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Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2004

No censoring these laughs

Warai no Daigaku

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Mamoru Hoshi
Running time: 121 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Nov. 6
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Comedy -- more than drama, action or other genres -- has a hard time crossing cultures. The Japanese, for example, just don't get Adam Sandler, whose films in Japan earn a tiny fraction of their U.S. grosses. Meanwhile, many Westerners here, even those fluent in Japanese, are allergic to manzai acts -- the straight man/dimwit duos that have long dominated Japanese comedy. The West has had its share of comic twosomes, from Laurel and Hardy on, but the cornball word-play and insult-humor of so many manzai routines, as well as the frenetic deliveries of so many manzai performers, triggers a channel-changing reflex.

News photo
Goro Inagaki (left) and Koji Yakusho (center) in "Warai no Daigaku"

Am I revealing any prejudices here? Maybe -- though I'm a life-long fan of The Three Stooges, whose rubber-mallet-to-the-skull comedy makes most manzai look boringly sane.

Based on a hit 1996 play by Koki Mitani, Mamoru Hoshi's comedy "Warai no Daigaku (University of Laughs)" might be described as a feature-length manzai routine, though its two principals are hardly the usual manzai combo. At its Japanese premiere screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival, it had the audience laughing on the beat, in big sonic waves that crashed through the theater. While I was among the laughers, I was also wondering how the film could extract itself from the narrative holes it was busy digging.

Set in 1940, when war clouds were gathering, the story revolves around the weeklong struggle of one Hajime Tsubaki (Goro Inagaki), a nervous playwright for an Asakusa comedy troupe, to get his latest farce, "Romilet and Julio," past one Mutsuo Sakisaka (Koji Yakusho), a new police censor who proudly describes himself as a man who has never laughed.

Sakisaka is aligned with the forces of fascistic darkness and should be thus regarded, one would righteously think, with appropriate contempt. Instead, the film takes the opposite tack. Though he may be the editor from hell, dedicated to extracting any Western taint (or for that matter, any laughs) from Tsubaki's play, Sakisaka is basically a decent sort, who is more susceptible than he lets on to the show-business bug.

Meanwhile, Tsubaki should, one would righteously think, defy the censor at every turn. Instead, while squawking about the damage to his deadline, not to mention his precious gags, Tsubaki cringingly obliges his tormentor, more like a tailor with a cranky client than a writer with convictions.

But Tsubaki, we come to see, has his own code, which he follows with more rigor than is first apparent from his bows and scrapes. He not only wants the show to go on, but also refuses to let anyone kill his comedy. Does Sakisaka want all the characters to be Edo Period Japanese, instead of Shakespeare's Florentines? Fine -- but Tsubaki is going to make them as funny as he can. His god is less the Emperor or the almighty box office than his professionalism as a writer, one he will follow straight through the jaws of hell -- or the headquarters of the Keishicho (Metropolitan Police).

Koji Yakusho, who performed a similar comic pas de deux with Akira Emoto in last year's crime comedy "Yudan Taiteki," flawlessly balances the two sides of Sakisaka's character: the stern-faced martinet and the bright-eyed starting-out gag writer. (It helps that Yakusho was once a real-life city-hall bureaucrat -- and thus knows how to wield a rubber stamp.)

Most actors would play Sakisaka as a Corporal Klink-ish buffoon. Yakusho's may let his guard drop, even to the point of prancing around the interrogation room in a paroxysm of actorly delight, but he is never simply a fool. This approach not only makes Sakisaka a more formidable figure, but adds to the poignancy of his dilemma: However much he may come to like Tsubaki -- and release his own inner ham -- he cannot forget who he truly is and where his loyalty truly lies.

Inagaki, with his foppish image as a member of the pop group SMAP and his lack of film experience, is not the obvious choice to play Tsubaki, who must display inner steel beneath the grovels and groans. But Inagaki, while lacking Yakusho's range, throws himself completely into his role -- and gets as many laughs as his distinguished senpai.

But as phlegm-clearingly good as the film' gags may be, they mostly derive from a situation -- a militaristic government sitting hard on freedom of expression -- that was no laughing matter then and certainly isn't now. To their credit, Mitani and Hoshi recognize this fact and in the film's third act -- as total war comes ever closer -- they darken the film's tone and raise its stakes.

Though it's not the safest box-office strategy (audiences, be they Japanese or Western, are known to turn on comedies that take themselves too seriously), this change acknowledges the realities outside the confines of Sakisaka's interrogation room. It makes "Warai no Daigaku" a film to not only laugh at -- but also respect.

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