Japanese comedies have a reputation for being wild and crazy.
Let me rephrase that, Japanese movies have a reputation for being wild and crazy. And there’s truth to that argument. Japanese films are – on the whole – weirder than those from other countries. Their comedies are particularly noteworthy, and some truly bizarre films have come out of that country recently. (In fact, we’ll have reviews of two of them later this week).
But Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats is an exception to that rule. While it has some of that Japanese weirdness, it lacks the over-the-top insanity you might expect. Before the screening, someone in the audience said that he expected it to be NYAFF’s sleeper hit.
I think he was completely right.
[For the next month, we will be covering the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan-centric Japan Cuts. Click here for more information, and check back here and here for all of the Asian film coverage you can shake a stick at.]
Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats (Fukubuku no Bukuchan | 福福荘の福ちゃん)
Director: Yosuke Fujita
Perhaps the oddest thing about Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats is the fact that its male lead character is played a woman. Before the film, a NYAFF programmer told the audience that lead actress Miyuki Oshima is actually known for that. It’s an interesting choice, and telling you that may be something a double-edged sword. Now you won’t be confused by the relatively androgynous lead character, but now you may have trouble divorcing that knowledge from the fact that Fuku-chan’s friend frequently comments on the size of his (and by extension, her) penis. Still Oshima basically pulls off the mismatched gender thing. Even though it was in the back of my mind the whole time, it did little to affect my enjoyment.
Fuku-chan‘s title character is a chubby guy with a meager but pleasant existence. He goes to work, goes home, sees his friends, and that’s pretty much it. He refuses to interact with women in any sort of romantic manner for reasons he won’t reveal. While his friend tries to set him up, he does everything he can to rebuke their advances. But Fuku-chan is all about finding Fuku-chan a significant other, so something has to happen eventually.
Cue Chiho Sugiura (Asami Mizukawa), a successful businesswoman who quits her job to become a photographer. Unfortunately, she does so after being inspired by her extremely creepy idol, who awarded her as much for her looks as her artistic talents. Under the pretense of teaching her his secrets, he attempts to take advantage of her. She escapes unharmed, though understandably shaken, but is left in an awkward position. She has left behind her successful career to pursue photography; she still has to try to make a living.
Cue Fuku-chan, whose adorable face turns him into Chiho’s photographic muse.
Fuku-chan is a slowburn comedy. Jokes don’t come one after another, and sometimes entirely scenes will go by without anything really funny happening. Seeing it with an audience, then, is a fascinating experience. There are plenty of moments where everyone laughs in unison, but there are just as many moments where only a handful of people actually chuckle. Heck, there were half a dozen times at least where only one person laughed. Sometimes it was quiet, other times it was over-the-top, but in these moments the film revealed something to them that it didn’t reveal to anybody else. But the times where it was just the one guy in the fifth row laughing weren’t irritating. It made sense, because the different ways the film’s comedy builds up speaks differently to each person. Funny or not, the quiet moments are every bit as brilliant as the loud ones. And sometimes it’s absurd enough that one half of the audience will shrug their shoulders and the other half will lose their minds.
The absurdity comes off as oddly measured. There are numerous moments that really could only come from Japan, but each one is counteracted by something calm. The way these two tones blend creates a film that is actually weirder than it seems, but a lot more palatable than you’d expect. As I walked out, I thought, “That was really not as ‘Japanese’ as I was expecting.” But as I sit now writing this, I realize that it’s actually a whole lot weirder than I thought. But I still stand by what I’ve said.
The reason it works is because neither Chiho nor Fuku-chan are particularly odd people. And pretty much everything they do makes sense for actually human beings who exist to do. Even if the oddballs surrounding them do crazy things, they ground everything, and they often react to the insanity in the way a regular person would. This isn’t a film where everyone just accepts the wild nature of it, so it’s not the world doesn’t feel weird; just some of the people in it.
And seeing their relatively normal story play out is a treat. I really enjoyed watching Chiho and Fuku-chan grow closer throughout the film. Whether things ultimately work out between them is irrelevant. Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats is a great journey.