Smokin’ on the Moon (Japan, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Nobody wants to grow up and face responsibilities, nor does anyone wish to join the herd and leave our identities behind. We want to feel in control of our lives, to break free from the expectations of others, to drive incessantly to the goals we all held in the naivety of our youth. In more ways than one, the directorial debut of musician Kanata Wolf addresses the basic passage of time and the utopian ideals we cling on to as we navigate further from a life of no consequence. Smokin’ on the Moon is a bizarre exploration of destiny and friendship whilst doing little to uphold its own youthful ideals.

Coasting through life in a dense haze of marijuana, furitas Sota and Rakuto’s free and easy existence consists of pushing weed and running the bar below them. All of this is pulled from under their feet when psychotic yakuza drug dealers murder their friend Jay and force their presence on buddies’ doorstep. Proving to be an antagonising event between the two, Sota realises this life needs to end and heads back to his familial home in Osaka; Rakuto on the other hand starts a life with childhood sweetheart Tsukimi, helping her kick a crack addiction and acting as a step-father to her child Tida. With employment proving to be a difficult challenge, he turns to the villainous dealers out of desperation and enters a world he swore he’d never associate.

What it lacks in flesh, Wolf’s leftfield approach provides the still-beating heart, subverting expectations as unpredictable as Smokin’ on the Moons first chapter. Catapulting down a surreal and derelict voyage of stygian bohemia frothing at the mouth with unbelievably crazy outcasts including a randy landlady, cross-dressing bar owners and a half-Jamaican-half-Thai stoner named Mookie, thirty-four-year-old Sota (Arata Iura) and the much younger Rakuta (Ryo Narita) are buddies with no direction and vacant from any ambition. Their lives are told through nightmarish dream sequences and hilarious cutaways so fragmented from reality the boundaries between past and present are deliriously unclear. These good vibes become overshadowed by Tsukimi (SARAMARY), who struggles to beat her addiction with the screams of her son penetrate through the walls.

Jay’s gruesome “caterpillar” murder brings a shattering close to the good life. Already plagued by an existential dread, Sota decides his eight-year excursion in Tokyo is over. What follows is a typical slice-of-life drama as the two go their separate ways: the older friend returns to a simpler life of making okonomiyaki at his father’s restaurant whilst the much younger slacker charges himself with adult responsibilities, pushing legal highs for the yakuza dealers who are already plotting his demise. These changes in their circumstances are perfectly reflected in the maturity of the film’s progression, chronicling their rite-of-passage into “adulthood” and descending into oversentimentality; as the third act rises out of the violent ashes of the second’s finale, the film inescapably spirals further into melodrama.

As smart a decision as it is for the film to mature with its characters, its sheer lack of structural coherence leaves an indelible mark. Plucking plot points seemingly out of thin air works so far as the outlandish first act demands it but depending on twists-and-turns detracts any progress the story makes. Whilst its beat style is charming and inks the film with character – the juxtaposition of music and Wolf’s direction surely gives it a vibrant music video feel – the whiplashing of genre U-turns is almost unforgivable: each segment bathes in the clichés of popular Japanese genres with varying degrees of success and feels like a check-list of tropes; as soon as you are done ticking everything off, the next round begins. The work made in pulling the viewer into Sota and Rakuto’s world is lost and ultimately dislocates any connection.

Though told through Sota’s voice-overs, Smokin’ on the Moon is effectively his punk rooster Rakuto’s story. Ryo Narita’s performance is immensely fleshed out: we feel everything he feels. Unlike his buddy, his life is yet to really begin and unravels before the audience through his antics and relationships, particularly with Tsukimi. These relationships are all he has: unlike Sota he has no safety net, no roots to return to; he finds home through those he loves. This means the world for Rakuto; we find ourselves asking where do we find fulfilment and purpose? His is a touching story that is wondrously reflected in the changing seasons of Wolf’s film.

Despite its incoherence, Smokin’ on the Moon is a promising and stylish debut from the man behind the rock band Tom Yum Samurai. Although it tapers off into moving yet ultimately tame waters after the first hour, its first act is an exhilarating triumph in hilariously eccentric filmmaking. Watching the free-spirited characters outgrow their drug-addled youth, however, makes for a trying watch as Wolf painfully conforms to genre rules, abandoning the nonconformist identity so lovingly crafted early on to the adult world. Or perhaps this is ultimately the point…

Smokin’ on the Moon is showing on July 10 at the New York Asian Film Festival.