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Friday, Feb. 10, 2006
A flick to slide round in the aisle too
Comedy traditionally announced itself loud and clear. Even a 2-year-old could see that the guy in the clown suit was supposed to be funny (unless he struck the kid as terrifyingly weird). With the coming of film, comics introduced new not-so-obvious refinements. Buster Keaton's elaborate stunts would have been impossible in the circus ring -- and he didn't need funny faces to put them across. Instead he was deadpan, even when a house collapsed about him.
Another turning point came with "This Is Spinal Tap," Rob Reiner's 1984 mockumentary about a floundering heavy metal band. Reiner was not the inventor of the mockumentary form, but he took it to a new, straight-faced level of fake realism. He assumed that his dimwittedly self-important rockers could parody themselves -- which they did, flawlessly. This sort of humor wasn't for 2-year-olds, but a knowledgeable rock fan could endlessly parse the film's layers of humor, from the surface slapstick to the more arcane in-jokes.
Japanese comics have been doing mockumentary skits on TV for years, but Japanese filmmakers have been slow to produce mockumentary films. Now we have what might be called a Japanese answer to "This Is Spinal Tap": "Ski Jumping Pairs -- The Road to Torino 2006."
The film began life as former salaryman Richiro Mashima's graduation project at Digital Hollywood University, a school for future computer-graphic artists and technicians. As a CG short, it was screened at more than 40 film festivals and contests around the world, winning numerous prizes. It was then expanded into a feature, with Masaki Kobayashi directing the live-action portions.
When I saw "Road" as a judge at the Japanese Eyes section of last year's Tokyo International Film Festival, I knew next to nothing about its production history, but I immediately got its brilliant send-up of the sober-sided, po-faced NHK documentary about a heroic underdog's struggle to victory. I went from knowing grins to helpless belly laughs in record time, as did my two fellow judges. When the CG sequences started I was on the floor, barking at the moon -- and stayed that way until the end. We gave "Road" our second prize over nine non-comic entries (the superb "Camus Nante Shiranai" got first), which, in the normal course of film festival judging, would never happen. But this comedy, we decided, was a work of warped genius.
Does this mean I've been here too long or have watched NHK too much? Yes to the first, no to the second. That said, "Road" is one of the funniest films I have ever seen, period, though it is something of a patchwork, with an internal logic that, upon reflection, holds up like a snow cone in a Las Vegas parking lot in July.
It begins with a handsome, dulcet-toned, ever-so-serious presenter (Shosuke Tanihara, who does this sort of thing in real life) telling us about the research of one Professor Harada, a specialist in quantum physics. Ten years earlier he discovered an unusual phenomenon: Subjected to the right conditions, objects in flight would divide, such as one rat in a wind tunnel inexplicably becoming two.
As seen in "archival" footage, Harada is the picture of the seedy, socially inept academic, but he is also fanatically dedicated to proving his theory of "in-flight division." Strapping his two young sons to a single pair of skis, he sends them barreling down a playground slide and . . . let's just say they survive, but barely. This experiment gives the professor yet another brilliant idea for the new sport of ski jumping pairs.
Harada and his sons, who grow up to become the world's first tandem ski jumpers, encounter ridicule and misunderstanding, but the sincerity of the good professor and the skills of his indomitable boys, honed in their native Hokkaido, gradually win converts and fans. The sport spreads to Europe and America, where local athletes quickly develop their own, unique styles.
Then Harada's impossible dream -- that ski jumping pairs be selected as an Olympic sport -- becomes a reality at the 2006 games in Turin. First, though, tragedy strikes.
And that's all I'm going to say about the plot and, more importantly, the gags. The NHK parody gives way to the sort of comic business that Keaton, that daredevil engineer of the impossible, might have appreciated. But comedy is an iffy, individual thing and I won't pretend that "Road" is for everyone. If you actually like those NHK docs -- and even if you don't -- you may find the whole idea silly and tedious. Two idiots on a pair of skis? What rot, you say -- and I wouldn't blame you.
On the other hand, if you've worn your tape of "This Is Spinal Tap" to a scratchy mess and can recite entire scenes from memory, you might as well buy your ticket for "Road" now. As Professor Harada would say, it is your destiny.