In 2017, writer/director Shin’ichirô Ueda released unto the world One Cut of the Dead, his adaptation of Ryoichi Wada’s play “Ghost in the Box!”. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s an absolute marvel that’s an inventive lo-fi zombie film with far more surprises than one might expect (none of which will be spoiled here). Ueda’s latest project, Popran (添付), is an original concept developed and shot by the director, invoking a similar tonal sensibility, able to blend the ridiculous with the earnest to tell a compelling story. The issue at play within Popran is that not enough time is spent exploring the meaning of the emotional journey resulting in the conclusion coming as a fast finish versus a slow release.
CEO of a highly successful manga app, Tagami Tatsuya (Yoji Minagawa) has it all — respect, wealth, and the kind of charm that keeps him in good company. Underneath it all, though, he’s a man with regrets. His biggest arrives when he wakes one morning to discover that his genitals have disappeared from his body, leaving only a tiny hole to excrete waste. The doctor he sees is flabbergasted at the predicament, but determines Tagami to be in good health otherwise. By chance, Tagami discovers a support group for individuals like him, which gives him the insight and tools to try to recover his genitals which have, quite literally, flown away. He also learns he has a total of six days to find his lost thunder junk or it will die from malnourishment. Guided only by the clues given to him the night they disappeared, Tagami journeys into his past in hopes of resecuring his manhood.
Popran follows a similar lo-fi feels as One Cut, keeping the on-screen appearances of flying genitalia primarily to blurs or views blocked due to clever staging. This may disappoint folks longing to see a schlong in full clarity use its testicles as wings, but the object itself isn’t the focus of the story, it’s more an object of reclamation. This puts the entire onus of the narrative on Tagami’s journey. Smartly, this decision keeps costs low and retains a certain charm, even a bold hilarity (watch out they spit), rather than leaning into puerile territory. Doing so allows the audience to focus on Minagawa’s performance, the driving force of the entire film, which is what keeps us locked in from start to finish. Minagawa’s physical comedy would be right at home with other pratfall aficionados, selling the fantastical situation with absolute earnestness in reaction to something the actor imagines he’s tracking.
Where the film struggles is in nailing the emotional journey of Tagami. According to the film description on the Fantasia International Film Festival’s filmpage, “He has found great success as the CEO of an online manga-reading platform—built on the back of creators, mind you—and is busy basking in his accomplishments. He forgoes not being a colossal dick to everyone around him… until a fantastical twist of fate takes that away.” There’s a suggestion here that Tagami is a man who is publicly kind but privately horrid. The truth is somewhere in the middle because what the audience is shown is someone with terrible regrets, but we learn so little regarding the regrets that facing them and processing them as acknowledged is basically left to inference. The first person Tagami goes to visit is his old partner, who he fired. The two were long-time fans who came to a disagreement about the direction of the business. This is simple, clear, and, through their interaction, healing without losing the tension of hunting for his lost bait-and-tackle. The next two dream-directed locations are kept less clear in their significance beyond the broadest strokes, thus, their emotional resonance weakens for the audience. There is a clear resolution at each location, but it’s all so understated that it comes off as cliché rather than powerful. Observation infers that Tagami’s had some part of this regret, these people, on his mind (his outwear garment is nearly identical in pattern to one of the people he goes to visit, suggesting clear intentionality on the part of Ueda to suggest such an inference regarding internal consideration). However, the lack of concreteness and clarity overall hinders what should be an emotional revelation.
Strangely, what would be straight body horror in the hands of an auteur like David Cronenberg (Crimes of the Future) works as a relatively straight dramedy via Ueda. The rules, as long as one doesn’t think too hard, make a great deal of sense and the metaphor of losing one’s “manhood” as a precursor for self-reflection is about as close to the health crisis trope as one can get while maintaining gentle lightness. Based on the rules, one’s privates can just decide they don’t want to be attached you any longer. Is it because someone like Tagami has grown too despicable as a host? That part’s unclear, but it’s heavily suggested to be the case via conversation with a similarly afflicted individual. Combined with some other body-related humor, there’s certainly some subtext in Popran as it relates to the way Tagami looks at others, therefore degrading him is part of his journey of absolution. Except what Ueda shows us of Tagami, the character is not some womanizing jackass deserving of castration and humiliation by way of a flighted squidward. Interestingly, Minagawa only once conveys any kind of strong reaction when tracking his winged Canadian corn dog, though it seems more from stress and frustration than it does any kind of mortification. However, the connection to loss of genitalia may have more to do with passion clouding judgement, thereby the removal provides a centering so that someone can get back on the right path by righting past wrongs or, at the very least, attempting an amends.
Fans of One Cut of the Dead will find a familiar brand of humor and cinematic styling that will entice and enthrall in Popran. There’s certainly plenty of body-related humor, used in ways that continually move the emotional journey forward. Oddly, even though Ueda’s script seems to lean too hard on inference to convey meaning, Ueda clearly gave the story great thought, aspects shining like the dying light of glided scrote. Ultimately, Popran is an amusing, heartfelt phallus joke whose finish delights, even if doesn’t leave one awash in afterglow like One Cut.
Screening during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Popran Fantasia International Film Festival film page.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.