I haven’t seen any of Kudo Kankuro’s work before, but I’m very tempted now. Yaji and Kita: the Midnight Pilgrims is one of the weirdest things I’ve seen for a long time; it sucks you in to Yaji and Kita’s world, and then systematically hits you over the head with a cinematic rubber chicken for two hours.
The plot (which comes from a classic novel, by way of a manga adaptation — it’s been filmed before as Yajikita dochu sugoroku by Chiba Yasuki in 1958) concerns two samurai-class men, Yajirobei and Kitahachi. They live in Edo in period Japan, and decide to go on a pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine, meeting a variety of colourful characters on the way. This is all the two stories have in common, from what I can tell. In this version, though, there are a few little differences. Yaji and Kita are gay lovers, each with their own personal problems. Yaji suffers from terrible nightmares (one involving people floating down a river on blocks, Tetris-style) and Kita’s a drug addict, forever chasing little blue pills, magic mushrooms or a syringe. The journey, then, is an idea hit upon by Yaji; he’ll find himself and cure his nightmares, and Kita will go cold turkey and kick his array of habits.
The whole first scene is filmed in black and white, in a period setting, and suddenly the world bursts into colour, as the pair of them go dancing down the road singing (with backing dancers) about being “Born,- Born to be Gay!” At the end of the road, an enormous brightly-painted motorcycle awaits them and they go zooming off into the modern world. Seconds later they’re sent back to period Japan by a traffic cop for exceeding the speed limit. Oh well.
The rest of Yaji and Kita… is equally manic and bizarre, with the story weaving drunkenly across a period Japanese landscape and the two lead actors switching quite rapidly between broad physical comedy, wordplay and serious, emotional acting. It’s quite a ride, and there are some very funny scenes along the way, including an encounter with King Arthur and his sword Excalibur; Yaji’s trip to purgatory, which is a bath-house full of identical men (souls) in yellow towels; and a quiet bar for dead souls who exist only in their lovers’ dreams.
It all makes a weird kind of internal sense, though, and is in some ways reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There’s a lot of wordplay which will probably make more sense to Japanese speakers (though the subtitlers have done an excellent job and tried to get the point across), but it’s very accessible, so long as you’re not someone who only watches “serious cinema”.