Running time: 55 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Throughout the wilderness years of the 70's and 80's when Japanese movie studios struggled to just keep the lights on (many, in fact didn't) Shochiku lucked into a formula that they would exploit to keep audiences flocking to theatres. That formula was Tora-san. From 1969 all the way to 1995 Shochiku would release 48 films featuring actor Kiyoshi Atsumi as the lovable tramp Kuruma Torajiro. Tora-san films had a very simple outline - Torajiro, a travelling street vendor and affable ne'er do well would wander the length and breadth of Japan, meeting new friends and usually falling in love with a series of beautiful women he would refer to as his "Madonnas". When Tora-san would grow weary of the road he would wind his way back to Tokyo and the traditional "low town" district of Shibamata and the home of his half-sister and aunt and uncle. The series, the longest running in film history, thrived on nostalgia for the good old days and heartwarming humour, despite the fact that Tora-san continually broke social etiquette and got himself in trouble more often than not. You may be asking why I'm going into this beloved and often corny Japanese cinematic institution in a review for Tokyo University of the Arts Film Program alumni Daisuke Hasebe's graduating project "Drifting Clouds". Well, the reason is that as I sat and laughing and cringed while watching Hasebe's low-key and often downright disgusting comedy I couldn't help of thinking of Tora-san... or at least a Tora-san who'd wandered the backroads of pinku eiga and the most subversive Takashi Miike films.
"Drifting Clouds" follows its own ne'er do well lead character Kumachan, a dead beat slacker played by Toyodo Kajita. While Kiyoshi Atsumi's Tora-san won over audiences with his charismatic energy and perfect comic timing Kumachan takes a page from the Buster Keaton school of comedy - less is always more and all the better if delivered with a weary, droll expression. Kumachan spends most of his days wandering the streets of Tokyo, smoking cigarettes and taking naps. Passive doesn't even begin to do justice to his lethargy. It's left up to Kumachan's pregnant wife to take care of him, a thankless task for sure. When we first meet his wife Kumachan's mother is apologizing for the trouble her son causes her. She tries to hand off a cheque to the wife as compensation for her unproductive son. When the wife refuses to take it, insisting that her life is finally complete with Kumachan in it, Kumachan grabs the cheque and wanders off. Payday has come early.
This begins a romantic and social adventure for Kumachan as he reunites with an old girlfriend who's now married. "Can I sleep here for a bit?" he asks her in a monotone, and for some reason she agrees, but makes him promise to tell her new husband that he's her brother. Little does Kumachan know that he's entered one of the most dysfunctional families to appear on screen since Miike's "Visitor Q". The family members, who all go nameless throughout "Drifting Clouds" and only receive names during the end credits, are all in their own way incredibly damaged. The wife's husband, a balding junkyard employee, is most likely a serial killer. The wife's younger sister seems to be forever teetering on the edge of death, oxygen tubes stuck up her nose and crawling through the upstairs hallway. Kumachan doesn't bat an eye being in this cramped and crazy household. He's happy to nap, mooch food and smoke like a chimney around his girlfriend's wheezing sister. I couldn't help laughing at his apathy, but once it came to his girlfriend's own... umm... condition I couldn't help cringing. It turns out that the only reason Kumachan's old sweetheart married her serial-killing beau is because he helps her with her extreme constipation by... wait for it... sucking the impacted poop out of her. One day when hubby's off to work Kumachan has to step in and minister to his ex. The husband comes home and in a jealous rage decides he'll try the same technique on his sister-in-law after which he imprisons his unfaithful wife behind the refrigerator. Kumachan heads off and hooks up with a prostitute.
Rough stuff indeed, and you may be asking why I would A) make it through such a sequence, and B) why I would ever make the connection between this and the beloved Tora-san. I would have to defend myself by saying, how could I not? (Plus there's the added blasphemy of naming the film after Mikio Narsue's 1955 masterpiece.) Kumachan is basically a shlocky neo-Tora-san character for today's damaged Japan who ignores social rules, gets up and wanders off on adventures whenever he feels like it, has a crowd of women fawning over him despite the fact that he's near penniless and is hardly a handsome leading man type. While Tora-san was ultimately Japan's favorite goofy uncle Kumachan is in many ways the nation's nightmare. He's unemployed, seemingly without interests and opportunities, he's eschewed the traditional ideas of Japanese male machismo for near catatonic passivity; but somehow the ladies can't get enough of him. Hasebe keeps the tone of the entire film awkward and flat by crudely dubbing in the actors' dialogue and keeping his colour palette confined to washed out greys and beiges.
Hasebe has taken the core of the Tora-san mythos and mixed in such Japanese gross out traditions as the manga of "bad/ good" artist King Terry, frightening freakishness of ero-guro artist Shintaro Kago, of course the aforementioned "Visitor Q" and a little of the spirit of trash film-maker Sho Fujiwara to totally subvert, in the most hilarious way possible, one of Japan's most revered pop icons. I don't want to give away the ending of "Drifting Clouds", but after a bukkake dream sequence between the ailing little sister and a prostitute (and a Heian Era samurai... don't ask) I was ready for Hasebe to make a whole series of Kumachan films. Sadly the end of "Drifting Clouds" doesn't make that possible. It's a shame. With folks like Takashi Miike having now gone totally mainstream and Sion Sono seemingly following suit Japan is in dire need of a film-maker to push the boundaries of good taste. I guess all we can hope for is that Hasebe will go on and lampoon the "Tsuribaka Nisshi (Fishing Fool)" films or reboot the "Wakadaisho" series. I'll keep my fingers crossed.