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"Tachigui": Oshii Scams the Audience

Tachigui, Mamoru Oshii’s latest film, is a “mockumentary” of such deadpan humor I had to lean over when it was done and ask my theater companion—who’s lived in Japan—how much of it was true. “Not a word of it!” he shouted, and began waving his arms furiously.

That, in a nutshell, may be the reaction of audiences to this film: bemused bafflement in those who don’t know Oshii’s work or much about post-war Japan, and angry frustration in those who do.

Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of Fast Food Grifters describes the scams that con men pulled against street vendors and fast food sellers in the decades following Japan’s defeat in World War II. Oshii theorizes is that these grifters evolved from scroungers snatching free food into performance artists existentially defining themselves by … Well, I’m not sure if at the end such grifters as “Frankfurter Tatsu” or “Medium Hot Sabu” actually were walking away from their scams with any food. Come to that, I’m not sure how or even whether “Moongaze Ginji,” the first major grifter profiled here, got his soba for free. The film is woefully short on specifics about how these scams actually worked; instead, it prefers to situate them in labyrinthine analyses using words like “praxis” to relate their existence to the extermination of feral dogs, the rise and collapse of fast food chains, the self-immolation of the New Left, and other what not whose connection to its people is at best fanciful and at worst wholly obscure.

But there I go again, talking as though the film is about actual people and critiquing it as though it were a real documentary. That might sound like high praise; surely the best kind of film—surely the best kind of faux documentary—is one that convinces you of the truth of what it depicts. Sadly, though, it actually says more about the movie’s pedantry, its long-windedness, the sheer tedium of its conception. Surely this movie must be based on real life, you think, because only real life could actually be this boring.

Actually, “boring” is a bit too harsh. Oshii uses an interesting animation technique in this movie, manipulating sequences of photographic cutouts in both animated and live-action contexts to create a weird and mostly seamless hybrid of puppetry, stop-motion, and traditional animation. Oshii’s talent for powerful imagery, especially in the use of supersonic heavy bombers that haunt the backgrounds in the film’s first half, never deserts him, and the movie’s visuals are generally able to hold your eye even as its narration is deadening your ear. But the late, great Pauline Kael’s riposte to an earlier generation of experimental films is apt here, too: It’s a great technique, but what are you going to do with it?

Both formally and tonally Tachigui resembles Jorge Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy: a wry fiction that references reality only obliquely and allusively. The success of such a piece depends heavily on the success of its jokes, the plausibility of its philosophy, and the intrinsic interest of its own purported stories. On the quality of its jokes I cannot comment: I only understood one, a labored and unfunny reference to the obscure twentieth century logical positivist Ernst Mach. Those who know Japan may have better luck with the others, though if the Mach joke is any indication, they won’t be funny either. As to its stories, they have no suspense, no drama, and their characters are flat in more than just a physical sense. And the success of its philosophy hangs entirely on the success of its “facts,” which are, of course invented. Whatever Oshii means to say in this movie, it cannot be proved from his story, because that story is crafted entirely to illustrate whatever point he means to make.

Ultimately, in both form and substance, Tachigui seems to be little more than a playful attempt to make a documentary without going to the bother of doing any research. As a postmodern exercise in empty symbol-pushing, it might arouse the professional interest of graduate students doing work in certain academic fields. The rest of us will probably just feel scammed.

* * * * *

I saw Tachigui at the 8th Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) in South Korea. It was not the only too-fanciful animated film I saw there: festival organizers also inflicted a series of nine short art films on a willing audience.

It’s a thesis of mine—depressingly confirmed all too often—that although the style and feel of entertainment varies from culture to culture (there’s no mistaking Japanese anime for American-style Looney Tunes, for instance), art films from around the world are all the same: often astonishingly cheap, grindingly pedantic, and plonkingly sincere.

The best—meaning the worst—example of this at JIFF was the claymation “A Chalk,” a five-minute short that managed to feel at least twice that long. The turgid, gloomy story had a prisoner finding a piece of chalk with which he could draw items that would become real. Predictably, he ends up drawing a door on his cell wall. The idea of drawings coming to life goes back at least to the “Out of the Inkwell” series, and this short’s director (charity forbids me from mentioning his name) can’t find anything new to do with it, and what he does do he does tediously. Equally horrible is “Yellow Monday,” a similarly preachy short about the grinding monotony of urban life that features some of the stiffest and ugliest CGI I’ve seen in at least fifteen years.

The most watchable short—and the one that deserves a Western release, if it hasn’t got one already—is “Contact 2,” from RG Animation Studios. It’s one of a series of CGI shorts they’ve produced starring a luckless bear named Backkom; in this one, he encounters a headstrong space alien. The design work is not all that different from Pixar’s, but the emphasis on personality-driven slapstick is more like Aardman. The timing of the jokes is subtle and wickedly funny, and the CGI work is smooth and professionally done: the first time the alien slapped Backkom on the face brought down the house. You can download “Contact 2″ (in Windows Media form) from the RG website here; other Backkom shorts can be viewed on the web here.

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