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Wednesday, March 20, 2002

The last television show

On Air

Rating: * * *
Director: Shin'ichi Ushiyama
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Hey guys, let's make a movie! Not the most common Saturday night suggestion in your circle? With prices of feature-quality digital cameras falling, it's becoming doable. But how to make something that someone other than you and your five closest friends will want to see? Remake "Marty"? ("Hey Marty, what do you wanna do tonight?" "I dunno, what do you wanna do tonight?") Should you just forget the whole thing and go bowling?

News photo
Yoji Tanaka, Asako Yashiro, Yoshizumi Ishihara, Shingo Tsurumi, Eiichiro Funakoshi, Kaoru Sugita, Wataru Shihodo and Shinsuke Suzuki in "On Air"

Shingo Tsurumi turned his movie-making dream into a reality with "On Air," an ensemble comedy about a story session for a failing TV drama. A former teen star on the original "Sannen B-gumi Kinpachi Sensei" show, with a thriving TV and film career playing character roles, Tsurumi has a wider circle of show-business friends than most. The ones who appear in "On Air" are of Tsurumi's generation and occupy his industry niche: i.e., vaguely familiar faces from TV and indie movies, including "Sannen B-gumi" costar Kaoru Sugita. Even scriptwriter and director Shin'ichi Ushiyama is an old buddy who shot the first film Tsurumi ever produced, "Sotsugyo Proof (Proof of Graduation)," in 1987 and now specializes in TV documentaries.

Among his touchstones are John Sayles' "Return of the Secaucus 7," Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill" and, most recently, "Final Cut," in which Jude Law plays a deceased actor who spent the last two years of his life making hidden videos of his mourners' unedifying private lives. "On Air" is something of a cross between the first two films, with their baby-boomer state-of-our-generation introspection, and "Final Cut," an improv-as-party-game whose players were Law's real-life buddies.

As a comedy, however, it is closest to "Radio no Jikan (Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald)," Koki Mitani's 1998 feature debut about a radio drama hurtling into chaos as the egos of its makers collide. Mitani's film is funnier because it is more successfully outrageous, abandoning logic for free-form comic flights. "On Air" is more grounded in entertainment-world realities and is consequently full of wry, rueful observations about the steep price of failure, the relentless march of time and the obligation to soldier on regardless. It's a film by and for the middle-aged, with the message that you don't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need, the operative word being "sometimes." Boring stuff that no one under 25 will care about -- a big reason why "On Air" is playing at the Musashino-kan in Nakano instead of the neighborhood multiplex.

For this reviewer, who hit the threshold of middle age when Tsurumi and company were still Bright Young Things, "On Air" is deja vu all over again. Even so, its take on Japanese television is nuanced, enlightening and amusing more often than not. This is the way a TV show ends, it tells us -- not with a bang, but with everyone involved making the best of a bad job.

The show in question is "Heart VIP e Yokokoso (Welcome to Heart VIP)," a TV drama about a love affair between the bronzed Tokyo governor (Hiroyuki Watanabe) and a beauteous cabaret club hostess (Kyoko Yagihara). It is, however tanking in the ratings, and after taping the eighth episode, Oba (Tsurumi), the show's producer, gets a call from Hashimoto (Yoshizumi Ishihara), his network boss, telling him to cancel tomorrow's rehearsal -- not a good sign. Instead, the main staff members gather in the rehearsal room to hear the verdict. The show, Hashimoto grimly informs them, has been axed -- and they have only one more episode to wrap everything up.

Those assembled -- the scriptwriter (Kaoru Sugita), director (Wataru Shihodo), assistant director (Yoji Tanaka), talent agent (Asako Yashiro) and talent agency manager (Shinsuke Suzuki) -- are flummoxed, like rats who know the ship is sinking but want to keep bailing water. The talent agent, who represents the hostess, protests that the sudden cancellation will kill her client's chance for stardom, while the scriptwriter, who also happens to be Oba's estranged wife, threatens to walk over the trashing of her work. But the director, a cool, collected type, reminds everyone that they are pros with a job to do, like it or not. Somehow, they have to come up with an ending, literally overnight, since shooting starts tomorrow. Being pros, they agree -- and get down to it.

The orthodox approach, the director says, is for the heroine to either die or run off to a foreign country. Oba, who saw the show as his big break, wants to somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and make the last episode one people will remember. Orthodoxy won't do it -- but what other options do they have?

The subsequent hashing out is realistic (perhaps too much so if you regard Japanese business meetings as slow death), though Ushiyama's script livens things up with personality clashes, marital spats and gross self-delusion, as the director, AD and Hashimoto reveal their passionate feelings for the show's luscious young star. Meanwhile, a mysterious mustachioed fellow is narrating the proceedings with a conspiratorial wink, while playing various background roles: studio editor, rehearsal hall manager and . . . but why add a spoiler?

"On Air" aims for the sort of polish and sophistication rare in Japanese prime-time TV comedy, much of which is unapologetically rude and crude. It is, however, made by people who have spent most of their careers in television and know it inside out. Though apparently a cinematic busman's holiday, the film is really an escape from the usual juvenile pap into an adult world -- sadder perhaps, but wiser and, in some ways, funnier. One imagines souls in purgatory, condemned to endless clips of Hitoshi Matsumoto pratfalling on roller blades, desperately dreaming of slipping into a Neil Simon play. "On Air" may not be perfect -- but consider the alternative.

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