Director Yuichiro Tanaka goes all out in this drug-fuelled blend of yakuza crime drama and stoner comedy. “Smokin’ on the Moon” gives us a cast of crazy characters and extreme violence, but also makes time for an emotional tale of friendship.
The opening scenes are an assault on the senses as we see flashes of sex and drug use. Once things have calmed down, we are introduced to our two protagonists. Sota (Arata Iura) and Rakuto (Ryo Narita) are friends who spend their days sitting round smoking marijuana and working at the bar downstairs. Their easy existence is enlivened by various interesting characters, such as the cross-dressing bar owners and the pot-smoking guitarist outside their place. Sota attempts to make some money by selling marijuana, while Rakuto seems to have little enthusiasm for anything. We learn that Rakuto had a hard upbringing that has led to his complete lack of motivation and unwillingness to find employment or get out of his lazy lifestyle of drugs and scrounging. He has a relationship with a young woman, who is also addicted to smoking cocaine, and her son. When Sota and Rakuto unexpectedly cross paths with a violent yakuza gang, things take a turn for the worse. Soon they are facing a more serious threat than they have ever encountered.
Director Yuichiro Tanaka creates a vibrant world of colourful character. His use of animation, various film effects such as black-and-white, off-kilter camera angles, help to create a trippy vibe that is highly entertaining. The violent acts of the yakuza come as a huge shock following the largely comedic opening and throughout they seem jarring, albeit in a good way. Their actions seem completely vile and unnecessary in the context of these kind-hearted, laid back protagonists.
The story is based on a manga by Yuchiro Tanaka, with the screenplay co-written by Kiyotaka Inagi. The story seems to be a passion project of Tanaka’s, and it is the kind of strange, uncategorizable film that only the original writer could have done justice to. The movie immediately takes us inside the lives of these two characters, with their untidy apartment and the small bar downstairs run by two bitchy homosexual transvestites. By shooting in a close-up, often claustrophobic, manner, the filmmakers give the audience a sense that they are there with them.
“Smokin’ on the Moon” is a film that features almost entirely antiheros or outsider characters. Whether through their sexuality, criminality, or simply non-conformist attitudes, they are on the margins of mainstream Japanese society. It is great to see a film tackling these characters seriously, neither glorifying them or criticising them.
Ryo Narita gives an incredible performance as Rakuto. His lazy stoner of the film’s opening is almost changed unrecognisably as the film goes on and by the end it is incredible to think of his arc, which seems entirely natural. Arata Iura is good as Sota, and though he has less to deal with, he offers a great counterpoint to the wild Rakuto. The yakuza are terrifying and create a firm focal point of hatred for the audience, being irredeemably nasty characters. All of the supporting cast do a fantastic job with the material, which is unusual to say the least.
“Smokin’ on the Moon” has a punk aesthetic, outrageous humour and sudden jolts of shocking violence that make it a must see for fans of alternative cinema. It’s antiheros are well-drawn, particularly the lead characters, helped by great performances. The direction is slick and creative with an abundance of original ideas. This is Tanaka’s directorial debut, but I hope he has many more films in him.