obayashi had been largely unappreciated in the Anglosphere where he is associated most closely with his debut film House which was itself somewhat grudgingly respected as a “crazy” midnight movie. He was however surprisingly prolific and especially so for a director working through the difficult 1980s in a 60-year career which ended only with his death after a protracted illness itself ironically announced on the day his final film, Labyrinth of Cinema, should have opened in Japanese cinemas had it not been postponed in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Produced for television in the same year as I am You You Are Me, Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Kawaii Akuma) is among those which Obayashi did not script for himself but is penned by Machiko Nasu and apparently inspired by The Bad Seed though Obayashi later revised the script to remove traces of the original work unwilling to create a simple homage. 

Similar in tone to Obayashi’s later The Deserted City, Lovely Devils is at heart a twisted gothic romance cautioning against the dangers of an excessive thirst for love. In ‘70s Japan, a wedding takes place at small church during which 5-year-old Alice, niece to Koji (Hiroyuki Watanabe) the groom, becomes overly attached to the veil of the bride, Fuyuko (Nao Asuka), and in the manner of entitled small children everywhere demands to be given it. Fuyuko tries to explain that she plans to hang on to the veil for the rest of her life as a keepsake and is sure that Alice will have an even prettier one of her own someday, but Alice creepily asks if that means she can have it when Fuyuko dies and, wanting to bring an end to the matter, she unwisely agrees. While everyone is busy assembling for the wedding photos in the garden, Fuyuko violently tumbles out of an upstairs window, her broken body landing on the patio below only to be met by Alice excited about collecting her veil. 

Meanwhile, at the same time in Vienna, Fuyuko’s exchange student sister Ryoko (Kumiko Akiyoshi) is in the middle of a difficult breakup with her local boyfriend Johann in which she, perhaps understandably, tells him to go die only to see him get hit by a car on his way out of her apartment. Overcome with guilt and grief in believing that she somehow killed Johann by wishing for his death, Ryoko goes quietly mad until her landlady contacts Koji who comes to bring her home and places her into a mental institution run by a convent in which the resident psychologist, Dr. Tsukahara (Toru Minegishi), is also a priest. After three years, Ryoko seems to be sufficiently recovered and so Koji asks his sister Keiko (Miyoko Akaza) to take her in as a governess to the now eight-year-old Alice (Tina Jackson). 

The central irony is that Ryoko is almost certainly not guilty of psychically killing Johann just someone who bitterly regrets saying something unkind in anger and having fate ironically follow through, where as Alice is definitely “demonic” and, as is later pointed out, a child who cannot discern right from wrong. In the liner notes for a later release for the film, Obayashi likened the figure of Alice who commits a series of murders with no conceptual understanding that it’s morally wrong to kill to that of himself as a thoroughly militarist boy in wartime who thought that Japan was just and everything outside Japan “bad”. Alice sees something she wants and has to have it. If someone else has it and won’t give it to her, they have to go (sometimes in quite elaborate ways). Ryoko’s battle is against the commonly held belief that eight-year-old girls are innocent angels, no one in their right mind (Ryoko has just been released from a psychiatric institution following a breakdown after all) would believe Alice capable of violent murder and especially not on the grounds that she simply wanted something trivial like a veil or a doll and was unable to accept that she could not have it. 

Later, Alice’s fragile, chain-smoking, dipsomaniac mother Keiko who always suspected there was something not quite right with her little girl attributes this extreme possessiveness to having discovered the body of her father after he unexpectedly hanged himself in their family home (it does not seem to occur to Keiko that perhaps he is merely the first victim, his ornate quill pen one of Alice’s favourite trophies). She thinks that lack of paternal love has made her seek attachment and permanence in objects but also dangerously in her uncle Koji whom she sees both as a surrogate paternal figure and as an incestuous love interest. It is also somewhat unfortunate that the actress playing Alice and the character herself is half-Japanese playing into an uncomfortable stereotype in gothic horror that posits these demonic qualities and romantic perversions as essentially an extension of foreignness, but in any case Obayashi leans in deep with the wedding imagery as Koji returns to rescue Ryoko in the white suit from his wedding firstly on her release from the hospital on which she too wears a white lace dress, and then subsequently with the still eight-year-old Alice who is dressed much the same only with the addition of an Edwardian-style sun hat to complete the look.  

It’s this final juxtaposition which pushes Ryoko towards accepting her imprisonment as a “criminal of love”, seeing herself and Alice as two of the same as if she really had caused Johann’s death through an excessive desire for a love he had but refused to give her in the same way Alice kills “out of a longing and thirst for love” sublimated into the acquisition of objects. Conjuring an intense and heady atmosphere of gothic unease with the remote country mansion and wandering ghostly brides, Obayashi once again plays with psychedelic surrealism with his romantic painted backdrops and characteristic use of colourplay particularly in flashback as Keiko recalls a sepia-tinged memory of the time they were “almost too happy”. Boasting high production values despite its TV movie genesis, Lovely Devils is defiantly an Obayashi production filled with his wistful sense of loss and nostalgia but also a deep darkness in its mildly disturbing, unconventional conclusion. 


