Saturday afternoon, two o'clock. It's opening day for director Mamoru Oshii's latest film, Tachiguishi Retsuden. Oshii and his cast are wrapping up their comments to the crowd before the show begins. "The more seriously you take this film," he concludes gravely, "the funnier it is." Press cameras flash. The lights dim. And we're off and running through two of the strangest hours I've ever spent in a Japanese cinema.
Nearly everything about Tachiguishi Retsuden defies easy explanation. Like the title, for starters. It literally means something like "The Legendary Masters of Eating While Standing," while Production I.G. has apparently gone with the more spirited "Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of Fast Food Grifters." Unlike the majority of his other films, it's a parody. It's animated, but it isn't anime. It's comprised of still photos of actors and settings that have been digitally animated into life, stop-motion style. But that being said, there isn't a whole hell of a lot of motion, either. Major portions of the film consist of long (long) stretches of narraration over grainy, colorized black and white stills.
Sounds confusing? I haven't even gotten to the plot. It's like Tampopo meets Jin-Roh, a sprawling (and totally fictional) documentary chronicling dine-and-dashers in Japan's postwar era. The story opens in the tiny standing room only noodle shops that sprang up during the occupation, and ends among the hamburger stands, beef bowl joints, and curry restaurants that serve up the majority of Japan's fast food today. The various protagonists aren't cast as criminals, but as anti-heroes and springboards for social satire. Sounds simple enough on the surface, but this is Mamoru Oshii we're talking about. Their "amazing lives" unfold in an incredibly dense narrative, crammed full of trivia, pop-culture references, and Japanese urban legends, the vast majority completely unknown to foreign audiences.
The cast reads like the invitation list to an otaku cocktail party. "Gyudon" Ushigoro is played by Gamera SFX director Shinji Higuchi. Kenji Kawai, who scored Ghost in the Shell and Innocence in addition to this film, is the ravenous "Hamburger" Tetsu. Production I.G. president Mitsuhisa Ishikawa tackles the role of Crying Inumaru. Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki is noodle-slurping Hiyashi-Tanuki no Masa. And in the most insane casting decision of the century, Macross mecha designer Shoji Kawamori is Sabu, a turbaned, curry-crazed "Indian" that makes Apu from The Simpsons feel like a new pinnacle of cultural sensitivity.
If this all sounds totally esoteric and impenetrable, that's the whole point. Critics of Oshii's philosophy-heavy approach won't find any reason to change their minds here. You'll need your otaku thinking cap and a healthy knowledge of old-school anime to make heads or tails out of the bulk of the references. Only about a quarter of the audience seemed to get any given joke, leaving the rest of us scratching our heads and waiting for a chance to climb back on board with the next bit. Tachiguishi Retsuden is a parody with a learning curve.
How much will you enjoy it? Depends on how much time you enjoy spending inside Mamoru Oshii's head. Tachiguishi Retsuden is the director at his most self-indulgent. At its hip and ironic best, it's an offbeat arthouse present to himself and his most hardcore fans. But the lack of any single main character makes the narrative difficult to navigate for Oshii neophytes; watching the film is like drinking from a cultural firehose. If you weren't born and raised in Japan, you'll need a native pal to help you consume the decadent feast Oshii has left for his viewers. Just don't forget to pay on the way out.