Comedy is a funny thing. Beyond things like mathematics, music, or indoor plumbing, I think what truly separates man from the other animals is our capacity for laughter. Humor is a concept that transcends language and location. It can be enjoyed by anyone of any status, to the exlusion of no one. I think a good comedy is one of the few things on the planet that can bring us all closer together. To celebrate this step toward a united world of peace and prosperity, here are seven films to split your sides.
7. なくもんか (Nakumonka) – 2009
Japanese Level: ☆☆
When Shimoigusa Yuta (Abe Sadao) was very young, his father left home with him to start a new life, leaving his mother and unborn sibling behind. All set to turn over a new leaf of diligence and hard work, they moved in with Yama-chan, an old acquaintance of his father’s and owner of a ham cutlet shop. Later that night, Yuta’s father took off again, with all the contents of Yama-chan’s cash box and left Yuta in the reluctant care of Yama-chan and his family.
Yuta’s determination to show his gratitude to the Yama-chans for taking him in despite being the son of a thief led to him working as hard as he could to be of help to them. Now an adult, Yuta has become Yama-chan part 2, in charge of the cutlet shop and the secrets of the signature sauce. Despite how busy he is, Yuta always makes time to help everyone in sight, as cheerfully as possible. Shimoigusa Yuta is a man who’s always smiling.
Shimoigusa Yusuke (Eita) was raised under the care of his single mother for a little while. She was quite healthy, but soon died and Yusuke was passed around from various institutions and schools until his teenage years. To avoid the potential bullying and isolation that accompanied being the perpetual new kid, Yusuke quickly learned to make people laugh, despite hating being laughed at. He honed this skill through the years to adulthood and became a failed comedian. Things turned around when he met Daisuke (Tsukamoto Takashi) and they formed the immensely popular Kinjo Brothers.
One day, Yuta checks his family register for the first time and discovers the name of his younger brother. Immediately somehow realizing this Yusuke and Kinjo Yusuke are one and the same, Yuta eagerly reaches out to make contact with his long lost sibling. With their totally opposite personalities, can Yuta and Yusuke become a family?
Nakumonka is one of three movies starring Abe Sadao, written by Kudo Kankuro, and directed by Mizuta Nobuo. Though chronologically it was the second one made, that doesn’t really matter since they otherwise don’t have anything to do with each other. Abe Sadao always moves around like he’s about to explode when he’s doing comedy, which could either be annoying or hilarious depending on your tastes. His style reminds me a lot of Jim Carrey during the mid-90’s.
Takeuchi Yuko plays Yuta’s wife, Tetsuko and provides an excellent counterpoint to Abe’s frantic pacing. I think it’s interesting that while Takeuchi gives incredibly spirited dramatic performances, she’s always in a straight-faced or tsukkomi role on the rare occasion she’s in a comedy. The whole film is layered with humor, from sight gags to wordplay to deadpan, so even repeat viewings can reveal jokes you may not have noticed last time. A joy to watch through and through.
6. 舞妓Haaaan!!! (Maiko Haaaan!!!) – 2007
Japanese Level: ☆☆☆
Onizuka Kimihiko is a seemingly ordinary office worker for Suzuya Ramen, a cup ramen company. Until one day he’s transferred to the topping division at the Kyoto branch and his hidden obsession comes to light. Onizuka is completely infatuated with geisha! Separated from the rest of his class during a high school trip to Kyoto, Onizuka encountered a geisha in training who provided him with directions. He spent the rest of the day asking every geisha he could find for directions until his teacher arrived and dragged him back to reality. Ever since then, Onizuka has dreamed of one day returning and actually entering a geisha house, even maintaining a geisha fansite under the nickname “Bon”.
The move to Kyoto only required a few stitches after dumping his clingy girlfriend Fujiko (Shibasaki Kou) and Onizuka is all set to realize his dream until reality drags him down again as he’s reminded of the strict rule refusing admittance to any geisha house with a formal introduction by someone who’s already been inside. As Onizuka works to gain enough status and wealth to become a man of propriety, he enters into a one-sided rivalry with pro baseball player, Naito Kiichiro (Tsutsumi Shinichi).
Naito has money and fame to spare and frequently does so at the very geisha house Onizuka aims to infiltrate. Beset on all sides and facing impossible odds, will Onizuka ever get to play strip baseball?! Meanwhile, Fujiko also lays plans to get her precious boyfriend back.
Maiko Haaaan!!! is the next entry by the Mizuta/Kudo/Abe team and another comedy barrage. Like Nakumonka and Shazai no Ousama, this movie is packed with gags of every kind. After only seeing Tsutsumi Shinichi play stern, emotionless characters in Good Luck! and SP, it was really great to see him in such an uninhibited role. Shibasaki Kou’s part was a little weird. She’s billed third behind the two leads, but unfortunately her character doesn’t really do much at all. Ultimately, this is an Abe-driven film and how much you enjoy his work will probably determine your opinion of it as a whole. Fortunately, I had a great time watching it.
