By Andrew Osmond.
Some live-action manga adaptations proclaim they are manga adaptations in each and every frame, with lurid colours and effects, absurd costumes and acting that would look broad in a panto. Pumpkin and Mayonnaise, which is screening around the UK and Ireland as part of the Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme for 2019, is at the opposite extreme. The film has nothing to suggest it’s a manga adaptation, and any viewers with a Shonen Jump-ish idea of the medium would be amazed that it is.
It’s an entirely realistic, present-day drama about a young Tokyo woman in a failing relationship; later she enters other relationships of different kinds that seem no less moribund. Twenty-seven year old Tsuchida (played by Asami Uchida) is the girlfriend of Seiichi, a former musician and songwriter who seems hopelessly indolent ever since he fell out with his bandmates. It’s up to Tsuchida to be the breadwinner for them both, caring for Seiichi like a mother for her shut-in son. Tsuchida works at a nightclub, but she’s lured by higher pay to work at a hostess club too. The gropers who paw her are the least dangerous customers.
Pumpkin and Mayonnaise’s first act is tough viewing – not because of any shock imagery, but just because Tsuchida’s situation goes so bad, so quickly and so inevitably. (The hostess-club context will have particularly grim associations for British viewers who remember the tragedy of Lucie Blackman.) The rest of the film deals with the fall-out on Tsuchida’s and Seiichi’s relationship, with Tsuchida having to re-evaluate who she is as a person and what Seiichi means to her (if he means anything to her). A former boyfriend enters the picture, though the idea that he might “save” the situation seems a bad joke. Meanwhile, Seiichi is startled when his estranged bandmates make an advance…
Told mostly from Tsuchida’s viewpoint, Pumpkin and Mayonnaise is ideal for viewing in a group, then arguing about the characters’ actions – and what they should have done instead – for long after. There are some lines of dialogue delivered casually, or with a fake casualness, that have the effect of a bucket of ice-water. There are also enough face-palm moments in the film to give you a concussion. It’s not humourless, with one priceless moment when the morbidly messy situation briefly turns into an old-school bedroom farce. But the film often feels hopeless, largely because of the men, who can seem – universally – insensibly stupid and horribly destructive to any woman unlucky enough to love them. Tsuchida knows it, even as she’s incapable of letting her attachments go.
It’s compellingly acted, with the great bulk of the lifting on Asami Uchida’s shoulders, and the situation’s wholly believable. The source manga was by the artist Kiriko Nananan, collected in one volume in Japan but not published in English. Another of Nananan’s strips, Blue, about a relationship between two girls, was translated (again in one volume) but now seems only available at inflated prices. The film’s writer-director is Masanori Tominaga, who Western viewers may know for a documentary that he made in live-action about anime. Made in 2011, The Echo of Astro Boy’s Footsteps profiles the audio artistry of Matsuo Ohno, who was the pioneering sound designer on the first Astro Boy TV cartoon in the 1960s.