Monday, January 16, 2012

REVIEW: Boys on the Run

ボーイズ・オン・ザ・ラン (Boizu On Za Ran)

Released: 2010

Daisuke Miura

Kazunobu Mineta
Mei Kurokawa
Ryuhei Matsuda
Kaoru Kobayashi

Running time: 114 min.

Reviewed by Eric Evans

Like the John Hughes teen angst films it echoes, "Boys on the Run" chronicles one desperate yet sincere outcast's struggle for romance. The film is an adaptation of Kengo Hanazawa's manga, with a screenplay co-written by Hanazawa and director Daisuke Miura. It is relentless in its emulation and subversion of escapist formula. "Boys" might be a realist's response to films like "Pretty In Pink" in that it hits many of the same narrative tropes one by one but without the Hollywood gloss. Grand gestures result not in a sweep of music and the lover running into your arms, but in abject public humiliation and violence. The film's great strength is in how it sets up and fulfills the story's major beats, but subverts the hero's (and audience's) expectations of each.

Girls can be scary. Just ask Tanishi (Kazunobu Mineta), a 29-yr-old virgin who muddles through his sales job at a small vending machine novelty toy company. Like most guys his age he's got a healthy interest in sex, but shyness and a lack of experience make interacting with women near impossible. Enter Uemura Chiharu, a pretty and demure young woman who works in the creative services department at his company. They lock eyes at an after-hours izakaya party and Tanishi dares to hope that, should the stars align just so, his nights of furiously masturbating to phone sex lines and internet porn might be over.

Amusing and emotionally resonant, "Boys on the Run" might be the feel-bad movie of 2010. It's boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy fights to win her back by making increasingly bad decisions dictated by the storylines of comics, TV shows and movies. All the lessons Tanishi has learned from a lifetime of reading manga and watching TV are revealed as escapist bullshit. In time the film abandons the pretense of having Tanishi follow movie clichés subconsciously and has him openly embrace his own hollowness: he rents "Taxi Driver" and publicly announces his Travis Bicklization with a mohawk hairdo. This final grand gesture will either validate Tanishi's actions thus far or result in sublime humiliating failure. That he's still willing to take such a risk after the preceding episodes is testament to both his foolish determination and his hopeless immaturity.

The ensemble cast is uniformly good; Mineta and Kurokawa hit the right balance as leads. In the film's first half Tanishi is intended as a cypher for the countless young men he represents and in the second half he's an idealized, vision-questing hero. Mineta manages to imbue both with both boyish sincerity and a nervous uncertainty that lets the viewer know he's not following his instincts, but doing the things that a lifetime spent ingesting manga and movies demands he do. Kurokawa's Uemura, the object of Tanishi's increasingly unwanted affection, gives a deceptively simple performance. As the story progresses she conveys an air of polite disinterest and revulsion while remaining a convincing romantic goal for the protagonist. In other words, she must be both unlikable yet likable without seeming capricious—no simple task. As their respective parent figures, You and Kaoru Kobayashi (as Shiho, the been-there, seen-that sex worker neighbor and Suzuki, the grizzled, alcoholic senpai who trains Tanishi to box, respectively) are excellent. That they are both broken-down people in dead-end careers is evident to the audience, but not their charges. It's also clear to all but the characters themselves that, had neither of them been involved, Tanishi and Uemura might have gotten together, or at very least their discomfort would have been minimized.

This lack of character self-awareness is key to the film. Tanishi is 29 yet lives at home and behaves like a teenager; Uemura, also in her 20s, has a cheap, sloppy studio apartment in the red light district and displays all the emotional maturity of a cheerleader. Shiho and Suzuki are mentors but have no answers. Shiho is an aging "sex bath" escort who advertises herself as a 25-yr-old, drawing snickers from even Tanishi; Suzuki openly drinks at work, assuring incredulous co-workers that beer "doesn't count" as drinking. This emotional immaturity goes all the way up to the top, as the CEOs of the two feuding novelty companies address on-the-job fighting, drinking, and other HR horrors with a schoolyard mentality of encouragement. At no point does anyone react to Tanishi's increasingly unhinged behavior with adult concern.

Of course a movie needs a bad guy and here it's Aoyama, Tanashi's slick, polished rival in novelty sales and Uemura's affections. Played with charm and a practiced, casual cruelty by Ryuhei Matsuda, he's not so much Tanashi's opposite as a variation, an illustration of how a similarly emotionally stunted boy can grow into a functional sociopath. He does exactly what is necessary to get what he wants from others—whether for amusement, sexual gratification, or business success—without the hinderance of conscience. Matsuda doesn't get the credit he deserves as a compelling and versatile actor: he's equally at home playing the tough guy as he is the tortured soul, and his presence here elevates a small yet pivotal role.

"Boys on the Run" really works, even as it induces a fair bit of cringing. Tonally, the movie is closer to the Larry David/Ricky Gervais theater of embarrassment than the feel-good Hughes rom-coms it resembles. It can be read as the Japanese indie film response to decades of Hollywood's simplification of the solutions to life's troubles, or as a particularly singular version (or perversion) of same. The title of the film is both a gag and a warning: these are not boys, and if they're running from anything, it's reality.

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