Why don’t Japanese audiences turn up in big numbers for Hollywood superhero movies? The rare success in Japan of the Spider-Man series suggests one answer: Japanese like superheroes just fine, as long as they’re flawed humans as well as heroic fighters for justice.
Another case in point is “Hero Mania,” Keisuke Toyoshima’s black comedy about everyday heroes who are not just flawed, but also damaged and strange. And though they may have superior fighting skills, they are not super-powered.
Based on Shigeyuki Fukumitsu’s alternative manga “Seikatsu” (“Life”), the film is funny in smart off-kilter ways, while making astute observations about Japanese society in particular and human nature in general. Also, though produced by the major Japanese film companies — Nikkatsu and Toei — “Hero Mania” has an indie, even anarchic sensibility. It may look like a typical genre entertainment, action-comedy division, but it plays freely with the conventions. Instead of going from zero to hero, with the usual setbacks, the characters arrive at various destinations, not all of which are predictable — or perhaps even legal.
The film’s central “maniac” is Nakatsu (Masahiro Higashide), a former salaryman who is now an unhappy convenience-store clerk. He is dissatisfied with not only his lowly status, but also the lawless state of his provincial city, Dodo, where punks and criminals run rampant.
But Nakatsu, an easily intimidated wimp, can do nothing about this situation until he meets the beady-eyed, red-stocking-capped Toshida (Masataka Kubota). Using a wire he shoots from his wrist, Toshida does cool Spider-Man-like stunts with the uncool purpose of stealing women’s panties. By pairing up, Nakatsu tells him, they can battle the baddies infesting the town. “Only at night,” Toshida answers — and a fateful partnership is born.
Soon after they start their clean-up campaign (with surprising success given that only Toshida has any actual fighting skills), they are joined by Kaori (Nana Komatsu), a nerdy high school girl with a razor-sharp mind, and Kusaki (Tsurutaro Kataoka), a fierce little middle-aged guy who demolishes opponents with two hammers that pop out of his sleeves.
After this quartet strings up a gang of bikers like human Christmas-tree ornaments in one of the film’s more artfully choreographed action scenes, the media starts calling them the Phantom Hangers. Kusaki tells Nakatsu they are righting the local human ecosystem, which is out of whack due to an over-abundance of wild kids and an absence of scary adults. Whatever — Nakatsu is finally finding meaning in his once-drab existence.
Just as they are enjoying their new-found camaraderie, a mysterious Mr. Uno (Funakoshi Eiichiro) enters their tight circle at Kusaki’s introduction. A slick talker with a smarmy smile, Uno persuades them to incorporate, and soon a horde of freshly hired justice fighters, wearing uniforms of the new Tomoshibi security company, are patrolling the streets of Dodo. Meanwhile, Kusaki, Toshida and Kaori join forces with Uno, who offers them the sort of status they could have never won as outlaw Phantom Hangers. Only Nakatsu resists — and he is soon proven prescient when Uno reveals his true, evil colors.
Toyoshima, who has made everything from low-budget horror to erotic-themed period drama, wisely steers “Hero Mania” from the extreme silliness of so many gag manga adaptations. His quirky characters, beginning with Nakatsu, have painful pasts and not-so-funny dark sides. Living in a declining, hoodlum-infested dump like Dodo is finally no joke, nor is serving a corrupt, psychopathic boss like Uno.
This contradicts the stereotyped image of Japan as a crime-free paradise where everyone is working (and over-working) in harmony. True, Dodo and Uno and the social pathologies they symbolize may not be everyday realities for many, but they are not comic-book fantasies either. And if you don’t believe me, I’ve got a certain convenience store I’d like to show you.