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Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2004

Taking comedy seriously

Interviewing Koki Mitani -- a playwright and director who is Japan's closest equivalent to Neil Simon in both comic sensibility and success -- should have been a barrel of laughs. But Mitani, whose credits include "Radio no Jikan," "Minna no Ie" and his most recent hit, "Warai no Daigaku," was, like many comedy writers, being deadly serious about his craft -- and explaining it with all due earnestness. Our conversation, in the Hibiya headquarters of distributor Toho, was punctuated by laughter -- though this interviewer was cracking most of the jokes.

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At the screening I saw at the Tokyo Film Festival, the audience was laughing at every joke. Aren't you sorry now that you didn't direct it?

(laughs) No, not really. It was originally a stage play. Plays and films are two very different mediums -- and I thought that this play would be especially difficult to film. So when I was approached about making a movie, I said I would give my OK only if Mr. [Mamoru] Hoshi directed it. I'd worked with him before and I knew he understood the difference between plays and films.

I understand why you chose Koji Yakusho to play the part of the censor, but the casting of Goro Inagaki wasn't obvious.

I wanted someone who wasn't an "average Joe" type -- and that's Inagaki exactly. He's playing a character, Tsubaki, who's something of an intellectual, who makes a living with his mind. He's not living in the everyday world.

He's also very much the professional, who will sacrifice his ego to get his play on the stage.

Being a scriptwriter myself, I know what that sort of character is like. For one thing, scriptwriters may be dedicated to their work, but they're different from novelists in that, whether they're writing for the screen or stage, they're not just writing for themselves, but for a larger community, including the actors who will play their roles. They have to pay attention to human relationships. They have to be able to coolly evaluate what works and what doesn't.

Inagaki has the coolness a scriptwriter needs -- that's another reason why he was right for the role.

Not only Inagaki's character, but the heroes of the two films you directed -- "Radio no Jikan" and "Minna no Ie" -- are scriptwriters. Can't you pick any other profession? (laughs)

Well, it's something I understand (laughs). Also, I like to make films about people who make something together, about the process of creation. There's a lot of drama inherent in that situation -- and [scriptwriting] is a profession that lends itself to drama.

When you wrote the script, did you imagine yourself in Tsubaki's shoes and what you would do if you were?

Tsubaki is a type of ideal scriptwriter -- there's no one like him now. But I've had to write TV dramas where I've had various limits placed on what I could do. Restrictions in terms of schedule or subject or actors. For example, "Actor A" and "Actor B" don't get along. So I'll be asked not to put A and B together in the same scene. Or another actor has a poor memory, so I'll be asked to give him shorter lines.

Demands like that are always being made on the set. Some scriptwriters will object, but I'll try to accommodate them as much as possible, while writing the best script I can. So in that way I'm like Tsubaki I suppose.

The film is based on the reality of wartime censorship -- but it's also a fantasy.

Tsubaki is lucky to have a censor like Sakisaka, who is both considerate and flexible. In reality censors were scary people, so the story may be somewhat removed from reality. Sakisaka is a complex character. He likes comedy, but can't admit it to himself. In the course of his seven days with Tsubaki he doesn't change so much as recognize what he really likes and who he really is. He finds out that he shares a common interest with Tsubaki.

But the political situation in both Japan and America is making the film look more and more timely. The government is now enforcing the raising of the Hinomaru flag and the singing of "Kimigayo" at school ceremonies. We aren't quite back to 1940 yet -- but the trend is in that direction.

"Warai no Daigaku" was originally a radio drama, then it became a play. Both times I was told that it was timely. Back then I wondered how it could be timely, but now I'm starting to understand. I just hope we get to the point when no one can call the film timely.

The subject matter and treatment are more distinctively Japanese than in your other films. Did you want to write something closer to your historical and cultural roots?

It just so happened that the film was set in that place and period. The situation of two people coming together to make something is not exclusive to Japan.

After I wrote the radio drama I saw a Woody Allen film called "Bullets Over Broadway." It's about a playwright who gets his play financed by a gangster and then has to change it according to the gangster's whims. I thought it was interesting that Allen could have the same basic idea -- it had nothing to do with nationality. Comedy is comedy.

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