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In my travels to the best film festivals in…
On Sunday, September 22, 2013 I attended the gutbusting North American Premiere of Maruyama, The Middle Schooler at Fantastic Fest 2013 in Austin, Texas. The screening took place at the brand new Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline.
The titular Katsuya Maruyama (Takuma Hiraoka) is a typical 14-year-old boy who thinks about, and attempts to do, what most teens (and older males, certainly) try to do at least once in their lives, if not every day. It takes some dexterity and a limber body. That’s not all the movie is about, of course. It’s a multi-layered narrative, essentially a sincere coming of age film, with a lot more going on than this youngster’s home project. Still, there’s no way to avoid discussing its central idea and that tends to be what viewers talk about, so I’ve been conflicted about how to describe it without being vulgar. However, if the Japanese people don’t see anything unusual about it, it would be hypocritical of me to dance around the topic and try to come up with euphemisms and polite ways of discussing what he does. But hopefully you get the picture. And the camera does not shy away from showing his clumsy attempts to accomplish this feat, just in case you don’t.
And this wonderfully sweet movie has oh, so much more going on. Besides Maruyama’s intense passion for wrestling class, the four main storylines include the mother who’s obsessed with a Korean soap star and spends her afternoons fantasizing in front of the television, the enigmatic grandfather with dementia who wanders off aimlessly, and the mysterious neighbor who’s either a secret government spy or a pedophile – the high-rise apartment complex residents love to gossip – who takes a special interest in the youngster. Then there are bikers, bullies, dead bodies, girlfriends, boyfriends, and superheroes. Oh, and there’s dad’s obsession with fresh fruit. Once you get past the creep factor, Maruyama, The Middle Schooler is alternately a joyous and painful look at the world from inside the mind of an adolescent. But his onscreen, occasionally graphic flexibility exercises are not coming from a place of prurience. This is a story about innocence more than vulnerability, desire more than obscenity, and curiosity more than shame.
Like many Japanese filmmakers, Kankurô Kudô is a multitasking man of many talents on both the big and small screens. He’s primarily an actor and writer with over 200 television shows and features to his credit, and received great acclaim for 2001’s Go, which won him numerous awards including Best Screenplay from the Japanese Academy. He was nominated again by the Academy in 2003 for Pingu-Pongu and in 2008 for Maiko haaaan!!!!. He may be best known in the West for writing Takashi Miike’s 2004 sci-fi comedy Zebraman and its sequel in 2010. Maruyama, The Middle Schooler (Japanese title Chûgakusei Maruyama) is his third feature directorial effort. The movie premiered at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy this past April prior to its release in Japan on May 18. It then played Korea's Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival in July before making its North American debut in Austin. Its next stop is the Hawaii International Film Festival as part of their Spotlight on Japan.
The movie's authenticity rests on the diminutive shoulders of 14-year-old Takuma Hiraoka (now 15). He’s a relative newcomer with just a few television projects to his credit along with voice roles, including 2012’s award-winning animated feature Wolf Children. This is his first time on the big screen and there’s no doubt he’s got a long, successful career ahead of him. The ensemble cast features standout performances from Tsuyoshi Kusanagi as the puzzling neighbor Tatsuo Shimoi, Toru Nakamura as fruit-loving dad Katsuyuki, Maki Sakai as soap-obsessed mom Mizuki, Yang Ik-June as Korean TV idol Park Hyeon-Hun, Kenji Endo as the senile grandfather with revelatory hidden talents, and Hiroki Miyake as the gruff but inspiring wrestling coach Umeda.
Maruyama’s Fuji Television-backed budget allows for noticeably high production values highlighted by outstanding visual effects, along with creatively eclectic cinematography from Kazunari Tanaka. With R100 and Maruyama, The Middle Schooler, Tanaka has the distinction of being the only cinematographer who’s shot two of my favorite films at the same festival. His 35 motion pictures include 2003’s Gozu and the aforementioned Zebraman, written by Maruyama writer/director Kankurô Kudô. R100 (which I just reviewed yesterday) and Maruyama, along with Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (also from Japan) were my three top comedies at Fantastic Fest this year. Tanaka's signature style produces an image oversaturated with bright, candy store colors, a palette typical of many Japanese motion pictures, especially kid-oriented titles. The teen's fantasy sequences are distinguished by soft focus and a delicate score to match. There’s a perfectly balanced ebb and flow to the narrative, from long, poignant melodramatic scenes (e.g., heartfelt discussions between odd neighbor Tatsuo Shimoi and Maruyama) to rapid-fire editing in the film’s many exciting action sequences which dominate the third act.
The fact that a story about a boy who has autofellatio at the top of his wish list was funded by and intended to be shown on Fuji Television to the country’s 127 million people speaks volumes about cultural differences. Maruyama thinks nothing of dropping his pants when the mood suits him and working on his exercises, even in public in full view of passersby and classmates. It’s uncomfortable, yet hilarious and utterly endearing. Conservative parents' groups (PTC) would likely call it kiddie porn, which would be a darn shame. Audiences have loved it, although I imagine it might be awkward for a boy to sit and watch this movie with his mother.
There were four fantastic comedies on my festival schedule and all happened to be Japanese (I saw six features from Japan in total). Two were “horror” films, which I reviewed previously (Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and R100). The other two are family pictures, and this is one of them. Many might look at the synopsis and wonder how in heck this could be considered a kids flick. Yes, it’s about a middle schooler, obviously. But the subject matter is easy to misconstrue. In fact, this was one of those titles that many attendees shied away from based on the description. “A movie about a boy trying to pleasure himself orally?” (Not the words they used but I’m being polite.) “No thanks.” Unfortunately, those who couldn’t stomach that idea missed out on one of the festival’s best family films (which went on to win the Jury Award for Best Comedy Screenplay). Despite its provocative themes, Maruyama, The Middle Schooler is hilariously entertaining and a richly rewarding way to spend two hours. If you can find it...take the kids, find some seats, then split up and move to the back row. They'll be glad you did.
NOTE: I selected Maruyama, The Middle Schooler for my Fantastic Fest 2013 Top Picks. It won the festival’s top Gutbuster Comedy Features Award for Best Screenplay. The movie was released theatrically in Japan last May through Pony Canyon and Toei Company with TV rights to Fuji Television Network. There are no domestic distribution rights as of now.
The official teaser trailer is below along with a set of stills. The trailer is in Japanese and contains no spoilers.
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…