Hiroshi Shimizu’s Chicken Heart (2002) is a coming-of-age story about three adult men who’ve put off growing up as long as possible. Iwano is a failed boxer-turned-Human Punching Bag: for a small price, frustrated businessmen can release their stress in a two-minute boxing match against an opponent who doesn’t punch back. Maru is a foolish ex-teacher who blows bubbles all day in front of his uncle’s hat store until he is finally required to find a real job, at which point he starts selling hairpieces to balding men on the street. Asada, the oldest member of the group, lives a carefree life of stealing cars and dressing up as a chicken, and ignores any restrictions imposed on him by civilized society. The three friends meet every night to muster up business for Iwano, and to eat oden afterwards at a food stand run by a constantly tinkering shop owner.
The men form an intriguing and multi-faceted ensemble, comic for the film’s first half, and tragic for its second. Shimizu’s characterization strategy involves a very slow unfurling of back-story that doesn’t gain momentum until very late in the film, so for the first hour of Chicken Heart, we understand Iwano, Asada, and Maru best by watching their offbeat day-to-day lifestyles and their funny interactions with each other. The men are pathetic by their society’s standards, and at first, the film gently mocks them as they flounder. Maru’s giddy naiveté, obsession with lucky charms, and goofy nervous foibles around women are reminiscent of Michael Scott (albeit after 10 cups of coffee), who likewise is funny when he’s filled with unwarranted confidence, but actually quite sad whenever forced to recognize his own inadequacies.
Asada’s comic role is quite the opposite of Maru’s. Where Maru’s great desire is to please the people he loves and fit into Tokyo society, Asada has completely abandoned his respect for convention, and lives without concern for either social or legal protocol. During the friends’ nightly dinners he throws Maru’s toys into a soup vat and repeatedly steals an annoying police officer’s bicycle. At a party with Maru’s love interest, Asada randomly grabs a fire extinguisher and starts blasting the guests at the table. Iwano, the film’s most important but most slowly revealed character, describes Asada as his hero. Admiringly he says, “[Asada is] capable of doing anything.” Iwano, the silent Human Punching Bag, is the heart of Shimizu’s film. The comedy of his life is very dark, and its tone switches markedly to tragedy the moment, at the dead center of the film, that Asada asks Iwano why he doesn’t strike back when he’s hit. After this conversation, Shimizu’s three characters stop acting as comic archetypes, and begin the hard and seemingly futile task of trying to become more fulfilled people.
Chicken Heart is structured around a metaphorical image that both opens and closes the film: a shot of two men fighting, one an aggressive businessman and the other his servile employee, his “Human Punching Bag”. The film presents this superficial binary between success and failure and then proceeds to rip it apart. Chicken Heart is a movie about becoming an adult in a society where maturity appears endlessly unappealing, for both the bullies and the bullied. In his most impressive moments, Shimizu suggests that these roles are actually indistinguishable. When Maru finally gets a new job – his first step toward life as a self-reliant adult – it is a job that requires him to humiliate strangers and risk getting punched in the face. Maru’s employer is successful, but he is miserable from years of professional tedium, and it is strange to think that the ultimate prize for Maru’s efforts would be to wind up like his joyless boss. Similarly, in a particularly striking scene toward the end of the film, the camera passes over a group of suited business executives standing in parallel lines atop a building. We see that the men are going through “assertiveness training,” in which they uniformly repeat ‘assertive’ phrases spoken by an instructor. I don’t know if such a class actually exists in Japan, but in the context of Shimizu’s film, the use of the word “assertive” feels deeply ironic. The director seems to mock the notion that any professional, even an executive atop a skyscraper, asserts autonomy over his life.
Asada, who fluctuates between moments of insightful lucidity and bouts of apparent insanity, is the only person in Chicken Heart capable of living outside the boxy boundaries of modern adulthood. His desire to leave the civilized world is embodied by his impulsive purchase of a broken motorboat that he dreams of sailing around the world. Asada is Iwano’s only visible father figure, and Iwano’s journey into manhood is consistently guided by his admiration for Asada’s fearlessness. However, both Iwano and the viewer must eventually ask if it truly possible to sail away from the world by any means besides death.