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Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008


Tokyo's Rokku laughs it up again at film festival

Special to The Japan Times

The objectives of the First Old Town Taito International Comedy Film Festival, which runs Nov. 21 to 24 in the Tokyo districts of Asakusa and Ueno, sound ambitious. Noting on the festival's English-language Web site that "there are innumerable film festivals held throughout the world," the executive committee says that theirs means to be "a bridge between comedy-film fans in Japan and other areas of the world."

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Comic conflict: "Haikei Tenno Heika-sama" ("Dear Imperial Majesty") © TOEI 1963

Nothing denoting "international" is included in the festival's Japanese name — Dai-ikkai Shitamachi Comedy Eigasai in Taito — and of the 23 films being screened, 11 are Japanese, 11 are American, and one is British, so the "bridge" appears to go mainly to Hollywood. Moreover, "comedy-film fans" who don't understand Japanese need to be warned before they rush out for tickets — since it isn't clear on the Web site — that the Japanese films will not have subtitles and all the seminars and discussions except one will be in Japanese with no English interpreting. Even the one British movie, "Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (2005), will be presented in its Japanese dubbed version.

So calling the festival "international" is a bit of a stretch, which isn't to say the enterprise is a total misrepresentation of what it wants to accomplish. The important word is "Shitamachi," which the committee translates as "old town" and which describes the region of Tokyo centered on Asakusa and Ueno where the common folk of Tokyo lived, worked and — most significantly — played during the century leading up to the economic miracle of the 1960s and the rise of the Japanese middle class. Whatever your notion of "Japanese comedy" is, it was born and evolved in the Rokku entertainment district of Asakusa, because that is where the hoi polloi went to enjoy themselves without having to worry about anyone of higher station ruining their fun.

In the late Edo Period (1603-1867), the Tokugawa authorities prohibited kabuki, which it considered degenerate, within the city limits, so the theaters moved to the swamps of Asakusa. Over time a whole range of entertainers gravitated to the area, including jugglers, rakugo storytellers, magicians and Japanese-style vaudevillians. They catered to the recreational needs of the area's working class, which is why Asakusa was also the center for unlicensed prostitution and a magnet for the criminally inclined.

It's no wonder then that Rokku would be where Japan's first commercial movie house, the Denkikan, opened in 1903. Though the area became more famous for its strip joints after World War II and is now seeing a major resurgence owing to the current live comedy boom, it still has a lot of repertory movie theaters that run double and even triple bills of classic Japanese comedies and action films.

Most of the Japanese movies in the festival were made in the 1960s. Three of them feature Shoichi Ozawa, a comic actor once associated with the Asakusa demimonde. Fittingly, Ozawa will make an appearance following the screening of his most infamous film, Shohei Imamura's "Jinruigaku Nyumon: Erogotoshitachi Yori" ("The Pornographers," 1966), one of the edgiest comedies ever made in Japan. Ozawa plays a man who produces quickie porn films to raise money for himself and the woman he lives with. Though the movie contains no nudity, Imamura and Ozawa play several squirm-inducing situations — one involving a mentally retarded underage girl and the other incest — for laughs.

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Sedan surfer: Adam Sandler in "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" © 2008 COLUMBIA PICTURES INDUSTRIES, INC. AND BEVERLY BLVD LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Three other movies feature Kiyoshi Atsumi, who is famous for playing the itinerant salesman Tora-san in the series "Otoko wa Tsurai yo" ("It's Tough Being a Man"), which lasted from the mid-'70s until the actor's death in 1996 and which still holds the record for the longest- running movie series of all time. (A DVD series of "Otoko wa Tsurai yo" films with English subtitles is reviewed in tomorrow's Japan Times.) Atsumi learned his craft in the theaters of Asakusa before turning to movies in the late '50s. Though he was an excellent dramatic actor with a wide range, he came to epitomize the common-man comedy star: simple, kind, easily flustered and naive about women. One of the more interesting manifestations of this character is seen in "Haikei Tenno Heika-sama" ("Dear Imperial Majesty," 1963), which humorously addresses a foot soldier's emotional relationship with the emperor for whom he has promised to give his life during World War II.

Norihei Miki will be the subject of a seminar hosted by broadcast raconteur Fumio Takada. Most Japanese know Miki as the voice in the animated TV commercials for Momoya foods; the ads started in 1958 and lasted until Miki's death in 1999. Like Atsumi and Ozawa, Miki's range as an actor was broad, but he is generally regarded as a comedian who played bumbling salarymen in the immensely popular "Shacho" series of office comedies in the '60s. Takada, however, will screen two earlier films that show Miki's debt to his mentor, Kenichi Enomoto, Asakusa's King of Comedy, whose career lasted from the '20s to the '60s.

In another seminar, pop-culture mavens Jun Miura and Seiko Ito will discuss their "Love for Silly Films" with one of their famous "slide shows." The pair's definition of "silly" seems to cover everything from conventional slapstick to inadvertently bad monster movies. In that regard, the "international" side of the festival seems to offer more decidedly silly content. Ito hosts another seminar on the eternal masters of American surreal comedy, the Marx Brothers, in which the siblings' greatest film, "Duck Soup" (1933), will be screened alongside one of their lesser works, "Room Service" (1938).

The one seminar in English is about Hollywood's current kings of fraternal silliness, the Farelly brothers, who will answer questions after a screening of the movie that made them famous, "There's Something About Mary" (1998). There will also be six Japan premieres of feature comedy films, five of which are American. Ben Stiller stars in a 2007 remake of the classic 1972 Neil Simon movie "The Heartbreak Kid" as a man who falls in love with another woman on his honeymoon. Eternal adolescent Adam Sandler plays an Israeli commando going undercover as a hairdresser in "You Don't Mess With the Zohan." And Mike Meyers impersonates an Indian in the somewhat controversial comedy "The Love Guru."

The highlight of the section is "Knocked Up." Directed by Judd Apatow, whose ribald but sentimental movies have given American comedy a much-needed jolt of intellectual vigor, this thought-provoking movie about an unexpected pregnancy was a surprise U.S. box office hit in 2007. (It will open in Japan on Dec. 20 for a limited run.)

Shitacome, as it has been nicknamed, wouldn't be a bona-fide film festival if it didn't have a red-carpet event. Most of the fest's guests will take their stroll, along with geisha and a local dance troupe, on Nov. 22 at 5 p.m. The carpet will extend from Asakusa's famous Kaminari Gate down the Nakamise arcade to Senso Temple, a length of 480 meters, which is quite a hike in red-carpet terms. Everyone is encouraged to demonstrate a silly walk, but it isn't mandatory.

Shitacome takes place Nov. 21-24 at Asakusa Public Hall, Asakusa Chuei Theater, Asakusa Park Hall, and the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno. See www.shitacome.jp for programs and schedules.

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