Shin’ichirō Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead was nothing short of an indie phenomenon. I was lucky and caught it early on in its festival run and was delighted as it continued to gain momentum festival after festival, resonating with so many others with its very human story of a crew against the odds trying to make this low budget zombie extravaganza. While One Cut succeeded partially due to its cleverness, the reason it affected so many audiences was because it had so much heart. Ueda was downright masterful at humanizing his characters and by doing so investing you in their story. When I heard Fantasia was screening his latest, Popran, I just had to see it, to see what the director would do next. While I can say it’s just as clever with that same heart at the center, it’s much weirder.
Popran is a satirical look at toxic masculinity in Japan, that is as bizarre as it is scathing. The film stars Yoji Minagawa as Tagami Tatsuya who runs a successful manga reading app. One night at a party he uses his influence to sleep with a young woman who hopes he will publish her original manga, only to wake up missing one very important part of his anatomy — his penis. It’s after this Tagami then discovers that the “sky fish” phenomena that have been plaguing Tokyo, buzzing around the buildings, are in fact men’s penises that have become fed up with their host’s toxic behavior and abandoned them, thus completely emasculating them. The night before the incident Tagami also had a dream of all the people he’s stepped on to get where he is, and the way this works is he has 6 days to retrace those steps and in the process discover where in his past his member is hiding.
It’s thanks to this event we discover the superficially successful Tagami was actually quite a terrible person, but that’s kind of the point. We find out not only was he not the best son, but he fired his former partner while on the cusp of their app breaking out and after that he abandoned his wife and their daughter. The film brilliantly uses this tumultuous journey down memory lane as a way for Tagami to confront these choices in order to hopefully earn back his manhood, and by doing so also earns the sympathy of the audience. It’s a film with a raunchy, high concept premise that manages to keep it as wholesome and comedic as possible, to tell this story that is expertly crafted by Shin’ichirō Ueda. Yoji Minagawa is just sublime here in this role that surprisingly has him going to some very intense and intimate places as an actor to really bring us into this man’s attempt at some kind of redemption.
Popran is surprisingly similar to One Cut in that it has this rather intriguing premise that is matched by an equally impressive human story, this time of a man who starts the film nearly unredeemable and somehow by the end finds some redemption. It’s not an easy jump to make, but it’s one that Shin’ichirō Ueda pulls off perfectly. It’s such a surreal premise, but Ueda makes it not only work but feel somewhat plausible as you have this urban legend of these “sky fish” that is propagated in part because the men afflicted don’t want to admit what really is happening. While Popran entertains, it’s genuinely saying something about toxic masculinity so loud and clear that some may find it a hard pill to swallow. It’s a remarkably charming story that has the laughs as well as the heart you’d expect from a film by Ueda.