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by Jay Seaver

"As messy as the lives of its characters, but (like them) has its moments."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I suppose I should just get the unfair comparison out of the way - "Lalapipo" is not in the same class as "Kamikaze Girls", "Paco and the Magic Book", or "Memories of Matsuko". It's only in the same sentence because the writer/director of those fantastic movies, Tetsuya Nakashima, wrote the screenplay, adapting a novel by Hideo Okuda for Masayuki Miyano to direct. It's certainly understandable that festivals would play up Nakashima's involvement, as his recent films have been audience favorites, but this movie has to settle for being quirky and kind of clever.

The title "Lalapipo" comes from a character mispronouncing an American tourist's comment that Tokyo sure has a lot of people, and focuses on six in particular: Technical writer Hiroshi (Sarutoki Minagawa) is a bitter, slovenly man who has started having conversations with penis (portrayed here by a puppet). Tomoko (Yuri Nakamura) is a pretty but shy department store clerk who is recruited into the sex business by "scout" Kenji (Hiroki Narimiya), who has also been given a "mature" actress to manage, without knowing who sort of secret Yoshie (Mari Hamada) has been hiding. Also crossing these characters' paths are Koichi (Yoshiyuki Morishita), an uptight young man whose superhero fantasies are a bizarre combination of the puritanical and the explicit, and Sayuri (Tomoko Murakami), Hiroshi's plus-size hookup who aims to be a voice actor but is already in the entertainment business in another capacity. Their stories overlap in several ways beyond what has been described.

The film sounds like a broad, raunchy comedy, especially since the penis puppet story is the first one out of the gate, and there's certainly a lot of that to it. It's not all fun and games, though - though the porn and adult entertainment industries are somewhat more mainstream in Japan than, say, the United States, there's still quite the strong sleazy undercurrent to even the more playful of those storylines. Other characters do things that aren't always exactly sex-related but have the potential for making the audience very uncomfortable, more often than not without much resolution one way or another. Lalapipo has plenty of belly laughs, but the funny and disturbing content tend to work against each other, rather than as a team.

That's most clear in Koichi's segment. Koichi is probably the film's most removable character, tying in with the other stories in mostly tangential ways, and as such winds up being the least developed - we don't get opportunity to consider and then reconsider him as we do with the Hiroshi/Sayuri pair, or the Tomoko/Kenji/Yoshie group. A fair amount of effort is spent on realizing Koichi's fantasies, and they are wonderfully tacky, but neither they nor his more realistic scenes have a lot to say about him as an individual. We get the surface of his sexual repression, but not much deeper.

He also runs somewhat counter to what seems to be the movie's greater theme, that for many today, sex is easier than actual communication. That's especially true for Tomoko, who winds up working her way from hostess bars to porn because she's much more comfortable with the sexy stuff than talking with people. Yuri Nakamura is charming as Tomoko, the most appealing combination of cheer and sadness in a movie full of them. The only other character who is quite so outwardly happy is Narimiya's Kenji, whose hustler has just enough charisma to charm the audience as well as his clients. Mari Hamada is quite the sad figure as Yoshie, even before we know her full situation, and while Minigawa's Hiroshi is rather unpleasant, Murakami's Sayuri is a much more interesting case: Her character is, from different perspectives, either sad and cynical or wickedly industrious. Whereas we feel there may be hope for Tomoko, we're not necessarily sure about Sayuri - there's too much going on with her to know.

Miyano does a nice job of tying the six stories together; the mostly-separate telling of the tales works well, with only Koichi really ever getting lost. I'm not sure how the book was structured, but opening with Hiroshi and closing with Sayuri makes for some nice symmetry. One at times striking weakness is that the film looks kind of cheap in places. It may be an artifact of the video projection used, but shots out one character's window at a busy Tokyo intersection just get overpowered by yellow, and while it may be a stylistic choice, it makes the movie hard to look at. A little grottiness is expected given how much of the film revolves around characters in low-rent porn-oriented professions, but even the fantasy sequences often look kind of half-hearted.

"Lalapipo"'s shortcomings are real, not just a result of comparison with the screenwriter's own films. However, it does have some strengths, notably enough jokes that work to make it a decent comedy, stories that intersect in interesting ways, and a decent cast, especially among the actresses. I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, but it's certainly no embarrassment to try to ignore.

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originally posted: 08/04/09 13:33:36
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: New York Asian Film Festival 2009 For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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