Hey cinemaniacs, it's BeRightBack again, visiting from the Wordsmoker collective to bring you another "eye-opening" ["mezamashii"] moment from Japanese cinema. This week, I'm talking about the ridiculous, hilarious, picaresque and deceptively sophisticated Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims, by Kankuro Kudo (Netflix it!).
Yaji and Kita are a twosome. They are also lovers, but their inseparability seems more essential to what they are than their sex lives. They are not two individuals who found one another. They exist together or not at all.
Yaji and Kita are a twosome who travel. They were first invented as the bumbling heroes of a late 1700s travelogue meant to advertise inns and other businesses lining a road called the Tôkaidô, which connected the new capital Tokyo (then known as Edo) in the east and the old capital Kyoto in the west. Their adventures in these product-placed locales became so popular that they outlived the businesses they were meant to publicize, stars of one of the earliest and most popular buddy comedies in the world.
Yaji and Kita travel through space but also through time. They popped up again in the 1990s as the heroes of a comic strip (or manga) by Kotobuki Shiriagari that turned them into lovers, existential heroes and drug addicts; unhitched from the real Tôkaidô, they visit inns named after "Laughter" and "Singing" and even into the underworld. They travelled now through the realms of hallucination and dream; they'd become "midnight pilgrims."
Yaji and Kita travelled next out of the world of print and into cinema. While there were silent films made in the 1930s dramatizing episodes from the Edo Period text, it is the 2005 film adapation of Shiriagari's manga lets them do what they do best: remain in motion, hallucinating and cracking jokes and getting into trouble as they wander hand-in-hand from frame to frame, scene to scene, jokey non-sequitur to jokey non-sequitur.
Film allows Yaji and Kita move across genre, space and time all at once: one minute they're in Edo, the next they're in a rap video, then a stand-up routine, a Cheech and Chong-like stoner comedy, a slapstick sitcom. At one point, they tumble like clumsy puppies through Mount Fuji itself, leaving it to some secondary characters to repair this potent national symbol with masking tape.
And yet, even as everything around them seems so fluid and negotiable, their love persists. Near the movie's start, Yaji goes out of his way to assert that they are not merely "chums," but in fact "gay," getting carried away in his exuberance to the point that he picks up a passerby and twirls her around as he exults in publicizing his love.
Of course, this declaration is itself a type of traversal: after all, the very concept of "gay" did not exist in the Edo Period, when members of the samurai class regularly took part in same-sex affairs while heading perfectly conventional households. Part of the joy of Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims is its use of the freewheeling nature of Edo sexuality to break apart the stolid pieties of present day identity politics, allowing desire to move and breath again, to make and remake the world like a kaleidoscope built for two.
And so they remain to the end an eternal, even mythic duo whose essence is constant, ecstatic motion. Straddling a motorcycle borrowed from an American (a.k.a. "Western") movie about the end of a certain dream of freedom, they ride off at the end of their own movie as the embodiment of a new one, one that queers the world in all senses of the term, made of laughter and hallucination and a hand to hold as you move always toward a new horizon, together.