“Fuku-Chan of Fukufuku Flats.” It sounds almost like a name straight out of a tall tale — and the bearer of that name, while fully human, is appropriately larger-than-life. Tatsuo Fukuda (Miyuki Oshima), nicknamed “Fuku-chan,” works as a painter, and lives in a beat-up apartment building with the wonderfully alliterative name Fukufuku Flats. Directed by Yosuke Fujita, Fuku-Chan of Fukufuku Flats may not be a tale quite suited for kids, but it is a whimsical story of oddballs and odds-defying love.
It’s impossible not to feel instantly amused and charmed by Fuku-chan, who spends most of his days on construction sites painting, observing workers, managing disputes, and serving as the mediator in arguments and entanglements of all sorts. In the opening scene, his duties include trying to coach one of his workers through a fart, and then encouraging one of the others to go out and buy some “fart food” — nothing is off-limits. Fuku-chan is the lynchpin of his community, and is gregarious and instantly likable by all around him; he spends his time off by the riverside flying kites and chatting with neighbors and co-workers, becoming the fearless de-facto leader of his gang of misfits.
Fujita makes the bold choice of having female actor Oshima, from the comedy trio “Morisanchu,” perform the lead role of a middle-aged man, but she absolutely nails the role and creates a radiating warmth from each endearing dimension of Fukuda’s being. But romance seems to be his weak spot, and he always brushes off discussions of women when he goes out drinking with friends, who encourage him to find a hot girl. They comment on his ample endowment — “not centimeters, think meters” — and his coworker Shimacchi (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) tries to engineer a romance, but the outcome is always woeful.
This quirky comedy is often cutesy in its pastel palette and soft indie-flavored soundtrack, and colorful characters include everyone from a reformed underwear thief to a soft-spoken Ivy-Leaguer who often wears his massive pet snake around his neck. But underneath Fuku-chan’s upbeat facade is a deep unshakeable loneliness and a desire for the love that has so far eluded him. But out of the blue, his junior-high love, Chiho (Asami Mizukawa), reappears in his life — reigniting plenty of old passions as well as old pain, and Fuku-chan lacks confidence in himself and feels he cannot offer her what she wants.
Chiho has plenty of self-doubts, too, as she tries to get her photography career off the ground. Things initially seem promising when she is offered opportunities by a sleazy photography guru, and is invited to his loudly patterned studio for him to pose for her. But he strips nude in front of her and demands she undress too, claiming that “for an artist, not undressing is far more embarrassing than undressing.” This traumatic experience of sexual harassment causes Chiho to lose faith in her abilities, and no longer be able to trust those around her. But Fuku-chan and Chiho, kindred spirits reconnecting after a long time apart, are able to see the worth in one another that they cannot always see themselves. Chiho wants to turn her camera on Fuku-chan, but gets nervous asking him to pose for photos and instead takes pictures of him covertly. When she is caught and confronted, she states simply that he has a “great face,” which Fuku-chan thinks is mockery.
Chiho, and Fujita, rightfully see Fuku-chan as someone endlessly fascinating, and this film explores the social and sexual expectations placed on both men and women that can stop them from feeling free. In Oshima’s gender-bending performance, Fuku-chan proposes a new model of masculinity and sensitivity, prompting us to reconsider what subjects deserve to be photographed or depicted in cinema. The scenes of male bonding are heartfelt, and in one hillside scene, one of the men tearfully confesses to Fuku-chan: “I’ve never had a friend who worried about my poo before.” Why must men feel like they have to feign nonchalance or keep feelings hidden? When Fuku-chan reveals his smile for the camera, we cannot help but grin along with him, and that emotion should be allowed to spread.
This is a story of misjudgment and mistaken impressions, as people slowly reveal their true selves amidst a series of delightfully absurd vignettes, from Fuku-chan demonstrating proper flatulence to fighting off an insanely strict waiter who refuses to give Chiho water after she eats mouth-burning curry. The film maintains comical and carnivalesque energy, but it offsets all that sugary sweetness with just enough bitter cynicism to go down easy. “Nobody knows their own beauty,” Chiho reflects at one point, but Fujita recognizes the beauty within even the bit players and cares deeply for each eccentric in his ensemble — and Fuku-chan’s tale deserves us stopping to look for a while at all these wonderful weirdos.