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Afro Tanaka – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Hiroshi Tanaka sports an intense perm that looks like the Afro hairstyle favored by some African-Americans back in the 1970’s. He doesn’t get his hair done at a hair shop; he was actually born with his hair like that. For freedom, Hiroshi moves to Tokyo. He works hard there and, even though he turns 24, he still doesn’t have a girlfriend. Meanwhile, a school friend informs Hiroshi that he is going to get married. Hiroshi remembers a promise that they made. Hiroshi is even more impatient to find a girlfriend. A beautiful woman named Aya Kato then moves into the neighborhood.

In a film where the protagonist is a young, modern Japanese man sporting a massive Afro, one may be initially led to believe that Afro Tanaka is a film that doesn’t exactly take itself too seriously—I mean really, it also doesn’t help that his Afro is abnormally large at that. With such a peculiar and comical appearance surrounding that of the main character, it is certainly not hard to place Afro Tanaka within the realm of being pure comedy, but surprisingly it is also a film that delivers much more than that. Based on the manga series by Noritsuke Masaharu and helmed by first-time director Daigo Matsui, Afro Tanaka rises above many contemporary Japanese comedy films pertaining to its subject material, using humor as a catalyst to explore the complicated elements of friendship and romance.

Of course, at its core, Afro Tanaka is still mainly a film exploring Hiroshi’s humorous exploits in attempting to become a mature adult. He has essentially been left in the past; dropping out of high school, living at home with his mother, and working a laborious job as a construction worker. His old high school friends have all gone on to more mature prospects—prospects such as all of them having girlfriends and one of them even getting married. This places Hiroshi in a very difficult situation, leaving him open for ridicule and embarrassment as being the sole one not having experienced anything of the sort, and once he has been exposed, well, things definitely don’t become easier for him. As the old Japanese adage says, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”—with Hiroshi unfortunately being the one that sticks up in more ways than one.

With Hiroshi being essentially the odd man out throughout the entire film, the narrative does a great job in showing his transition from being one unwilling to yield to his passions in order to preserve his masculinity—even to the point of being outrageously stubborn regarding the one girl that does like him, Aya, played here by model Nozomi Sasaki—to a man willing to let his humungous ego down in order to express his desire to find love. All along the way we see him experiment—and humorously struggle—through seemingly miniscule situations such as responding to a cellphone text sent to him by a potential girlfriend, how to dress for a group date, and even how to ask a girl out. For anyone who has experienced such things, it is truly funny to see Hiroshi quite literally have an emotional breakdown every time he is confronted with such decisions, with viewers certainly sympathizing with his predicament as a confused newcomer to the world of dating.

And while not particularly original in its premise, the film is not very predictable when it comes to Hiroshi’s search for love, allowing for a much more realistic approach to come to fruition. As an individual looking for that special someone, Hiroshi definitely faces trials and tribulations as a man trying to live up to the world around him while not being quite being true to himself in the process. Things don’t always work out in favor for Hiroshi when it comes to his relationships with friends and potential love interests, providing a unique spin on the proverbial Japanese RomCom. The film is comical in an ironic sense, with Hiroshi appearing different from every one else because he is different from every one else, mostly stemming from his flamboyant appearance and his often times fumbling approach towards the opposite sex.

As such, Shota Matsuda certainly showcases his versatility as an actor with his portrayal of the outrageous Hiroshi, easing his way between humor and drama. His comical timing is fantastic here, bringing forth the bodily expressions and mannerisms of his character as viewed in the manga series. He brings forth the bewildering, generous, and at times idiotic nature of Hiroshi, all culminating in a character that is as amusing as he is strangely relatable. Nozomi Sasaki also delivers a suitable performance, although not quite as strong as her previous film appearances. This is primarily due to the fact that she doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as Shota here, being delegated to Hiroshi’s love interest and sadly not much more. This may be fine for some viewers—Nozomi is a model after all—but it is unfortunate considering her acting talent in such films as My Rainy Days (2009), so it would have been wonderful to see a more involving performance from her within the film, but alas the opportunity doesn’t arise.

But as a whole, Afro Tanaka delivers a humorous tale of one man’s journey to accept and be comfortable in who is, hopefully finding love along the way. It is certainly one of the most distinctive comedies to come along in awhile, utilizing the appearance of its main character as a reflection of the eccentric nature of that character more so than a simple gimmick. Unfortunately, the running time of the film is a tad too long and the possibility of having it conclude earlier and still retain its charm could have been easily accomplished. Also, the characterization of Hiroshi is at times rather unconvincing, mostly concerning how he handles certain situations in relation to everyone around him. Yes, we understand that Hiroshi is different, but the film tries a little to hard at times to show it. Despite these setbacks, Afro Tanaka is an entertaining comedy that is also genuine in its exploration of contemporary dating.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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