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Friday, Jan. 25, 2008
It's a totally wonderful life
Japanese comedies today come in two broad categories: frantic, surreal ones of the Kankuro Kudo ("Maiko Haaaan!!!") sort and ironic, realistic ones from the Nobuhiro Yamashita ("Linda, Linda, Linda") corner.
Yosuke Fujita's "Zenzen Daijobu (Fine, Totally Fine)" falls firmly into the latter category, beginning with the first scenes, which slowly but inventively introduce the odd-squad characters and set up the love-triangle story. Also, unlike the many comic scripters who write a strong first act but falter thereafter, Fujita stays focused and funny, but relaxed, to the end. (Not surprisingly, his script for "Zenzen" won the Japan Film Angel Prize for new scriptwriters.)
His story: Two brothers — dough-faced, developmentally arrested Teruo (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) and OK-looking, mostly grownup Hisanobu (Yoshinori Okada), live together with their father (Keizo Kanie), who runs a failing used bookshop and is slowly going crazy from boredom.
Teruo, a horror buff, dreams of building the ultimate amusement-park haunted house, but his reality is a part-time job trimming trees. Hisanobu, a human-resources manager at a local hospital, tries to be Mr. Nice Guy to everyone, but secretly he hates his dull, purposeless life — and he vents his frustration on Teruo.
Into this dysfunctional little family stumbles Akari (Yoshino Kimura) — shy, clumsy and unworldly, but also pretty, literate and artistic. Hisanobu hires Akari as a cleaning lady at the hospital, even though she arrived at the interview with torn clothes and a bloody nose. He sees something real and pure in her — something he wants to investigate further.
Then she comes into Teruo's orbit as well — and he sees in her not just a kindred soul but a future wife. The romantic battle of brothers is growing to absurd heights when a sensitive but facially flawed art restorer (Naoki Tanaka) walks through the bookshop doors and threatens to sweep Akari off her feet.
From this bare description, "Zenzen Daijobu" may sound more like a fraught relationship drama than a knee slapper; but in Fujita's hands plot points take second place to character development and gags, which are plentiful — ranging from the gross (Teruo's colleague absent-mindedly exposing himself to Akari) to the strange (Teruo's collection of monster figures that all feature his perfectly modeled head) and everything in between.
The film's comic core, though, is Arakawa, who looks like an overgrown kid and can get laughs just by shambling across a room or wrinkling that baby-smooth brow. Rather than rely solely on his cartoonish looks, Arakawa plays Teruo as a real, if mostly ridiculous, human being — existential angst included. It's not always fun, we see, being trapped in a 12-year-old's body and mind when you're pushing 30. A kid may be happy with play and dreams, but an adult has to eventually make it real or lose self respect, and somehow Teruo knows it.
Holding the dramatic center is Kimura's Akari, who begins by apologizing for her very existence but who gradually emerges into the light of her own quirky day. Without fuss or strain, Kimura shows us why three guys ought to compete for the hand of this seemingly mousy dweeb — and why she ends up with the one she does.
The English title, "Fine, Totally Fine," not only describes the mood of this quietly brilliant film but also sounds like a three-word review. This film is more than daijobu — it's totemo, totemo subarashii. Really, really wonderful.