As the writer of Takashi Miike's Zebraman, cult hit Maiko Haaan and his own directorial debut Yaji and Kita, The Midnight Ramblers, multi-talented writer-director-actor-musician Kankuro Kudo has become one of the most visible faces for the sort of manic, extreme Japanese comedy that cult film fnas lap up on the festival circuit around the world. But what often gets forgotten is that Kudo is also a hugely acclaimed - and award winning - dramatist as well, his theatrical productions having won some of Japan's most prestigious literary prizes, while the scripts he wrote for Ping Pong and Go early in his career also show a sensitivity to character and dramatic tension seemingly at odds with his more manic moments. Bear that in mind when approaching Kudo's latest directorial effort, The Shonen Merikensack. While very distinctly a Kudo-written comedy, Merikensack is far more in keeping with Kudo's earlier work than it is with his brash and colorful self. Go in expecting Yaji And Kita part two and you'll be sorely disappointed. Let it be what Kudo wants it to be and you'll find a whole lot to love.
Aoi Miyazaki stars as Kanna, a small town girl with a love for all things cute. Dreading the prospect of a small town life spent working in her father's restaurant, Kanna has made her way to the big city and found work as a low-level A&R rep - a talent scout, basically - for a powerful record label. But Kanna's contract is about to expire and, unless she can find something to impress her boss Kanna is on her way out. The answer? The Shonen Merikensack. Despite loathing the genre herself, Kanna discovers the blazing punk rock act via an online video and, recognizing the potential shows it to her boss who is so enthused that he posts it on the record label website and books a tour before even seeing the band play live - never mind actual signing them to a contract - leaving those pesky details in Kanna's care.
The video a huge online sensation and the tour selling out long in advance, Kanna's career should be made, but when she travels to meet the guitar player who leads the band and get the contract signed she realizes her fatal mistake. The video is twenty five years old, the band long-since broken up. The brothers who made up the core of the band have refused to speak to each other for years. The singer? Nearly catatonic and confined to a wheelchair after an unfortunate, on-stage guitar swinging mishap. This is clearly a disaster waiting to happen but Kanna has no choice, she's gone past the point of no return. She must hide the truth from her boss, get the band back together and then hit the road and try to keep them back together at least long enough to make it through the shows that have already been sold.
Though definitely not without its goofy side - the interactions between Kanna and the band are frequently hilarious - The Shonen Merikensack is ultimately a smart, character based bit of work. It's a classic road movie, all of the players forced to learn and grow thanks to the enforced proximity to one another, all of them forced to confront the bad decisions of their pasts and chart a course for the future. The structure of it is nothing you haven't seen before - it's a classic triumph of the little guy, feel good approach - but it's Kudo's execution of the characters and story that make it special. The entire cast is sterling from top to bottom, the comedy and drama elements neatly balanced throughout. Like most Japanese films it runs a touch long and doesn't have the immediate hook that much of Kudo's work does but The Shonen Merikensack rewards with the detail and craftsmanship of its work, ending up as a film that sticks with you for a good while past the closing frames.