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Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Why can't every hospital be like this



Irasshaimase Kanjasama

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Takahito Hara
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Satire, political or social, is not a Japanese forte. Comedians often take on middle-aged guys with comb-overs, and yet seldom target venerable institutions with powerful, or dangerous, supporters. Seen any good Emperor skits on TV lately?

News photo
Atsuro Watanabe (left) and Kouhei Otomo in "Irasshaimase Kanjasama"

One exception was director Juzo Itami, who targeted the funeral industry and its customers ("Ososhiki," 1984), tax evaders and collectors ("Marusa no Onna," 1987) and the yakuza and their business-world prey ("Minbo no Onna," 1992), among others. (The last film nearly got him killed when several hoods, offended by his presumption, knifed him outside his home). His brand of comedy -- a not-always-smooth mix of cartoony gags for the masses and brainy satire for the upper classes -- inspired many imitators, but few enjoyed his level of box-office success. With the end of the bubble era, which had provided so many rich targets, even Itami found hits harder to come by. He committed suicide in 1997, his career in the midst of a downward slide.

Nearly a decade later, Itami is enjoying a revival, with the recent publication of his essays (together with appreciations by colleagues and critics) and the release of a DVD box set of his films. Now, one of his more dedicated followers, Takahito Hara, has made "Irasshaimase Kanjasama (Welcome, Honored Patients)," a hospital comedy with some of Itami's antic spirit, if not his bite.

Best known for his three "Yo Nigeya Honpo (Midnight Run)" films, made between 1992 and '94, about an agency that helps feckless debtors escape their creditors, Hara takes aim at a barn-wide target -- Japanese hospitals -- in "Irasshaimase Kanjasama." He scores a few good hits, but he is also obvious in ways that Itami, even at his most formulaic, was not.

Like Itami, he tackles a big Japanese institution whose defects are apparent to everyone, though no one has managed to fix them, decade after weary decade. Who has not endured a stupefyingly long wait to see a doctor at a big hospital here, followed by a two-minute consultation, and more long waits to pick up drugs and pay? Who has not heard (or lived) horror stories of lordly white-coated sensei misdiagnosing, misprescribing or misleading patients about the true nature of their illness? ("It's only an ulcer -- nothing to worry about.") Am I the only one raising my hand? I don't think so.

The hospital in Hara's film has all of the above problems and is going bankrupt to boot. The head physician, Dr. Chikaba (Atsuro Watabe), is a devotee of a strip club whose star descends nightly from the rafters in a cowgirl-cum-angel costume, lip-syncing to "Ave Maria." Then one fateful night, the star's jealous boyfriend shoots the club's smooth-talking MC, Onchi (Kouhei Otomo), and someone calls 110.

The irritable ambulance driver, after getting several "no vacancy" answers from nearby hospitals, finally dumps the wounded Onchi at Chikaba's door. The MC somehow survives his emergency-room treatment -- which chillingly illustrates why there is no Japanese equivalent to "ER" -- only to find himself in the midst of a medical nightmare.

Left on his lonesome after a staff doctor abruptly quits, Chikaba processes patients with a brusque efficiency (Cough please -- fine, next), while the smarmy hospital administrator (Renji Ishibashi) harasses Onchi for money almost as soon as he is out of a coma and the nurses treat him like something between a child and a carcass.

The story proper begins when gangsters lean on Chikaba over an outstanding loan and Onchi, seeing that his savior must either pay up or lose his business (not to mention his life), offers to help. His idea: transform the hospital into a big, white cabaret, where the customer -- er, patient -- is king. Soon patients are choosing their nurses from a photo catalog, together with a range of "special services." Fortunately, for Chikaba's bottom line, the nurses, with the sweetly smiling Kazumi (Sachie Hara) in the lead, are willing to play along, in return for a substantial boost in wages. Even the sole objector, the portly, no-nonsense head nurse (Eriko Watanabe), finally signs up (though her face goes into spasms when she smiles for her photo).

Is this beginning to sound offensive? Perhaps, though the nurses are required to do little more than turn on the charm, while giving male patients the occasional squeeze, cuddle or ear-cleaning. For the heavy-duty stuff, including mouth-to-mouth barium and full-frontal MRI tests, Onchi hires a trio of saucy mizushobai ("water world") professionals.

It still sounds offensive, doesn't it? Hara's larger, valid point -- that hospitals here need to pay more attention to patients' needs (including the need for human contact) -- becomes obscured by his sukebe (scuzzy), if light-hearted, execution. Also, he all-but ignores the female half of the hospital's patient population, who never complain about the unfair treatment -- or demand their own backrubs from sexy male orderlies.

In Onchi's defense, his reforms extend beyond pleasuring horny guys, and include piano recitals in the lobby and a day-care center for pets. Also, under his influence, even Chikaba starts to treat his charges more like individuals, less like bodies to process.

Still, "Irasshaimase Kanjasama" represents a missed opportunity. What could have been an Itami-esque entertainment for a wider audience, that would give the medical establishment heartburn, is instead a sex comedy for lonely guys, and the "reforms" are mainly goofy erotic daydreams. But I found myself looking at the hospital's catalog and thinking that -- pet care might be nice. Very nice indeed.



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