Lalapipo, 2009

There are only two types of people in this world: People who keep grovelling all their lives, and those who escape that and rise to the heights…

Even with Paco and the Magical Book released in Japanese theatres in the Autumn of 2008, director Tetsuya Nakashima continued to surprise audiences by turning a would-be colourful children’s fantasy romp into a semi-tragic and often poignant tale about the darkness of humanity. Like Memories of Matsuko and – to a lesser extent – Kamikaze Girls before it, he masterfully enriched some of its difficult subject matter with zingy visual aids and a flair for unique characterization. It seems that Nakashima finds it all but impossible to break away from exploring socially relevant themes, which makes it less of a surprise, then, in that he should more recently turn to author Okuda Hideo’s 2005 novel ‘Lalapipo’. This time, however, Nakashima is on writing duties only; forging a screenplay for his former assistant on Kamikaze Girls and Paco – Miyano Masayuki.

Like the book, Lalapipo centres on the lives of six individuals who are each pulled into the sex industry and whose paths converge in the most unusual of ways. We have Kenji (Hiroki Narimiya), a talent scout who dupes young women into becoming porn stars, and whose latest recruit, Tomoko (Yuki Nakamura), happens to fall for his relentless charm and promises of a better life as he gradually takes her through the many prestigious ranks. Every night Kenji manages to take home a different girl, much to the distaste of Hiroshi (Sarutoki Minagawa), a freelance writer living on the floor below, who has all but shut himself away from the rest of society, lamenting that with his credentials he can’t get any women – unlike the charismatic loser above – as he feverishly masturbates with a penis that has a mind of its own. When aspiring seiyu Sayuri (Tomoko Murakami) enters his life the promise of easy sex is too good an opportunity to pass up, but soon he’ll discover that even she has a rather curious job on the side. Elsewhere we meet Koichi (Takashi Yoshimura), a lonely young man working at a Karaoke bar, to whose disgust his employers have started to work hand-in-hand with local pimps. By night he becomes the power-suited ‘Captain Bonita’, a visitor from another world whose mission is to observe Earth life and put evil-doers to rest. Finally there’s Yoshie (Mari Hamada), a middle-aged housewife who has given up on the tedium of taking care of her home and family to pursue a career in AV to satisfy her thirst of wanting to be better appreciated.

An air of familiarity breezes over us as Miyano Masayuki’s picture preludes a series of events set in and around the Japanese sex industry; the manga-like compositions and neon-lit walkways of Roppongi does its bit in mirroring Tetsuya Nakashima’s visual style as it continues to provide a suitably gaudy invitation to a scene filled with many potential pitfalls. In that respect it might appear as if Masayuki – obviously showing tremendous respect toward his peer – comes away with less of an innovative touch, but it’s perhaps just as well in keeping with the tone of Hideo’s novel, itself a cornucopia of wild and weird adventurism set against a stark commentary on a portion of society that’s often freely skirted around. Nakashima and Masayuki seem to understand the source material and the context in which its placed regarding current trends and lifestyles, and in keeping in tune with Lalapipo’s satirical edge they recreate moments with surreal intensity,  using its comic stylings to soften the tale’s inherently dark subject matter with bursts of exaggerated comedy.

One of Masayuki’s greatest strengths, then, is by maintaining a strong pace and striking a neat balance between the film’s tonal shifts. At just 90 minutes in length, Lalapipo has an awful lot of ground to cover, but thanks to a tight script and some strong editing, it interweaves its strands exceptionally well, allowing for a coherent story filled with both joy and tragedy, while exuding a terrific amount of characterization for a selection of lonely souls who might not otherwise earn our best sympathies. While the feature could quite easily go the other way, Masayuki chooses to be a realist in defining these individuals; fantasies are often conjured to deal with their own inadequacies, but the director never wimps out on them by seeking to wring out any great sentimentalism. Rather he presents an intelligent narrative which focuses on different classes scattered across the many rungs of the social ladder: people of various mental conditions who each have their unfortunate pasts, which have led on to them creating self-taught values and philosophies on how their superficial environment chooses to eat up and spit out its inhabitants. The search for love, wealth and finding meaning in one’s life are adequate enough themes for which to explore such often bleak journeys of self-discovery, and the director does well to underlay them with affirming messages, while naturally using sex as a vehicle for man’s most natural desires. Commendably he also affords us a certain amount of ambiguity by leaving us to ponder some unpredictable moments and question whether or not anyone has truly learned any real lessons by the end of it all. It’s not so much a feature of happy endings, but a depicted reality that for all its cartoon-ish veneer is perhaps all too close to home.

Lalapipo will likely divide viewers. Though abundant in surreal visuals and bizarre comedy, it’s not an entirely uplifting affair; its dark topics lining a cynical streak and its resolutions winding up questionable and often unrewarding. It does, however, deserve praise for bravely attempting to dig a little deeper into the workings of the Japanese sex industry, showing some of the harsher realities faced by those drawn into what could be considered an unforgiving lifestyle.

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