Nunchaku and Soul (Japan, 2019) [OAFF 2019]

Director Akiyoshi Koba is a part-time lecturer at Nagaoka Zokei University and an indie filmmaker whose works feature a mixture of everyday settings dusted with a little sci-fi and tweaked with comedy. Titles include Slippers and Summer Moon (2015), wherein two sisters travel between parallel worlds to find their missing father, the tokusatsu parody short Psychics Z (2016), and Tsumugi’s Radio (2017), a gentle comedy about mental illness and mistimed romance told with a lot of flashbacks. In each of the films, mundane locations are used for out of the ordinary events. This is probably driven by budget constraints but it has resulted in an oeuvre celebrating the possibility of fun and DIY filmmaking in small-town Japan. Nunchaku and Soul is probably Koba’s most amusing work to date and continues in this vein.

A tall and gawky bespectacled middle-aged guy skilled with nunchaku, Numata (Masahiro Kuroki) manages a restaurant. As an unconfident law-abiding (and sane) adult he can only fantasise about using the weapon popularised by Bruce Lee and he yearns for some fun in life. An encounter with a cute woman named Reiko at a mixer leads him to join the dance class she attends which is run by a devilishly handsome instructor with his sights firmly set on the lady. To be in with the chance to win Reiko’s heart, Numata enters a contest but it looks like it might be murder on the dance floor because while the instructor has silky smooth moves, Numata has two left feet…

Meanwhile, grooving across town is Soma (a real-life gospel singer named Atsushi Takahashi aka Funky-T of the band The Suga Pimps), a middle-aged singer of a funk band who burns up the stage with his slick dance moves but the party is about to stop because after a concert his band decide to break up. The other members are busy with their regular lives but Soma is reluctant to give up his time in the spotlight because his life is a disaster: he works part time as a store’s mascot and he has a fractured family. Fate plays its hand because one member of the band happens to be the cook in Numata’s restaurant and suggests to Soma he teach the shy guy how to dance.

Cue overcoming differences and training montages as the charismatic Soma tries to instil some soul in the nunchaku nerd. These sequences take place in and around their small town and come with on-screen text going into details of the dance moves being taught so these sections are insightful and Numata returns the favour with nunchaku training which is ripe for physical gags as the weapon is hard to handle. Some jokes have an immediate effect because they come so suddenly and often with a quick-cut to deliver the punchline, especially with nunchaku flying around. There is a lot of delight in seeing the public who are wandering by getting roped in or providing an audience but a lot of the comedy is character-based and takes delight in showing the two trying to change themselves in their community, their fantasies and their reality which they try to change.

The natural charisma of Funky-T and the charming shyness and ineptness of Kuroki make for some engaging performances and opens the way to a stream of gentle gags that will, at the very least, get chuckles and leave mirthful grins on faces of audiences as we see the way people try to boost Numata’s confidence and eradicate his awkward body-language. It would be easy to set up Numata as the punchline but at no point is the script mean-spirited about any of the characters or the world they live in. Both the lead characters have serious issues in their lives they need to overcome (told by Koba’s favourite technique of flashbacks) and there is a simple character-arc for everyone to follow that allows them to grow.

There is the gentle ribbing of people but the film ultimately cheers people on as they want to find fulfillment in life. The film delights in their commitment to dance and how dance draws everyone together and provides everyone a sincere friendship and a chance for them to be better and does so with a toe-tapping score provided by the Suga Pimps, Funky-T’s band, as everyone has a great time nunchakuing and dancing in this fun and funky film.

Nunchaku and Soul was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 9. It will be shown again on March 12.