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Wednesday, June 27, 2001

A blueprint for total disaster

Minna no Ie

Rating: * * * 1/2 Director: Koki Mitani Running time: 115 minutes Language: JapaneseShowing at Shibutoh Cine Tower and other theaters

A fatal hard-drive crash (signaled by the sound of the computer going whack-whack-whack instead of the usual varoom) is one of those complacency-shattering events that, like getting a tax-audit notice or bad biopsy report, causes one to reflect on the fragility of existence -- or collapse into a quivering heap of panic. In my case, it also forced me to see again a movie that I'd written about weeks ago -- usually the equivalent of going back to a party to retrieve a bag after already saying one's goodbyes.

Naoki Tanaka in "Minna no Ie"

I'd first seen Koki Mitani's new comedy "Minna no Ie (Everybody's House)" at a press screening, a venue about as friendly to the genre as a tax office or hospital waiting room. I heard a few scattered chuckles and chortles at the story of a mild-mannered couple building their dream house and falling into a nightmare as the Titanic-size egos of their designer and builder collide, but I didn't get the impression the film was especially boffo. Then, again, if a comedy can get a rise from a press-screening audience -- usually jaded industry types for whom looking supremely bored is a matter of principle -- it can get a rise from any crowd outside of death row.

Seeing "Minna no Ie" again at a packed Ikebukuro theater, with an audience whose average age was 25, I was struck by how well it played, with the people around me laughing on the beat, as though they were being prompted by an invisible laugh-track recording engineer. I was also struck by how my own reaction to the film had changed: I was laughing along with them -- the sign of a simple critical mind, I suppose.

Not that the film is a triumph of the order of "The Apartment" or "Some Like It Hot," masterpieces by Mitani's idol, Billy Wilder. A clever, polished scriptwriter with an impressive list of stage and TV credits, Mitani is less a Wilderian cynic than a Neil Simonian entertainer. As a director, he is a control-freak who is inclined to over-rehearse his laugh lines and overwork his plot points, until I want to say, "Enough, already."

But he also understands that film comedy is different from its TV variety-show equivalent. While not being above the occasional pratfall, he is more interested in character than caricature, in building gags into his story than simply piling them on. His style is cuter, cleaner and squishier than is currently thought cool in the West -- a Farrelly brother, he is not -- but he also happens to be squarely in Hollywood screwball tradition, with its delight in craftsmanship and its disdain for dullness.

His hero, Naosuke Iijima (Naoki Tanaka), is a Mitani surrogate, a thirtysomething scriptwriter who is a bit of a wuss but a success in his career, enough so that he and his button-cute wife Tamiko (Akiko Yagi) are planning to build a house on a suburban plot of land blessedly remote from the nearest neighbors.

Since this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they want to do it right, so they ask an interior designer, Yanagisawa (Toshiaki Karasawa), who was Tamiko's college classmate, to be their architect. Sophisticated, opinionated and impatient with anything less than artistic perfection, Yanagisawa is willing and eager to help (or rather, give them the benefit of his genius). He does not, however, have the right license to build his architectural masterpiece, so Naosuke proposes his father-in-law, Choichiro (Kunie Tanaka), a semiretired carpenter, who does. Knowing how Dad is stubborn and stuck in his ways, Tamiko objects, but finally gives in, both to keep family peace and give the old man one last hurrah.

The clash is not long in coming. Choichiro has his own set-in-stone ideas about house-building and hires a gang of like-minded cronies to back him up. When Yanagisawa shows him his fancy-schmancy design, Choichiro dismisses it with a snort, while his wimpy designer pal (Akira Shirai) timidly points out that it violates the city building code. Score one for Choichiro.

Yanagisawa is not about go down without a fight, however. He comes back with another, legal design, but its theme of "Americanism," which features measurements in feet and inches and a front door that swings in instead of out, baffles and enrages Choichiro and his construction crew, who have never seen anything so outlandish. What, they wonder, does this longhaired professor, who looks as though he never picked up a hammer, know about building houses the right way (i.e., the Japanese way)?

Yanagisawa fumes to his clients that Choichiro and his crew are undermining his design at every turn, but Naosuke's idea of compromise is a front door that swings both ways -- no help there. Tamiko has a stronger will than her pussycat of a hubby, but she is torn by conflicting loyalties. Meanwhile, the mood at the construction site is beginning to resemble that at the Kosovo-Macedonian border. What to do?

This being Japan and "Minna" being a Japanese movie, a shooting war doesn't break out (though Yanagisawa does toss a can of paint at one point). Minds, inevitably, meet as opposites attract, just as they do in all those old screwball comedies about quarreling couples who end up tying the knot by the last reel. "Minna" also borrows from the formula of the male-bonding movie, in which guys who would otherwise be at each other's throats come together for a common task. Nothing new there, either.

The film does offer instructive insights on why Americans and other outlanders find the construction business in Japan all but impossible to penetrate. For cultural conservatism, Choichiro and his gang make sumo wrestlers look like the latest act from the WWF. But though they may claim to be followers of the good old ways from the good old days, the film shows that they also tend, like so many other so-called conservative institutions in modern Japan, to prefer standardized mediocrity to individualized excellence.

Karasawa and Kunie Tanaka work together well as oil-and-water opponents, though the script puts them through too many rage-and-reconciliation scenes. Naoki Tanaka, a member of the Cocorico comedy team, gets laughs as the good-hearted but spineless hubby. Yagi, a former Fuji TV announcer making her first screen appearance, is no comedienne, but serves as a welcome island of sanity amid the madness raging around her. Home sweet home, indeed.

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