Just as America has its Charlie Chaplin--a Brit by birth, we know, we know--other countries' arts are rife with lovable rogues. They wander 'round from town to town, maybe drink a bit much and chase skirts a bit too often, yet you can't help but love the big lugs and little tramps. The henpecked samurai Yajirobe and Kitahachi have been part of Japan's folklore ever since 19th-century author Jippensha Ikku pioneered the country's kokkeibon ("comical book") genre with Tokaido-chu Hiza Kurige (published in the West as Shank's Mare). Issued in installments beginning in 1802 as a guidebook to the Tokaido Road, the main drag between Kyoto and Edo during the Edo Period (1603-1867), this celebrated bit of Japanese classical literature pits hapless heroes Yaji and Kita in broadly ribald and slapstick misadventures: Think Martin and Lewis, Hope and Crosby. The two appeared in Japanese silent movies as early as 1927, and in such comedies as The Happy Pilgrimage a.k.a. Yaji and Kita on the Road (1958), such theatre pieces as Tengai Amano Yaji and Kita (2002), the early Nintendo game Yaji Kita Chin Douchuu (Yaji and Kita's Strange Travels), a TV series, and--the direct source of this bizarre Japanese musical comedy and its title--the manga Mayonaka no Yaji-san, Kita-san (Yaji and Kita, The Midnight Pilgrims) by Kotobuki Shiriagari.

We get what screenwriter and first-time director Kankurô Kudô is going for. We just don't get what he gives us: A color-drenched, self-reflexive, kitschy-koo road movie with Yaji and Kita re-imagined as gay-lover time- and place-trippers. This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink extravaganza is like the Monkees movie Head filtered through a gay Japanese David Lynch produced by Sid and Marty Krofft.

Stoned and 'shroomed-up midnight-moviegoers may well giggle through this two-hour pilgrimage from Edo to the temple of Ise, where Kita hopes to kick his heroin addiction. Otherwise, it's pretty hard slogging. "I can't make heads or tails of reality," says Kita, played by well-known Kabuki actor Shichinosuke Nakamura. It's nice of him to give us fair warning, but then nothing really prepares you for the dream-logic non sequiturs that follow. Together or separately, he and Yaji (Nagase Tomoya, a vocalist in the boy band Tokio) ride a red-white-and-blue homage to Peter Fonda's motorcycle in Easy Rider, until the anachronism police stop them; watch parades of Carnivale beauties, American football players and scale-model soldiers march by; die and bring real and faux versions of themselves back to life; run from a giant flying snake/sperm creature at a karaoke-bar/steambath way-station for departed souls, and more like that.

Some images are striking--some of them in a good way. The source of the River Styx, for instance, is indelible and oddly beautiful--even if the river emits a jokey fart. I'm told that if you lived in Japan for several years, the pop-culture references are brilliant. American audiences will just have to get by on the movie's giddy energy, cute 'n' campy transgressiveness and sheer audacity. Oh, and 'shrooms if you've got any.