5. 謝罪の王様 (Shazai no Ousama) – 2013
Japanese Level: ☆☆
Do you ever find yourself in a situation that requires a sincere apology, but you lack the etiquette and basic manners to pull it off? Perhaps you inadvertently destroyed the vehicle of a prominent mob boss. Or maybe you misinterpreted a colleague’s accidental brushing against you as an invitation to drunkenly paw at her during a company outing. Don’t fret! Instead of involving lawyers or bothering the police, the Tokyo Apology Center is here to help! Owned and managed by apology expert, Kurojima (Abe Sadao), even the most socially inept boor can be taught forgiveness for any faux pas and avoid being sold into prostitution.
Kurojima started his business with a simple goal: To help those who can’t help themselves. He’s devoted his entire life learning the ins and outs of Japanese apologizing techniques and applying them to any problem. Regardless of his client’s social status or the magnitude of the offense, Kurojima takes on any case and guides them to the goal of complete forgiveness. However, what happens when he encounters an opponent that’s seemingly immune to and only grows angrier at every attempt to aplogize? With lives and perhaps the very fate of the nation at stake, Kurojima faces his greatest challenge yet.
Shazai no Ousama is the most recent film with the team of Director Mizuta Nobuo, writer Kudo Kankuro, and starring Abe Sadao. The plot is divided up into five separate cases that overlap and tie back into each other. Contrary to the other two movies he starred in on this list, this time Abe Sadao is the calm, sensible one reacting to all the madness around him. Attention is spread out more across the actors, so it seems more like an ensamble cast than a principle lead having all the scenes focused on him. I couldn’t pick a favorite, but I think of the three movies under this team, Shazai no Ousama is the most well put together.
4. ステキな金縛り (Suteki na Kanashibari) – 2011
Japanese Level: ☆☆
Fukatsu Eri plays Hosho Emi, a fledgling defense lawyer who shows a lot of enthusiasm despite being a little clumsy. She became a lawyer to follow in the footsteps of her late father, but still hasn’t managed to win a case. Her boss, Hayami (Abe Hiroshi) gives her one last chance and assigns her to provide defense for Yabe Goro, a man accused of murdering his wife, Suzuko (Takeuchi Yuko).
Yabe insists he couldn’t possibly have done it, as he was at an inn unable to move, due to the ghost of a samurai sitting on him all night. Hosho immediately sets out to verify the claims of her client and visits the same room. It isn’t long before she has her own paralyzing experience when she comes face to face with the same apparition, Sarashina Rokubei (Nishida Toshiyuki).
Rokubei has been a spirit for over four hundred years after he was falsely accused and executed. He’s willing to testify and help another man avoid the same fate, but only on the condition that Hosho help clear his own name. Of course things can’t be that simple and Hosho soon realizes Rokubei can’t be seen or heard by most people. On top of that, her opponent is veteran prosecutor Osano (Nakai Kiichi), who refuses to acknowledge the existence of ghosts, much less the idea one be allowed to testify. The stage is set for the courtroom battle of the century that could make or break her career, but does Hosho have a ghost of a chance?
Suteki na Kanashibari is another work of Mitani Koki, who is again both writer and director. The simple premise is brought to life by all the great characters and their skilled actors. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the Ace Attorney games and all the fun absurdity they bring. This also had a brilliant advertisement vehicle in a one-episode tanpatsu drama called Suteki na Kakushidori that featured most of the same cast. In the drama, Fukatsu Eri works as a hotel concierge who’s tasked with fulfilling all the bizarre requests of the hotel patrons, sort of as a series of skits. They don’t have anything to do with each other plot-wise, but anyone who liked one should definitely check out the other.
3. 笑の大学 (Warai no Daigaku) – 2004
Japanese Level: ☆☆☆
The year is 1940, Japan is at war. In an effort to keep the homeland united in thought and purpose, rigorous censorship is placed upon all avenues of entertainment. Responsible for reading the script of every play in the local theater district is Sakisaka (Yakusho Koji). Sakisaka has recently returned from propaganda control in China to what his superiors assured was the perfect position for him. He places every script that passes under him through a vigorous scrutiny to eliminate any element of dissent, western sympathy, or other impurities. Sakisaka is a man who views entertainment and laughter itself as useless frivolity.
Tsubaki (Inagaki Goro) is a playwright for the Warai no Daigaku theater troupe who specializes in farce and cheap gags. He hopes to get his script for “Juleo & Romiet” quickly passed so the actors can begin rehersal. What he thought was an amusing play is thrown to the ground by Sakisaka, who admonishes Tsubaki for writing something so thoroughly terrible that marking passages in need of correcting would be a waste of time. Tsubaki is dead-set on making the script work, so Sakisaka demands a full rewrite by tomorrow to at least fix the most egregious offenses.
