The mythic Japanese Namahage demon is a sort of twisted, monstrous “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, better not pout” character meant to give little children character and “good ethics” as they grow up.
In the corner of Japan where this practice lives on, men show up with horrific masks and costumes of straw and come bellowing into family events — often a tiny tyke’s birthday — shouting a child’s name and “Any naughty boys/girls here? Any CRYbabies around?”
Scares the daylights out of the kids, as the adults laugh and squeal and take video and photos. Seems pretty messed up to Western eyes, I have to say. But parents anywhere might get a little perverse pleasure out of it.
It’s just that in Tasuka’s case, that “character” and “good ethics” lesson never took. He’s still going around with the his Oga Peninsula Namahage Preservation Society, still scaring kids. But Tasuka (Taiga Nakano) is married, with a new baby Nagi. And he’s nobody’s idea of an adult — an inattentive screwup, tactless and clueless with his wife, Kotone (Riho Yoshioka). He laughs things off so much that she’s reached her “You’re not thinking at all” limit.
He’s off, leaving her with the baby one more time as he does his Namahage schtick with the boys, not picking up on her brittle dismay. And when she turns on the TV, there’s proof of his irresponsibility for the whole country to see. A live feature report on the tradition is interrupted by a drunken Namahage streaker. We don’t have to see the break-up or legal filing to know who was in the mask (and nothing else) or what followed.
“Any Crybabies Around?” is a dramedy about this hapless, childish can’t-hold-his-drink Peter Pan, picking up his story two years later when he realizes he wants to get back what he’s lost.
Writer-director Takuma Satô takes us on an odd odyssey from Tokyo back to Oga, through Japanese “apology culture” rituals, showing the limited value of that through wounds that cannot be healed with just words.
Nakano gives Tasuka this blank stare that perfectly suits a guy that bad things just happen to. He’s run over in company soccer games, avoids drinking and yet gets stuck taking care of a colleague who gets hammered and can’t get herself home.
That’s who he is — put upon, yanked about, attacked in a bar merely for spilling somebody’s drink.
Telling his story to that co-worker, leaving out the embarrassing bits, seems to steel his resolve. Nobody thinks of him as a grownup? He’ll go home, win back the ex and “be a father.” But things back in Oga? Complicated, his old pal Shiba (Kanchiro) warns. The ex is working as a “hostess” in a local “bottle service” club. One step above prostitute.
His understanding mother doesn’t give him much chance, and his brother is utterly dismissive. The ex? She just wants to know about child support and alimony.
And then there’s the older man (Toshirô Yanagiba) who has been trying to keep the Namahage tradition alive. He’d like to share his mountain of hate mail with dopey Tasuka.
“I’ll keep apologizing until I’m forgiven,” won’t get you far among these people.
“Any Crybabies Around?” (in Japanese with English subtitles) has a big, fat metaphor sitting right here for all to see, some good performances and local color. The tradition depicted is fascinating, funny and macabre.
But the film feels incomplete, a 110 minute movie that doesn’t quite finish its story even though it meanders through the middle acts to the payoff. The finale is poignant and packed with meaning, but feels unearned and frustrating. There’s a lot more to “growing up” and being responsible than just getting over being a “crybaby.”
MPA Rating: TV-MA, violence, alcohol abuse
Cast: Taiga Nakano, Riho Yoshioka, Kanichiro
Credits: Scripted and directed by Takuma Satô. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:48