Production Company: Kino
Release: 3 August 1996
Length: 100 min.
Format: 35 mm; 1:1.85
Director: Sakamoto Junji
Screenplay: Sakamoto Junji, Toyota Toshiaki
Editor: Takashima Ken’ichi
Billiken: Sugimoto Tetta
Ekage: Gan Ryutaro
Tsutenkaku President: Kishibe Ittoku
Tsutenkaku Director: Minakata Eiji
Tsutenkaku Section Chief: Kunimura Jun
Oriya: Okuda Tomohiko
Tsukino: Yamaguchi Tomoko
It’s ‘Billiken’ to the Rescue
Put a coin in the donation box, rub the soles of his feet, and make a wish. Billiken the god of fortune will make us all happy.
Billiken who? The eponymous star of Sakamoto Junji’s comedy, Billiken–a squat, dumpy figure with a mischievous smile and pointy head–is a character from real life. Created by an American sculptor in 1908, the bizarre statue became quite a hit in the teens and twenties in both the United States and Japan, and a shrine was even built in his honor in Osaka’s Shinsekai district.
Billiken, however, has long since been forgotten. So, in some ways, have old entertainment centers like Shinsekai which, like New York’s Coney Island or Tokyo’s Asakusa, used to be the places to go to enjoy the thrills of modernity, to celebrate the then new fashions and fads like the movies and Billiken. However, these entertainment areas now seem somewhat pathetic and run down.
Starting with his delightful Knockout (“Dotsuitarunen,” 1989) and Checkmate (“Ote,”), 1991), and continuing with Billiken, the Osaka-born Sakamoto has continued to offer a slightly nostalgic but always enjoyable portrait of the unique and irreverent culture of Shinsekai. In Billiken, the existence of the region itself is under threat as real estate developers propose to tear down Shinsekai and its symbol, the Tsutenkaku Tower, as part of efforts to bring the 2004 Olympics to Osaka.
As a defense, the head of Tsutenkaku (Kishibe Ittoku) tries a couple of absurd strategies to revive the popularity of the tower. He finally succeeds by reinstalling the forgotten statue of Billiken. But Billiken causes a commotion by fulfilling even the most ridiculous wishes.
To bring the wooden Billiken to life–to flesh out his character, so to speak–Sakamoto cleverly has the eccentric actor Sugimoto Tetta play the spirit of Billiken (he apparently prepared for his role by sleeping with the Billiken statue every night).
The movie’s most delightful points are when Sugimoto, invisible to those outside of Tsutenkaku, scampers around Shinsekai trying to grant everyone’s wishes, from leading a favorite horse to victory, to improving a man’s sexual energy and even curing someone’s hemorrhoids.
Billiken/Sugimoto fights the conniving real estate developer Ekage (Gan Ryutaro), a traitor to his native Shinsekai. He even falls in love with a young teacher Tsukino (Yamaguchi Tomoko), but it is when the fulfillment of these wishes begins to cause problems and Billiken gets thrown out of Tsutenkaku that the tight and well-paced script begins to unravel.
Billiken’s eventual triumph is also a bit haphazard, which only reinforces the impression that Sakamoto’s portrait of Shinsekai is best when it focuses on the area’s communal ambiance, the peculiar but honest humanity of its collection of characters.
Here being out-of-fashion is cool. And Japanese religion is neither Zen nor the animism of Shinto, but the bonds of belief in one’s hometown, even if it is made up of petty gangsters, homeless people, hucksters, and modern showmen like Sakamoto.
Billiken does not rise up to the level of Sakamoto’s previous work, but maybe re-encountering out-of-style idols like Billiken can help us all be a little bit more happy.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 15 August 1996, p. 11.
Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow