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Tuesday, May 18, 1999

Big Show -- Hawaii de Utaeba

Is Reiko Akagi the new Tora-san? That was my thought as I watched "Big Show! -- Hawaii ni Utaeba (Big Show! -- If You Sing in Hawaii),"Kazuyuki Izutsu's follow-up to "Nodojiman" -- the hit film that first introduced Reiko as a contestant on the NHK "Nodojiman" song show.

Played by Shigeru Muroi, Reiko was something of a Tora-san in a kimono -- a struggling enka singer who traveled the hinterlands with her hustling manager (Isao Bito), crooning at record stores and hawking her CDs and cassettes to all and sundry. Fed up with the constant rebuffs and wanting to perform, at least once, in front of a large audience, she decides to audition together with rank amateurs for a slot on "Nodojiman." If she fails, she is ready to call it quits. Fortunately, she makes the cut with a rousing rendition of Mayo Okamoto's "Tomorrow" and keeps her career alive.

In "Big Show" Reiko is still scuffling, but this time she has wangled an invitation to sing her latest number, a remake of enka superstar Harumi Miyako's "Osaka Shigure (Osaka Late-Autumn Shower)," at a pro-wrestling show in Oahu.

She survives her appearance before the romping, stomping wrestling crowd, which certainly isn't there for the enka. Then her manager runs into the vice-president of the talent agency that manages Harumi Miyako herself, the gruff, tough, but good-natured Tashiro (Yoshio Harada). Harumi's warm-up singer for a series of dinner shows is having visa problems, he says. Can Reiko appear in his place?

A fabulous stroke of luck says the manager, but Reiko is hardly overjoyed -- working as Harumi's gofer a decade ago, she once committed a faux pas that embarrasses her still. How can she stand to face her old boss? Even so, she takes the job and, singing a request from the audience for her first number, flops horrifically.

This latest humiliation makes her think of giving up again. A nice nisei boy named Jimmy (Nao Omori), whose big, happy extended family runs a prosperous taro farm, fell hard for her at the pro-wrestling show. After an acquaintance a little longer than the average karaoke session, he proposes marriage -- and Reiko is inclined to accept. Why not become a Hawaiian housewife and put her cassette tapes in permanent storage?

The marriage-versus-career premise is hardly original and the film's development of it is hardly persuasive. Naturally, everyone in Jimmy's family, including his grinning bear of a father, takes an immediate liking to Reiko and heartily approves of the approaching nuptials, though she is a tourist who knows zip about the local scene and whose background is a total blank.

No one even comments on the most obvious fact about this instant romance -- that Reiko is a decade or more older than her hubby-to-be. One suspects that in real-life these folks, cultural conservatives who seem to own the Oahu equivalent of the King Ranch, would be a bit more, how shall we say it, inquisitive?

"Big Show" also reprises the bomb-to-boffo story arc of "Nodojiman," to less effect. Even though the first film showed us that Reiko has the pipes and presence to knock an audience (granted, a "Nodojiman" audience) on its collective ear, Izutsu and his three scriptwriting collaborators take her back to square one in the sequel. We have little doubt that, given the right material, she can repeat her earlier success, so the only real question is whether she will first tie the knot with Jimmy and kibosh her career. And having seen more Tora-san movies than we care to remember, we know the answer to that one, don't we?

To compound its various plot problems, "Big Show" floats in a cultural vacuum, with Hawaii largely relegated to stage scenery and most of the locals depicted as simple-minded, if good-hearted types, rather like the natives in old Hollywood surf 'n' sarong movies. Oddly, many of them speak Japanese almost exclusively, though with comic accents (the worst offender is Cha Kato playing a hyperkinetic nisei promoter). Again, one is reminded of the classic Hollywood convention that everyone, be they natives of Casablanca or Bora Bora, speak English, though rarely as well as the leads.

Also, the film's comedy seldom rises above the level of one of Kato's TV slapstick sketches, including the gag of a babelicious-but-tone-deaf singer slapping her curvacious rear at a jeering dinner show crowd or of Reiko's manager, in agony from an overflowing bladder, grabbing his crotch while an oblivious Tashiro natters on.

But while everyone around her is clowning and mugging frantically to less-than-hilarious effect, Shigeru Muroi manages to carry the film. As Reiko she gets real laughs and earns genuine sympathy, even though she is cut off from the working-class roots that nourished her character in "Nodojiman." The story may be a crock, but we end up liking her anyway. Thus the pay-off when Reiko makes her big fight-or-flight decision, in an emotion-drenched speech that will have even the enka haters in the audience reaching for their hankies.

A series? Don't count on it. But, kimono or no, Muroi, as one of the most versatile and talented film comedians now working, should be with us for a long time to come.

"Big Show! -- Hawaii ni Utaeba" is playing at Nichigeki Toho and other theaters.

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