Each time Tsubaki brings the reworked play back, Sakisaka finds some new problem and insists on another rewrite. By now, the rest of the theater troupe is getting a little annoyed at the constant delay, but Tsubaki has noticed his script is gradually improving. Sakisaka too has been noticing a change as he passes the theaters each night on his walk home and hears the laughter resonating from within…
Warai no Daigaku was originally a two-man play written by Mitani Koki, who also wrote this film adaptation directed by Hosi Mamoru. Nearly the entire movie takes place in a single room with the two principal actors, though sometimes there are visual representations to reflect what they’re discussing. SMAP’s Inagaki Goro is really good as the nervous, but excitable playwright. The few dramas I’d seen him in before this were creepy guy roles, so I was surprised by his versatility.
I haven’t seen much of Yakusha Koji, despite his gigantic list of film credits, but he was flawless in maintaining Sakisaka’s sternness while adding subtle touches that maintained the humorous tone. I think the movie managed to capture the intimacy of theater within the larger scope of cinema and made it an overall better delivery than if it had been purely either.
2. 亀は意外と速く泳ぐ – 2005
Japanese Level: ☆☆
The only point of interest in Katakura Suzume’s (Ueno Juri) daily routine is feeding the pet turtle her husband left in her care while away on business. Suzume has always been pretty nondescript to the point of feeling invisible at times and often questions the purpose of her existence as a lonely housewife. One day as the bus speeds by without her, Suzume decides she’s had enough of being ordinary and answers the spy recruitment stamp she found by chance on a staircase earlier.
Suzume soon meets Shizuo (Iwamatsu Ryo) and Etsuko (Fuse Eri), a husband and wife spy team from an undisclosed country for an interview. Though they seem like a pair of weirdos, they’re greatly impressed by Suzume’s complete lack of distinguishing features and give her five million yen to join their organization. Filled with new purpose, Suzume eagerly begins her exciting new life as a spy!
Suzume returns to her life of dull mediocrity with renewed vigor, as now everything she does has a super secret spy aspect to it. As Shizuo and Etsuko train her in the ways of spying, Suzume gains a new understanding and appreciation of the town she lives in and the people around her. Soon however, an incident occurs that draws the eyes of the authorities and interrupts their spy game. Will Suzume be able to safely navigate the murky waters of intrigue and deception? And are any of these people really spies or is that yet another subterfuge?
Kame wa Igai to Hayaku Oyogu was written and directed by Miki Satoshi. His drama, Atami no Sousakan was the only other work I was familiar with when I watched this and it brings the same slightly off-kilter humor and sensibilities. Ueno Juri has a great doofy quality that makes comedic roles a good choice for her. I wish she would do more of them.
The overall plot isn’t very deep or complicated, just some things happening in a small town. Most of the humor is from the general weirdness going on and Suzume’s reactions to it. I think it took a careful effort to keep the tone just strange enough that it probably couldn’t happen in real life, but just realistic enough that maaaybe it could.
1. SURVIVE STYLE 5+ – 2004
Japanese Level: ☆☆
A man (Asano Tadanobu) has just murdered his wife and buried her in the woods, but returns home to find her calmly waiting for him. A salaryman named Kobayashi (Kishibe Ittoku) has just scored tickets for him and his family to see the show of famed hypnotist, Aoyama (Abe Hiroshi). Yoko (Koizumi Kyoko) has just left said famed hypnotist’s bedchamber brimming with ideas for new product commercials. Meanwhile, three young burglars drive off with their latest haul in a mood to celebrate as a grim-faced foreigner (Vinnie Jones) and his interpreter (Arakawa Yoshiyoshi) fly in to Japan. This is only the beginning of Survive Style 5+.
Five separate stories entwine and intermingle with one another as a series of bizarre situations unfold. A husband and wife’s dispute escalates each day as she manifests more and more superpowers. Kobayashi’s life is forever altered when Aoyama’s show is interrupted while still under his spell. Yoko refuses to compromise her creative integrity in the face of rationality, often stopping to giggle whenever she visualizes some new ad. Two of the burglars have been eyeing each other funny as the third contemplates finding a respectable job. Through it all, the foreigner and his interpreter demand an answer to a single simple question: What’s your function in life?
Survive Style 5+ is a roller coaster of insanty directed by Sekiguchi Gen and written by Tada Taku. The characters have just enough detail to them to pique your curiosity as the plot rolls on, looking in on this person or that just long enough for something strange to happen before switching perspective. As the multiple stories suggest, there is no main lead despite having a largely recognizable cast.
The most consistent presence in the movie ends up being the soundtrack that utilizes a lot of bright, high energy English songs. A tremendously funny film if you’re not easily offended. There’s a fair amount of vulgarity in the dialogue and song lyrics, as well as some English obscenities, so caution on that front is advised.
Seen any of these? What did you think? Or do you know of any other great comedy films that should be added to this list?
Jeez I dunno, seeker of fine Japanese media and buyer of impulses?