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Making Sense Of New Japanese Comedy 'Afro Tanaka' That Seems To Revere & Ridicule The Afro

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act July 9, 2012 at 11:26AM

I was browsing through the newly-unveiled list of fantastical films announced in this year's Fantasia Festival lineup, and this one immediately got my attention, for what should be obvious reasons.
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Afro Tanaka

I was browsing through the newly-unveiled list of fantastical films announced in this year's Fantasia Festival lineup, and this one immediately got my attention, for what should be obvious reasons.

Titled Afro Tanaka, the Japanese feature film, directed by Daigo Matsui, will be making its North American premiere at Fantasia (in Montreal, from July 19th to August 7th).

Its synopsis reads:

When Tanaka traded in his messy hair for a glorious Afro, he finally got respect. The problem is, this is the only good decision he's made in his entire life. Director Daigo Matsui presents one of the funniest and most strangely endearing characters you will see this year, joyfully interpreted by star Shota Matsuda.

Unfamiliar with the work, I of course did some digging, and found THIS review on Variety's website from May 6th of this year, after it screened at the Udine Far East Film Festival.

The key parts of the mostly positive review state:

The eponymous hero of "Afro Tanaka" may sport a frizzy hairdo the size of Tokyo Dome, but black pride and Jimi Hendrix are the last things on his one-track mind. An offbeat and endearingly parochial loser comedy, this Nipponese manga adaptation is a soul sister to Nobuhiro Yamashita's deadpan slacker films, though helmer Daigo Matsui elicits much more affection for his clueless protag, floundering in date-or-die-a-virgin hell. Cast against type, Shota Matsuda gamely inhabits the role, bringing humility and pathos to a figure of ridicule; his outrageous coiffure alone should pique ancillary curiosity outside home turf.

And then there was this piece toward the end of the review:

A hilarious sight gag... the protag's retro 'do is less a racial signifier than a major symbol of uncool, all the more so because Tanaka is oblivious to his own otherness.

So I'm reading all this, and my interpretation is that while it's suggested that black pride or any other sort of racial importance is attached to the meaning of the 'fro (suggesting that it's just a gimmick I guess; or a "sight gag" as the review states), that the star of the film has one makes him a figure of ridicule, a loser (although an endearing one), is considered a "major symbol of uncool" who is oblivious to his own "otherness."

Is that how you read this?

And the review, in closing, states this:

Use of real locations in lieu of sets provides a down-to-earth background against which the cartoonish characters can interact. Music wisely refrains from going overboard with jazz, funk, blues or other styles immediately associated with black culture.

But I'm a bit confused by the film's synopsis and the Variety review; the synop says that when the protag got a "glorious afro, he finally got respect," calling it "the only good decision he's made in his entire life," suggesting that the film treats the afro with a certain reverence, we could say, as the protag works to get the girl of his dreams. But the Variety review suggests otherwise, as I already laid out. 

I did learn that, in the 1970s, the Japanese proudly wore their own brand of "afros;" although, today, the only "afros" you'll find in Japan are polyester wigs sold in the "party goods" sections of stores, which says something of how afros are looked at in that country today.

The film was released in Japan this year, so it's new, and it hasn't screened much yet around the world, so very few reviews exist, so I have little else to go on here.

But since it's based on a manga, I'm curious as to whether anyone has read it, or even maybe seen the film to help shed some additional light on the film, so that we're not jumping to conclusions based on limited little conflicting reports. 

Although some would argue that it doesn't matter, as just the idea alone of a Japanese boy with a huge 1970s-style Afro is eyebrow and hair-raising enough (pun intended).

I'll leave it to you folks to discuss.

Here's a trailer (though no English subtitles):


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