Underground horror icon Frank Henenlotter made a film back in 2008 called Bad Biology. It dealt with people whose genitals are mutated and exceptionally hungry for sex, and among other things, it featured a penis which detached from a character’s body to wreak sexual havoc. That is, I think, generally what you’d expect from a detachable-penis movie.
Japanese fantasy-comedy Popran is not what you’d expect from a detachable-penis movie.
Popran follows manga publisher and egotistical asshole Tagami Tatsuya (Yoji Minagawa), who wakes up one day after banging an assistant to find that his penis has gone missing, leaving only a small hole in his crotch, and a larger hole in his window. Dazed and rather put out, Tagami finds his way to an underground meeting of “the Popran Group,” which reveals to him that the creatures of a local urban legend – “Sky Fish” – are in fact the escaped penises of men suffering similar issues, zipping around at high speeds on wings of scrotum. What’s more, those penises will die from malnutrition after six days, so there’s a ticking clock on Tagami to find his “popran,” catch it with a reinforced butterfly net, and reattach it for good. One problem: Tokyo’s a big place, and his penis could be anywhere.
Coming from director Shinichiro Ueda, whose fourth-wall-detonating One Cut Of The Dead was one of the most uproariously hilarious films I’ve ever seen at a festival, it’s reasonable to expect that Popran would deliver on laughs. And it does – between Tagami’s cringe-inducing machismo, his subsequent emasculation, and his slapstick attempts to capture his runaway Johnson, it’s certainly got moments of inspired comedy. But Ueda’s got other things on his mind than simply having his protagonist chase after a flying penis. Tagami’s arrogance and ego have led him to neglect and screw over every significant person in his life, and it’s to them that his genital escapee flees in its weeklong attempt at liberation. If he wants to recapture his manhood, he’s going to have to unpack the emotional destruction it’s wrought.
On paper, that’s an “elevated genre” pitch so earnest it feels like a parody of elevated genre films. In practice, it works better than it sounds, largely thanks to Ueda using runaway penises mostly as punctuation for Tagami’s quest for absolution. Indeed, Ueda makes the restrained choice not to show the flying creatures – or Tagami’s bare crotch – at all, keeping the audience’s eyes firmly in contact with his. His three key destroyed relationships – with his former best friend, ex-wife, and estranged parents – are delivered with palpable emotional pain, as subtly-stated as his physical pain is over-the-top. While there’s a missed opportunity in the chance to draw a line between Tagami’s shitty behaviour and the specific organ he’s chasing after (something Bad Biology made a meal of), these sequences still extract surprising sadness out of a ridiculously silly premise.
The issue is that it all leads to an ending that, while a tidy mirror image of the film’s opening, arrives too easily for the main character. He’s a changed man in the end, but that’s mostly out of narrative necessity. He’s certainly visited the people he’s hurt, but there’s little sense that he’s learned the specific lessons each of his failures should teach him, and certainly no sense that he’s made amends (outside a reunion with his father). Becoming aware of one’s faults and mistakes isn’t enough; there has to be serious work done to internalise them and repair damage. This is a wholesome and surprisingly gentle movie, but the message just isn’t dramatised as elegantly as it could be.
Popran falls into a category of films admirable more for their intent than for what they actually achieve. Ueda has set out to make a film with a lowbrow high concept that simultaneously tells a personal story flecked with social satire. Those are really hard to do (I should know, I’ve tried), and usually one of those three pillars – if not more – get left behind in the process. With Popran, the elements are all there, and they’re all solid – they just don’t quite go hard enough to really satisfy.
And when you’re working with semi-sentient flying penises, you need to go hard.