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Wednesday, April 24, 2002

What it takes to make the big time

Pi Pi Kyodai

Rating: * * *
Director: Yoshiyasu Fujita
Running time: 102 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Color of Life

Rating: * * * *
Director: Yoshimasa Ishibashi
Running time: 88 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

What is it about comedians from Kansai -- or, more specifically, Osaka -- that makes them so funny to Japanese audiences? As residents of Japan's second-largest city, Osakans have long felt squelched by the powers-that-be in Tokyo -- and made jokes at the expense of their Eastern masters, be they dour Edo samurai or logic-chopping Kasumigaseki bureaucrats, as a form of revenge. Humor is thus in their blood -- at least that's one standard explanation. Another is that to Tokyo ears, Kansai Japanese sounds racier and punchier. Same with Americans and a New York accent. Would "Seinfeld" have become such a hit if the characters had sounded like they were from Kansas? Probably not.

News photo
Kentaro Seagal and Zenjiro in "Pi Pi Kyodai"

But not all Kansai comics hit the heights, and Yoshiyasu Fujita's debut feature, "Pi Pi Kyodai (The Bleep Brothers)," explains why. Its heroes, a brother act named Tatsuo (Kentaro Seagal) and Ikuo (Zenjiro), spritz lame gags about penis size (Tatsuo's is humongous, Ikuo's isn't) to a hostile crowd at the strip-joint where they entertain between acts. "If it's so big, show it to us," one heckler yells. Tatsuo, a lean, lanky hunk (played by the son of action star Steven Seagal), drops his drawers and the crowd gasps in awe. A promising start.

Tatsuo and Ikuo are manzai -- a Kansai-spawned comic form in which one member of the duo plays the boke, or fool, and the other, the tsukomi, or straight man, who feeds the boke gags. Traditional manzai acts tend to be faster paced and more rigidly structured than their American counterparts -- think Abbot and Costello's classic "Who's on First" routine performed by two motormouths, with choreographed hand gestures. Ikuo, the short, bespectacled older brother who writes the routines, is big on bright patter and clueless as to what the strip joint patrons really want.

Tatsuo, who secretly hates the manzai life, knows: dirt and sleaze. He starts slinging the local dialect word for the female sexual organ at the crowd, and they love it -- as does the bearded producer (Teruyuki Kagawa) of a failing comedy show, who sees the boys as the answer to his ratings prayers. He puts them on the air, bleeps out the obscenities (i.e. every other word) and soon has a hit on his hands.

Written by Fujita, a successful ad copywriter for beverage maker Suntory, the script for "Pi Pi Kyodai" won the 1998 Sundance/NHK International Filmmaker's Award, and Fujita later polished it at the Sundance Director's Laboratory. The resulting film, screened at the Sundance Film Festival last year, gets off to a fast start, but bogs down with a sentimental plot thread about brotherly bonding and never quite recovers its momentum.

Perhaps Fujita had a script adviser who prefers "Liar, Liar" to "Dumb and Dumber," because it's more . . . human. Bad choice. Or perhaps he is reaching beyond the local audience for edgy, dark comedy to the much larger one that likes a tear with its laugh. There are several funny moments along the way to the foregone conclusion, however, usually when Fujita's darker angel wins out over his lighter one.

Tatsuo and Ikuo come from a family of undertakers. Phlegmatic Dad (Ittoku Kishibe) may have taught the boys manzai routines -- one wonders what he used for material -- but he wants them to take over the business. Gritty Mom (Yuko Tanaka) is the one who really keeps it going, however, from dealing with bereaved survivors to snapping the rigid fingers of the dead into the right prayerful pose. Meanwhile, Ikuo carries a torch for the beautiful, pure-hearted Fumie (Mireiyu), who works for Mom and Dad and, appropriately enough, limps. And Tatsuo? Though a babe magnet, he has remained a virgin for a reason both absurd and touching. He is afraid his mighty member . . . but I really shouldn't explain.

After they become TV stars, however, the dynamics of the act change, with the ambitious Ikuo prodding the reluctant Tatsuo to have erotic adventures that Ikuo can use as material for routines. (Tatsuo, with a bit of help from a stripper friend, has overcome the virginity problem.) Meanwhile, Dad is warning the boys that their fame is a bubble ("The bleeps are getting the laughs, not you"), while Fumie is worried that the sweet, if goofy kid she loves is turning into a laugh-grubbing geek. Finally everything starts to fall apart -- the act, the relationship, the family -- and all the bleeps in the editing room can't put it back together again.

Here the film starts to go wet, if not totally soppy, with various tearful and/or angry confrontations. The big question: Will love triumph? In other words, show-biz soap opera, handled with more subtlety than usual, but to predictable effect.

*    *    *

Though more a series of sketches than a feature film, Yoshimasa Ishibashi's "Color of Life" rates higher on the laugh-o-meter. A sort of Best Hits selection from Ishibashi's "Vermilion Pleasure Night" show, which became a cult sensation on late-night TV, the film focuses on the themes of family, food, love and anger/fear. Within their categories, however, logic breaks down completely -- as do comparisons with other comedies. Only Ishibashi could have dreamed up the accordion-playing geisha, the zombie sitcom and the Fuccon Family -- chuckling department mannequins whose sketches center around sudden death. The humor is black, black and black. No message, no moral, no bleeps -- just 90 minutes of guilty pleasures.

On Sundays, at 9:10 p.m., Cine Amuse East West is screening an English-subtitled print of "Pi Pi Kyodai."

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