Monday, July 06, 2015

Japan Cuts ’15: HIBI ROCK Puke Afro and the Pop Star

The Rock & Roll Brothers want to be neo-punk rockers, but they don’t have much Iggy Pop or Sid Vicious in them. Frankly, bubblegum pop star Saki Utagawa is way fiercer, but she has her own problems. They will not make beautiful music together, but their awkward friendship provides consolation in Yu Irie’s HIBI ROCK: Puke Afro and the Pop Star (trailer here), the opening film of Japan Cuts 2015, the Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Takura Hibinuma and his bandmates have always been bullied, but they cling to their dream. The only club that allows them to play is the dingy Monster GOGO, where they also clean the toilets and perform similarly demeaning labor for the owner, Takeshi Matsumoto. During one of their awful gigs, Matsumoto inebriated niece commandeers the stage, proceeding to rock the joint, before utterly spanking the Rock & Roll Brothers in an ugly brawl. That is where the whole “Puke Afro” thing comes from.

Needless to say, she makes quite the impression on Hibinuma, who is quite taken aback to learn she is actually Utagawa, the pop idol. Despite the messiness of their initial meeting, she rather takes a shine to him as well. Granted, he does not have much talent, but at least he has stayed true to his musical conception, such as it is. In contrast, her all powerful producer Izumi Kazama has successful filed all the rough edges off music. This is an especially bitter truth for her, given her medical prognosis.

Based on Katsumasa Enokiya’s manga series, HIBI is an extraordinarily bizarre mixture of scatological punk rock humor and sentimental John Green-style tear-jerking. Probably only Fumi Nikaido has the range to be equally effective in a mash-up of such disparate genres. She is a convincing hard-rocking angry drunk and sweet enough to be a credible j-pop star. She is also pretty heartbreaking in her Camille scenes.

Of course, nobody can say Shuhei Nomura isn’t trying his hardest as Hibinuma. He regularly gives up body and dignity alike, reducing himself to a grunting animalistic level. Eventually, it ceases to be amusing and becomes an act of performance art-like endurance.

The term “over the top” is lost on Hibinuma, but a lot of the film’s little details are perfectly rendered, such as Utagawa’s compulsively happy, light-electronica hit “Happy Summertime.” Key supporting player Tomoko Mariya is a tart-tongued stitch as Kazama—think of her like a Japanese Dame Kristin Scott Thomas. The name of the Rock & Roll Brothers’ chief rivals at Monster GOGO is also a nice touch: “Dog Rape.”

As exhausting as HIBI gets, it is ultimately rather sweet and touching. Hibinuma can be as annoying as fingernails on a blackboard, but when it is all said and done, we really feel like we have been through a lot with him. Recommended for those who want to take a happy-sad punk journey, HIBI ROCK: Puke Afro and the Pop star screens this Thursday (7/9), the opening night of this year’s Japan Cuts at the Japan Society.