With his hit One Cut Of The Dead (2018), Shinichiro Ueda take the cinema world by storm. Yet, it also sets impossible to satisfy expectations. In order to not be a one-trick-pony and to keep pleasing audiences with his narrative, the best Ueda could do and did was not attempting to redress the same trick in another movie. Both Aesop’s Game (2019) and Special Actors (2019), while not having the impact of One Cut Of The Dead, succeeded in pleasing audiences. Can Ueda’s Popran do the same?
One night, Akira Tagami (Yoji Minagawa), the successful CEO of a digital manga distributing company Rashimban, successfully seduces Araki (Yaeko Kiyose), the assistant of the famous mangaka Kitahara (-). Waking up after spending the night with her, he discovers that his penis has disappeared.
The next day, while peeing in a filthy toilet, he discovers a sticker on the door that visualizes his problem of castration with a QR code that introduces him to something called the Popran group. The next day, at the group meeting, he learns that his penis is flying around Tokyo and that he has only five days to recapture it. If he cannot catch it in time, his organ will crumble to death.
Popran offers an absurd exploration of the difference between the phallus and the real member, the importance of the real thing to support the phallic fantasy that drives the male subject, and the deceptive nature of the image of phallic success.
The deceptive nature of such image is subtle highlighted during the interview that opens Ueda’s narrative. While it is apparent that Akira Tagami wears the image of a successful businessman, the interviewer confront him with elements that complicate that image. She does not only references the fight between him and Yoshida (Hidenobu Abera), the friend he founded the company with but also his choice to abandon his wife (Eri Tokunaga) and child to come to Tokyo (Narra-note 1). The fact that the Tagami’s social phallic image is but a mirage is, further, emphasized by the fact that he needs to rely on his female assistant for nearly everything. He does not know his own schedule and does not even recognize his employees, like Mr. Oda (-) from the Editing department.
The opening of Popran, in fact, aims to out Tagami as a phallic imposter, as someone whose shiny phallic image of success merely functions as a veil to hide his radical state of subjective disarray from the other. It is thus also as phallic imposter that he approaches the female other – he does not search sex as such, but a way to satisfy his phallic fantasy and silence his lingering subjective struggle. The fact that Tagami is able to seduce women like Araki is merely function of the fact that, within the contemporary societal field, societal success is still interpreted as a sign of phallic possession.
The flight of Tagami’s penis should, in our view, be read as the real-ization of his castration. Yet, it is not simply his organ that flies away. What escapes together with the flesh is the very phallic fantasy that was anchored by it. The male member is, in other words, nothing other a material foundation that makes it possible for the male subject to indulge in fantasies of possessing the impossible-to-posses imaginary phallus.
This ‘tragic’ event, in fact, echoes a fundamental truth about the imaginary phallus as such. The phallus always escapes. It always flies away; it cannot be possessed. We can try to remedy its loss by indulging in fantasies and by performing acts to prove for a fleeting moment our phallic possession, but these imaginary remedies always end up underlining the structural impossibility to possess the imaginary phallus – the imaginary phallus is, after all, nothing but an emptiness.
Why does the flight of the penis go together with dreams depicting past conflict (i.e. the fight with Yoshida and the radical break between him and his wife)? Why does the flying penis, the popran, invite the structurally castrated subject to revisit those places of conflict and encounter the subjects who were hurt by him?
Is it not by forcing the subject to go on such a special journey that Ueda tries to show audiences the destructive nature of men’s singular focus on phallic merit, as supported by what hangs between their legs, and the phallic fantasies their member supports? Can we not argue that the most important truth that Tagami can discover on his trip is nothing other than how destructive chasing his own phallic fantasies (i.e. chasing riches and charming ladies) have been, on others but also on himself as subject – Remember Who You Are?
In our view, Ueda’s Popran needs to be read as a commentary on a kind of phallic ambition that goes beyond any subjective consideration and the intersubjective emptiness that results from dressing oneself with one’s stylish phallic fantasies. Tagami was, as his stylish clothes imply, so absorbed by his own fantasies that he forgot what is truly important: the establishment of social bonds.
While Popran explores important themes and even allows the spectator to get a sense of the role the flesh plays within the phantasmatic world of male subjects, Ueda’s narrative is not really able to deliver his message with the edge that it needs. In our view, Ueda fails to make Tagami’s trajectory emotionally impactful. By exploring his status as phallic imposter more and sketching the change his search for his penis instigates with a bit more extravagancy, Ueda could have made Popran a more satisfying experience. Popran, as it is, is a bit too somewhat emotionally flat.
The composition of Popran is straightforward, offering a nice balance between static and dynamic moments. Ueda refrains from using any kind of cinematographical decorations to spice up his composition with some visual extravagancy. Any kind of light-heartedness is either function of certain situations (Peeing while standing is impossible, the check-in procedure for the Popran group, the sudden fits of pain, … etc.) some subtle visual phallic humour, e.g. visually emphasising sizzling sausages, and playful musical accompaniment that decorates certain sequences.
Popran is a great narrative, as long as one does expect a traditional Japanese comedy. The absurd concept is not utilized, as some might expect, to deliver moments of visual eccentricity, but to question in a light-hearted way the relation between the male subject and his member as well as the role the real member plays within the fantasmatic world of men. Yet, with a bit more extravagancy into the narrative and a deeper exploration of the main character as phallic impostor, Ueda could have had another hit on his hands.
Narra-note 1: The fight between Tagami and Yoshida concerned a radical difference in vision for the company – original manga vs offering a collection of past hits, lower cost vs delivering quality.