Day and Night (デイアンドナイト, Michihito Fujii, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

day and night poster 1Can two wrongs ever really make a right? Michihito Fujii’s Day and Night (デイアンドナイト) wants to ask if the difference between good and evil is really as stark as that between dawn and dusk, or if life is really more like twilight in which morality is a relative concept and acts cannot by judged individually but only as a part of the whole. What the hero discovers, however, is that the world is an inherently unfair place and it may not be possible to “win” against the forces of self-interest solely through being pure of heart.

The drama begins with a stunned Koji (Shinnosuke Abe) returning to his small-town home to graffiti scrawled across his fences and his father lying in repose inside after having apparently taken his own life. No one will quite explain to Koji what exactly has happened, but it seems there has been some unpleasantness surrounding his father’s auto business. Though most of the other townspeople including his old friends are civil, they are also frosty and obviously unwilling to address the subject of Mr. Akashi save to press Koji for money they might still be owed as employees.

Meanwhile, poking around the garage in search of answers, he runs into the mysterious figure of Kitamura (Masanobu Ando) who claims to have known his father well though Koji’s mother claims never to have heard of him. Seeing as Kitamura is the only person willing to speak to him, Koji ends up taking a job at the orphanage where he works which turns out to be a little different than he thought seeing as Kitamura is actually the head of a local crime ring which exists with the sole purpose of keeping the orphanage running.

Though Koij, like his father, is an upstanding, law-abiding young man, he is quickly pulled into Kitamura’s world of moral justifications when presented with his personal philosophy in which the greater good remains paramount. Kitamura steals cars by night, stripping the unsellable ones for parts, which is where Mr. Akashi came in having succumbed to a life of “crime” in order to support himself while his business was suffering. He also does some possibly less justifiable work in the red light district while making a point of beating up drug dealers because 80% of the kids in his care have a parent in jail for crimes related to substance abuse. In Kitamura’s view at least, these are all “justifiable”, morally defensible “crimes” given that they are necessary to ensure the protection of the orphans. Though the money is good and Koji does need it, they are not in this for personal gain but to protect something they feel is important.

As Kitamura puts it, Mr. Akashi put his faith in laws that are meant to protect people but in the end it killed him. Having discovered a serious flaw in the auto parts he received from a local company he did the “right thing” and blew the whistle but Nakamichi Autos is the major player in the local economy and many people did not take kindly to having their reputation called into question. Nakamichi rallied its supporters and had Akashi hounded into submission. As one of the former employees tells Koji, the truth “hardly matters anymore”. Nakamichi doesn’t care there is a minor flaw in their products because they feel the chance of a fatal accident is slim enough not to need to worry about and happy to let the risk continue as long as they maximise their profits.

Miyake (Tetsushi Tanaka), Nakamichi’s CEO, also has his justifications, insisting that there’s no such thing as right and wrong only the cold logic of numbers and that the death of one man will not change anything. Increasingly pulled into Kitamura’s world of crime, Koji opts for underhanded methods to expose the truth about Nakamichi and clear his father’s name but finds in the end that no one is interested in facts. Listening in to some of his father’s old employees enjoying their belated severance pay he is dismayed to hear them too justifying their actions as they each insist that they did what they thought was “best” for everyone, for a peaceful life, for their families.

In truth, Koji claims he hated his father. That he resented him for always working all the time. Now however he begins to see that Akashi was only trying to protect his family by providing for it. His father was a “good” man, and he did the “right” thing, but he also became involved with Kitamura’s morally questionable crime syndicate. Kitamura wants to protect the orphans and takes care of them well, but can he really justify his actions solely on the grounds that there is no honest way to care for children who are often victims of an unfair society the pressures of which have pushed their parents from the “moral” path? What Koji’s left with, broadly, is that “good” people do “bad” things for “good” reasons, but bad people do bad things because they’re selfish and so they hardly care about the consequences of their actions. He starts to believe that the only way to resist is to fight fire with fire, but discovers that the little guy is always at a disadvantage when there is too much vested interest in not “making trouble”. It turns out everyone is OK with the status quo, so long as it’s not their car that might suddenly lose its wheels. As Miyake says, “that’s just how society works”.

A bleak meditation on the wider nature of justice and moral greyness of the world, Fujii’s noirish drama suggests good and bad are less like day and night than a shady evening in which the only shining light is the greater good. The world, however, continues on in self interest and the “good” will always lose to the “bad” as long it compromises itself trying to play by the other guy’s rules. Koji finds himself torn between a desire to avenge his father and a new sense of fatherhood fostered by bonding with a teenage girl at the orphanage as he contemplates the existence of a line between good and evil and his own place along it, but his old fashioned “nobility” finds no answer in the infinitely corrupt moral dubiousness of the modern society.


Day and Night was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)