Immediately following the end of the World War II, Tokyo was trying to emerge from the rubble. In a corner of the black market stood a flimsy soba (buckwheat noodle) eatery.
It was a delicate time just before the closing. A man appeared at the threshold. "One moongaze (raw egg). With soba." This was none other than the legendary Fast Food Grifter known as Moongaze Ginji. His relentless scam quietly initiates.
The time changes. In the midst of the first anti Japan-US Security Treaty movement (1960), the streets rumored about Foxy Croquette O-Gin, a beautiful lady Fast Food Grifter, who disappeared all of a sudden. Wandering the alleys in the years of the economic miracle was Crying Inumaru, the loser. Then came Cold Badger Masa, whose scandalous death made people aware of the presence of Fast Food Grifters within the Japanese society. Beefbowl Ushigoro put an end to a major gyudon (beef and rice bowl) restaurant chain. And it is not possible not to mention Hamburger Tetsu, who shocked the entire fast food industry.
Fast Food Grifters are the phantoms that rise and fall with the shifting diet-styles. They are the dissenting heroes who carved their names on the dark side of dietary culture with their glare. Now their legend revives, strong as ever...
This is the question at the heart of Tachiguishi Retsuden, a question at once simple and yet surprisingly deep. Absurdly deep it turns out. Some of us eat just to survive: mealtime being the minimum effort required to replenish energy. Some of us eat for love of food: taking the time to savor new flavors, new dishes, new culinary adventures. Most of us probably find a balance between the two. But only an elite caste has refined Food into a true philosophy, an affirmation and definition of self, an art form: the Fast Food Grifters.
They look like you and me. They enter restaurants, they order a meal, they eat, but the similarities end there. Each has a special technique for fleeing the scene without paying for a single crumb.
Hamburger Tetsu orders literally hundreds of burgers from a burger joint, choking its supply and demand infrastructure until it collapses. Foxy Croquette O-Gin uses her feminine charms to distract the owner of a food stall, sometimes forcing him into a variant of Jan-Ken-Pon (Fox-Hunter-Farmer); if she loses, she has to flash the patrons as payment for the meal, if she wins… well… her grift is set up in such a way to be a win-win scenario. And Moongaze Ginji sees a mundane bowl of soba as an artistic landscape, complimenting the cheap noodles initially only to discover that they taste awful, thus shaming the owner to tears while he walks away in contempt.
The Grifters are the ultimate moochers.
Presented as a mockumentary, “The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters” studies these individual cases of grifting in order to understand the mindsets of those involved, whose exploits are as crazy as their names. The animation style is easily the most striking feature, consisting of photographed characters pasted atop two-dimensional paper cutouts in a relatively three-dimension world. This technique, dubbed “superlivemation”, will be familiar to fans of Oshii’s film Avalon. The majority of the scenes are thus quite static, interspersed with periodic moments of frenetic movement, and depending on one’s level of patience this may prove frustrating. However, when little is happening the scene always appears as though a slowly-moving photograph -- proving both beautiful and oddly calming.
As one would expect Kenji Kawai’s music is quite apt, at times reinforcing the dramatic bits, but usually playing against them to comedic effect. The subtle, atmospheric background music -- a forte of Kawai -- is easily the best. Even so, the soundtrack isn’t entirely memorable and you probably won’t feel an inclination to hunt it down. But in overall context, it is enjoyable; there’s a pervasive sense that the music is hardly taking the subject matter seriously. Heightening of absurdity? Check. And with the always engaging Kouichi Yamadera playing the part of the narrator, the sound is as much a feast as the visuals.
The deeper meat here is a social critique of Japan’s changing palette over the decades, post World War II to present, as it becomes progressively less traditional and more influenced by foreign tastes. But the attack isn’t blistering. It’s more of a playful nudge, like an amused mother chiding her fussy, suspicious child into trying a new dish. It really is delicious. You really will like it.
If a definition of absurdism is “people doing meaningless things in meaningful ways”, the Grifters are absurdists extraordinaire. What they say and what they do create the most hilarious moments and yet there is something so compelling about their food-stealing methods. Any idiot can run into a market, swipe a loaf of bread, and escape without punishment. A real artist does it with style, grace, and in plain sight. Oh, they’re amazing, these Grifters, they’re the anarchists of nourishment, the terrorists of sustenance!
There might not be much dialogue from them, but that minimalism gives each of their lines a greater punch. Their stories act as punctuation marks to the narrator’s own tale, side dishes that become the meal itself. Each act of grifting is both a method for obtaining food and a view into each character’s approach to life. Moongaze Ginji, who bookends the story, is looking for a full stomach as much as he is searching for something artistic. In fact, it’s arguable whether food is the main motivation for any of them or if it is merely an excuse to satisfy a deeper hunger, be that social recognition or otherwise.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this is a nearly two hour Wall of Text. Even Oshii lovers will find this his least accessible work: even shorter bursts of action, even longer stretches of introspection. But that isn’t a damning critique. This is a documentary after all and, silly though it is, it still adheres to the typical conventions you would expect. Those without a taste for such may wish to skip this.
But there are always those of us hungry for new, even bizarre, experiences and to such adventurers I say: “You will be satisfied.” It’s crazy. It’s different. It’s not even close to the kind of anime you watch regularly, but it is one you won’t forget. Afterwards, you won’t look at your restaurant bill the same way -- and certainly not without a knowing smirk.
So should you ever find yourself eating alongside a Tachiguishi one day, don’t worry, they’ll pick up the tab in their own way.
The director of Ghost in the Shell hasn't directed an anime movie in eight years, but somehow Adult Swim has managed to coax him out of animation retirement for a "micro-series" next year. Let's take a look at his history as a director, and what we can expect from the return of a master.