Three films: Has anybody seen them

Mark Schilling schill
Fri Apr 23 07:16:00 EDT 1999

Roger Fischer asked for info and opinions about Koki Mitani's Welcome Back,
Mr. McDonald (Rajio no Jikan).

When I was at the American Film Market in February Fortissimo Film Sales
president Wouter Barendrecht told me they had sold Welcome Back to Brazil,
South Africa and Mexico -- all new markets for the company's Asian films.
He also said that the film would open in Austria on February 28 and in New
York in April.

In Hong Hong, the film was evidently a smash hit. Following its opening on
December 24, it ran for ten weeks at Cinematheque, often to capacity
crowds. Fortissimo's Hong Kong rep told me audiences were laughing so hard
they were pounding on the walls. Can any of the Hong Kong list members tell
me if I was the victim of hype? 

I found the film cleverly written, hilariously acted and seamlessly
directed. It is a commercial entertainment, but as Barendrecht rightly
complained, Western buyers usually perceive any subtitled film, especially
one from such an exotic country as Japan, as being arthouse fare. Welcome
Back was thus a hard sell, but at the time I spoke with him, the ice
finally seemed to be breaking and he was in an upbeat mood about the film's
chances worldwide. 

Mark Schilling

For the curious, I am appending my Japan Times review:

Radio no Jikan (Welcome Back, Mr. Mcdonald

Produced by Fuji TV, Toho; screenplay and direction by Koki Mitani;
cinematography by Kenji Takama. With: Toshiaki Karasawa, Kyoka Suzuki,
Masahiko Nishimura. Running time: 103 mins. 

The Japanese, the Japanese often say themselves, have no sense of humor.
But any foreign visitor who has spent an evening watching primetime TV in a
Tokyo hotel room might well conclude that Japanese life is a never-ending
round of hilarity. On the variety and quiz shows that dominate (clutter?
infest?) the airwaves, tarento are constantly cracking wise, audiences are
constantly cracking up. But foreigners who have been here more than a week
-- or have actually learned the language -- begin to realize that, while
the Japanese, at least the ones on television, may indeed love to laugh,
the concept of comedy here is different, at times radically different. 
     For Americans, who grew up with *I Love Lucy** *All In the Family**
and *Seinfeld** the absence of sitcoms here is especially glaring. Yes,
dramas often give us goofy characters in absurd dilemmas, but the primary
aim is usually to evoke indulgent smiles and chuckles at their human
failings, not belly laughs (One indication: the audience is cued with
perky, bubbly, feel-good music, never a laugh track). Also, the half-hour,
three-act, non-continuing format, considered de rigueur for sitcoms since
time immemorial, is nowhere to be found. Here, most dramas air for one hour
and continue for eleven or so weeks, a format that favors novelistic story
telling, not laugh-a-minute gag writing.
     Thus when I first read publicity material for Koki Mitani's first
feature film, *Radio no Jikan** (Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald) describing it
as a *situation comedy** (shichueshon komedi) I wondered if the film could
possibly be the real thing. Perhaps the PR flack simply using another
Janglish expression whose relation to the English original was, at best,
      *Radio no Jikan,** however, is the brilliantly genuine article, a
farce with a clever premise, flawless structure, crackling performances and
laugh-out-loud gag lines. 
     Based on a play written by Mitani and first performed by his Tokyo
Sunshine Boys theater troupe, the film is obviously, even blatantly, stagy.
The action is largely limited to one set -- a studio in a large Tokyo radio
station -- and the actors are projecting to the second balcony. 
     But Mitani, who has written numerous plays and TV scripts since
launching the Tokyo Sunshine Boys while a student at Nihon University in
1983, knows exactly what he is doing. His actors are not trying, and
failing, to play Just Folks, but succeeding, hilariously, in impersonating
people not too different from themselves: i.e., show business types
ostensibly putting on a radio drama but, depending on their place in the
pecking order, really engaged in ego-tripping or ego-stroking. Nearly
everyone is on nearly all of the time, exuding charm one moment, venom the
next. It's all quite theatrical, quite inventive and, in its own knockabout
way, quite convincing. The movie rattles and roars along in a way
reminiscent that masterpiece of show biz screwball comedy, *The Twentieth
Century** (minus the silken glamour of Carrel Lombard and the screaming
egomania of John Barrymore). But while being, in style and manner, closer
to Hollywood than even the comedies of Juzo Itami, *Radio no Jikan**
dissects the inner workings of Japanese social relations with a finer,
truer scalpel than almost any film in recent memory.
     The story might be described as Mitani's parody revenge against all
the  forces that conspire to make a scriptwriter's life miserable. As a
promotional stunt, a Tokyo radio station is planning to air a live
performance of a drama by the winner of amateur scriptwriting contest. a
shy, mousy, achingly naive housewife (Kyoka Suzuki). As first it all seems
like a dream; an important producer (Masahiko Nishimura) calling her
sensei, big stars rehearsing her dialogue. 
     Then the nightmare begins. The middle-aged actress playing the female
lead (Keiko Toda) decides that she doesn't like her character's name,
Ritsuko. Too stodgy, she says. Change it to Mary Jane! And why not give her
a sexy job like trial lawyer while you're at it? Desperate to make his star
happy, the producer agrees to these outrageous demands and from that all
else follows. Now that the main character is a foreigner, the setting has
to be changed from Atami to New York and all the other characters have to
become Americans. Even after the show goes on the air, the star and the
rest of the cast keep coming up with bright ideas. Why not juice up the
story by adding the Mafia and machine guns? Why not change the setting
again, to Chicago? Why not make Mary Jane's lover a pilot? Why not indeed? 
      Soon, the housewife's heartfelt melodrama about the unraveling of a
marriage has becomes an action-adventure story complete with a bursting dam
and a plane soaring off into space. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking away,
the producer is tearing his hair and the housewife, watching her play being
carelessly trashed, is quietly building to an explosion. 
     First-time director Mitani has polished his actors to a rare
perfection of pace and timing (He reportedly rehearsed them for two weeks
before beginning principal photography, an uncommon indulgence in the
Japanese film industry). Together with cinematographer Kenji Takama, he has
filmed his script with a seamless dynamism that energizes what could have
been static scenes, without overly advertising his technical virtuosity.
Given their low budgets and murderous production schedules, most Japanese
films by new directors cannot escape technical hiccups, from muddy sound to
murky lighting, *Radio no Jikan** is a vibrant exception. 
     Perhaps Mitani sets up his gag lines a little too slickly and ties up
his plot ends a little too neatly -- he is, after all, a fan of that master
of comic contrivance, Neil Simon -- but he also knows how to intelligently
entertain. Even America, sitcom glut or no, might some day take notice.  

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