|Rare is the film that is either so imaginative, so surreal, or simply so bizarre that it defies easy description. Kankuro Kudo's twisted road flick, Yaji & Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims (真夜中の弥次さん喜多さん) is most definitely one of them. A drug-infused psychedelic fever-dream of a film that transcends genres, styles, and space-time itself, it is two solid hours of jaw-dropping fun.|
Though an adaptation of a popular manga, the source material is the classic Japanese road novel of 1802, Tokkaidochu Hizakurige. In the novel, Yaji and Kita, two roguish womanizers, flee their debts in Edo and travel to the Ise Shrine via the famed Tokkaido road. Kudo's film, which is set in the same era as the novel, begins with a similar premise, though this time Kita is a junkie, and Yaji his gay lover. Their departure from Edo is predicated by a murder and a belief that the Ise shrine will help Kita kick his drug habit. What follows is a cross between Easy Rider, Alice in Wonderland, and a deliciously subverted Wizard of Oz.
Beginning with an impressive song-and-dance number (the very Steppenwolf-sounding Born to be Gay), the two then take to the road on Captain America's chopper, only to be told that Edo men must travel the Tokkaido road on foot. The road to Ise holds many adventures for our star crossed lovers, including a meeting with a lord (tough-guy staple Riki Takeuchi) who only grants passage to samurai that can make him laugh, and a teahouse at the base of Mt. Fuji run by a singing transvestite and his tone-deaf daughter. Adding to the fun are Kita's many withdrawal fantasies, which take the form of drug-themed quiz shows, or imaginary armies of football players, samba dancers and office ladies. There's a comedian named Hot Sandwich, a hirsute geisha pop star, a yam-juice serving King Arthur, a macho slimeball of a detective, and the greatest testicle pulling sequence ever committed to celluloid.
|What's remarkable about Kudo's film is that it manages to sustain this level of irreverence and sheer nuttiness for over two hours while at the same time remaining interesting and original. Though somewhat episodic (each stop along the road is identified by the particular inn they are staying at), it never feels fragmented thanks to the underlying love story between Kita and Yaji, who must even challenge death to remain together. The moments of self-reflexivity, such as when a character steps out of the film to watch the director's cut of an earlier scene, are actually incorporated into the story, and don't come off as simply a gimmick. Even the film's refusal to remain true to the era works as more than mere anachronism, thanks to Kudo's brilliantly clever screenplay.|
Kudo cut his teeth in the industry as screenwriter on several other successful comedies (Iden & Tity, Zebraman, 69), and though this is his directorial debut, he's already shown himself to be a director with a rather unique vision. Unfortunately, a fair amount of the dialog consists of very clever wordplay that might get lost in translation. (The translator of the DVD subtitles made a noble effort to find English equivalents, but in some cases it is impossible.) Still, there's more than enough to enjoy here, with scenes that will literally leave you howling with laughter right up to the third act, which, while still funny, has a genuine pathos that's rare in absurdist comedy.
A late entry into Filmbrain's "Best Undistributed Films of 2005" list, Yaji & Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims has been picked up for distribution in the US and will be released in Summer 2006. Be sure to stay through the end credits so as not to miss the very Iggy Pop-ish I Wanna Be Your Fuck.