The eponymous hero of “Afro Tanaka” may sport a frizzy hairdo the size of Tokyo Dome, but black pride and Jimi Hendrix are the last things on his one-track mind. An offbeat and endearingly parochial loser comedy, this Nipponese manga adaptation is a soul sister to Nobuhiro Yamashita’s deadpan slacker films, though helmer Daigo Matsui elicits much more affection for his clueless protag, floundering in date-or-die-a-virgin hell. Cast against type, Shota Matsuda gamely inhabits the role, bringing humility and pathos to a figure of ridicule; his outrageous coiffure alone should pique ancillary curiosity outside home turf.
Hiroshi Tanaka (Matsuda) would have grown up nondescript and well-adjusted in his suburban hometown of Hanazaki, were he not born with an afro as voluminous as an ostrich nest, making him an obvious target for bullies, and still a virgin in his 20s. Scribes Masaharu Noritsuke (the manga’s author) and Masafumi Nishido have done a smooth job condensing Noritsuke’s four-part series, skimming over Tanaka’s high-school days in order to focus on his misadventures after he takes up a factory job in Tokyo.
His past comes back to haunt him only when high-school buddy Inoue (Ryusuke Komakine) announces his plans to marry, reactivating a pact Tanaka made with his classmates Inoue, Ozawa (Atsushi Tsutsumishita), Okamoto (Kei Tanaka) and Murata (Kaname Endo) to bring a girlfriend to the wedding of whoever ties the knot first. The countdown to get any gal before the deadline prompts a number of jokes revolving around Tanaka’s serial blind-date blunders. Little does he know his gorgeous next-door neighbor, Aya Kato (Nozomi Sasaki), finds him as adorable as the poodles she grooms at her pet salon.
A hilarious sight gag that pays homage to Matsuda’s late actor father, Yusaku (whose afro was considered the epitome of cool when he starred in 1970s thrillers “The Resurrection of the Golden Wolf” and “The Beast to Die”), the protag’s retro ‘do is less a racial signifier than a major symbol of uncool, all the more so because Tanaka is oblivious to his own otherness. The narration consists largely of Tanaka’s voiceover, delivered with an eccentrically dumbass inflection by Matsuda, so one virtually gets to live inside his head and follow his warped logic.
Although the pic’s premise is close to that of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” it’s not driven by bawdy frat-boy humor. In their bungling attempts to help him score, Tanaka’s friends are acting not on a trophy-hunting mentality, but rather a heartfelt conviction that below-average men deserve love, too. Thus, despite the sometimes flat pacing and lack of rollicking scenes, one develops a strong rooting interest in the characters and especially the central relationship, which wraps on a mellow, formula-defying note. The only deficiency is Kato’s underwritten role, which was conceived specifically for the film; doe-like Sasaki has superficial charm but not much personality, compared with her impishly seductive turn in “Rainy Days.”
Tech package is frugal but fine. Use of real locations in lieu of sets provides a down-to-earth background against which the cartoonish characters can interact. Music wisely refrains from going overboard with jazz, funk, blues or other styles immediately associated with black culture.