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People say you should never exaggerate. So to say that Yaji and Kita, The Midnight Pilgrims, by the Japanese debutant film maker Kankuro Kudo (1970) is the most exuberant, crazy and improbable film being screened at the next Rotterdam Festival only has any point if you don’t disappoint the viewers.
by Gertjan Zuilhof
Well there’s no danger of that. To call The Midnight Pilgrims over the top is basically an understatement. It is no less than an explosive mixture of everything that has been burped up by camp, comics, farce, games, neo-post-modernism and commercials. Last year in Rotterdam we saw Survive Style 5+ by contemporary debutant Sekiguchi Gen. Words failed to describe that film too. Sekiguchi and Kudo are not the kind of film makers who start with 8 mm secondary school films or an art-academy video course to end up making a modest first film. They were stars before they made their debut. Sekiguchi was a very expensive commercial star before he allowed his imagination free rein in Survive Style 5+ and Kudo was a celebrated scriptwriter who turned many a film and TV series to gold with his pen. In other words, Sekiguch San and Kudo San were able to do their own thing and don’t think you can avoid that fact. You’ve been warned.
When Yaji and Kita starts, you have no idea that one of the craziest and most original drugs films ever is about to unfold. The image is black & white and the protagonists are dressed as in classic samurai films. But that doesn’t last long. Leading man Yaji is introduced as he sits fishing by the river. A corpse drifts past on a kind of door followed by many other corpses that pass in computer game formations on the surface. A dream. And a very 21st-century dream for a small trader from the Edo dynasty.
Yaji has a wife (whom he accidentally kills), but he also has a homosexual relationship with Kita. He is a jittery actor with hair dyed blond who is seriously addicted to blue pills (because of course the film does not remain black & white). Kita’s addiction has got completely out of hand and they decide to make a pilgrimage to the Iso temple to beg for healing (and Yaji can then secretly atone for murdering his wife). By the time they leave, we are not even surprised when a pop dance group turns up to wave them goodbye and the legendary motorbike from Easy Rider is waiting for them as means of transport.
Kita’s addiction and his later cold turkey on the journey leads to a series of exuberant surrealistic scenes. By the time he slowly changes into a magic mushroom in a kind of heavenly head shop at the end of the film, nothing can surprise you any more.
The source for the film - almost inevitably - is a famous manga by cartoonist Kotobuki Shiriagari. He based himself on an even more famous 200-year-old book, the Tokaidochu Hizakurige, about the journey of two pilgrims from Edo to the Iso temple and all the obstacles they have to conquer on the way.
In the version by Kudo everything is exaggerated, everything parody, everything crazy and above all skilfully and surrealistically portrayed. Kudo is a film maker for whom anything goes. The overwhelming design is certainly commercial, but the story about two gays - one who murdered his wife and the other a notorious junkie - is far from that. The film did quite well at the box office in Japan, but it certainly wasn’t a safe investment. The addiction of Kita plays a too decisive role in the film for that, especially because his hallucinations, dreams and nightmares make up a considerable part of the film.
The film is pop in every sense of the word. The actor who plays Yaji (Tomaya Nagase) is successful with his band Tokio and the director also has his own punk band. The soundtrack expresses a clear predilection for pop music. The design of the film is contemporary pop art; the sources are legion and the film is liberally sprinkled with references and derivative elements, from old woodcuts to manga, from classic films to computer games.
Alongside all the virtuoso and virtual insanity, the film also has room for a kind of melancholy undertone. In it, various realities and dream worlds are investigated, but the river between death and life is also nonchalantly crossed. Because the very first image of a woman washing rice obsessively every night is basically just beautiful and sad.
Kudo’s film comprises enough material for a handful of features, but the fact that this has all been pushed into one film is exactly its charm. That you should never exaggerate it is a motto that gets you nowhere in a hallucinogenic comedy. Then the ultimate insanity is still not crazy enough.