There is no director I like more than Mamoru Oshii. But sadly, even though he directed quite a few films that gained huge international attention, there are still a fair few of his films that have slipped through the cracks. The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters [Tachiguishi Retsuden] is one of them, and even though I loved it to bits, it's not hard to see why distributors in the West are somewhat reluctant to release it.
In between his big and serious films, Oshii is known to do some smaller and quirkier projects. While The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters definitely falls into this category, Oshii has really outdone himself with this one, creating something that is very hard to classify, even as a freaky Japanese flick. Go figure.
At its very core lies a documentary not quite unlike Otaku no Video. But rather than make a fool of an existing subculture, Oshii invents his own and delves into the lives of culinary heroes, scrounging away food for free and upholding the Japanese culinary level. Oshii's approach on the subject has close ties with Big Man Japan, as the subject is handled with a deadly sense of gravity while the images on screen look as ridiculous as can be. Deadpan humor taken to the extreme.
But that is not all, rather than simply shooting his mockumentary Oshii decided to make it using a new visual technique baptized superlivemation. A weird mix of live action, photography, digital animation and puppets on a stick. Performed and acted out (or posed, if you want) by the greats of the Japanese animation industry no less, as the project was supposed to be as low-budget as possible.
And if you think that just about covers it, know that the film is extremely dialogue-heavy, making it a good companion piece for Innocence. The influence of the grifters is analyzed from all kinds of cultural, political and even philosophical angles, fired at the audience through a continuous stream of monologues and dialogues. And to make it even worse, the whole film is completely grounded in actual Japanese history and customs, making it even harder for a foreigner to get a good grip on the material. Needless to say, multiple viewings are advised to make the best of all the details tucked away inside the film.
That said, on a conceptual level the film is easy to follow and already pretty hilarious. Various grifters are introduced as were they the most influential historical figures of post-war Japan. The film plays like you'd expect a serious documentary of any other important figure to unfold, but somehow the big and crudely animated cut-out photography limbs of which figures are assembled don't quite make it all that serious. The range of characters introduced is sublime, Shinji Higuchi taking the cake as a cow-creature wearing a nose ring while taking on the fast-food chains with his gang of bull/people.
Oshii regular Kenji Kawai provides, besides a pretty comical performance, a score ranging from atmospheric and dark to wacky, strange and comical. A lot of fun is to be had from the exaggerated noises and effects, complementing the animation and totally contradicting the tone of the rest of the film.
Visually the film is very atmospheric, though it must be said that the animation is pretty scarce and while effective, remains toned down, only to burst out in hyperactive weirdness from time to time. Which is not exactly a bad thing, seeing how The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters is so dialogue-heavy. Despite that, the film is still a visual masterpiece as each frame looks absolutely lush and is tailored to match and improve the general atmosphere of the film.
Beware though, because The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters does demand a lot from the viewer. If you don't speak Japanese, there is a lot of reading to be done and there are many cultural references that demand some attention. On top of that, the monologues in the film area quite extended and can be hard to follow. The film still lacks English subtitles and even though my French was largely sufficient to get what it was all about, I'm sure I missed many of the finer points of the film.
The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters is not an easy film to get into, but around halfway through it reaches full steam, and it doesn't let off from there on. I still hope to see this one again with English or Dutch subs. A dub would actually be best for a film like this (much like Container), though I guess a quality anime dub is a bit too much to ask for.
With all of that said, I can only congratulate Oshii on another marvelous film. It's rare to find a film that blends and mixes so many styles and influences to create something that is so unique and still works. The film is smart, quirky, looks and sounds great and is filled to the brim with bristling creativity. It is hilarious, even if you can't catch all the details on the first viewing. But be sure to at least get this with decent subs, as the automated English translation that is floating out there is completely worthless and does the film no justice at all.
The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters caters to a very specific audience, and I'm not surprised the French got their release while the rest of Europe (and the rest of the Western world) is still waiting for a sign of this film. But for those that like Oshii, appreciate dry and deadpan humor and crave creative spirits, it is a film that cannot be missed, even though it could just as well misfire.