Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Lines of samba dancers and toy tanks parading down Edo era streets, a singing drag queen who runs a tea house at the foot of Mount Fuji, women who are half-mushroom dreaming of their dead lovers… This isn’t reality! But it is, at least to Yajirobē and Kitahatchi as they ride the Tōkaidō road from Edo to the Ise Shrine in “Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims”, the directorial debut of Kankuro Kudo, the screenwriter of such films as “Zebraman”, “Go”, and “Ping Pong”. Kudo’s a nice fit because his talent for adding weird and surreal touches to stories gets full reign in “Yaji and Kita”, a film that is constantly at war with reality, but with good reason. More on that in a bit.
Taking it’s inspiration from the 18th-century comic novel, “Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige” and the manga by Kotobuki Shiragari based on the same source material the story follows ruggedly handsome Yaji (played by Nagase Tomoya, a member of Japanese boy band, TOKIO), a married man who is having an affair with the effeminant, and drug addicted Kita (kabuki actor Nakamura Shichinosuke). Starting out in somber black and white we see the two lovers living in a hovel in Edo. Yaji is at his wits end. With his wife looming in the background and his concern for his constantly strung out boyfriend growing by the day he doesn’t know what to do. That is until a postcard arrives in the mail from the Ise Shrine with the slogan, “Reality is Here” emblazoned in full colour across it. This is what Yaji has been waiting for! He’ll take Kita to one of the holiest shrines in Shinto and there he’ll kick his drug habit! It’s from this point on that things go full colour, Yaji and Kita hop on the back of a motorcycle reminiscent of Captain America’s from “Easy Rider”, and the strangeness doesn’t end until the final credits.
I have to be honest and say that at first I found “Yaji and Kita” a bit too silly… and in fact kind of offensive. I don’t like my comedy PC, but at the same time there’s a difference between laughing with someone and laughing at them, and at least for the first hour of the film I thought that Kudo was encouraging us to laugh at his two main characters, at Kita on the one hand for being a drug addict and at both Yaji and Kita for being gay. Now last time I checked drug addiction wasn’t a barrel of laughs, but the treatment of Yaji and Kita’s homosexuality smacked of another gay comedy phenomena, Hard Gay, who was astoundingly famous in Japan for thrusting his hips and acting like a flaming homosexual. You see, two men kissing and hugging each other… that’s funny, right? Because it’s so strange, I mean does that kind of stuff really happen? See my point? And from the opening dance number where Yaji and Kita proclaim that everything’s going to be okay “because we’re gay” I found that same strange logic coming into play: gay = funny.
Once the second hour of the film begins, though, everything turned around when Kita kept making statements like, “Reality is boring” or “This isn’t my reality.” Through his drug-induced haallunciantions we start to see a much darker side to our two comic heroes. A live audience is brought in to laugh and jeer at a young Kita who is belittled by the other kids and molested by adults. The mystery behind the murder of Yaji’s wife is cleared up when we are shown exactly what occurred to lead to her death. While the zaniness does continue the second half of “Yaji and Kita” is vastly better than the first due to this injection (bad choice of words, sorry) of pathos. It made all the difference in changing my opinion of the film from a series of offensive if creative jokes to a crazy, but touching comedy about the lengths to which people will go to escape their painful reality.