University of Laughs (笑の大学, Warai no Daigaku) is certainly an apt name for a film which aims to teach the universal power of comedy. Based on a 1997 stage play by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani and directed by Mamoru Hoshi, the film is set in 1940 at the height of Japan’s militaristic fervour. With the annexation of Manchuria only three years previously and the war in full swing, there is no room for such petty bourgeois pleasures as slapstick comedy shows. The censor’s stamp rules all and if the piece doesn’t exult the glorious nature of the empire, then what good is it?
Or so thinks recent Manchurian returnee Sakisaka (Koji Yakusho) – the newly appointed occupier of the censor’s chair. Sakisaka has been appointed because he has no sense of humour at all and very little in the way of human feeling. In fact, he even thinks this censorship business is a little pointless and it would be better to just ban everything outright. Then, one day, he encounters quite the stupidest piece of low comedy he’s ever come across in the form of the latest play by a company called “University of Laughs” written by their company director, Tsubaki (Goro Inagaki).
Tsubaki is a nervous, neurotic young man. “Don’t worry, we very rarely use torture” Sakisaka reassures him. Still, Tsubaki tries to talk him through his parodic play script called “The Tragedy of Juleo and Romiet”. However, Tsubaki’s play is no good at all! It’s full of foreigners! And there’s romance, and no one talks about how amazing Japan is, what the hell sort of play is this!? Sakisaka tells him to bring it back tomorrow with the requisite changes. However, tomorrow’s effort is only a little better. Maybe another day? Gradually over the course of a week the pair become uneasy collaborators as Sakisaka eventually rediscovers his sense of humour.
The central irony being that in trying to eliminate all subversive elements in the script, Sakisaka actually ends up in the position of editor – all of the changes he suggests only succeed in making the play funnier and more coherent. The more advice he receives from Sakisaka, the better a writer Tsubaki becomes. However, Sakisaka is the representative of everything the true artists abhors as the tool of an oppressive state which seeks to repress all independent thought. In going along with Sakisaka’s recommendations, isn’t Tsubaki becoming just another government lapdog? Is it better to compromise, go as far as you can go, and stay open or should you staunchly refuse and boycott the regime in its entirety?
For Tsubaki, comedy is a religion. He’s a comedy writer, if he can’t write comedies he may as well not exist at all and the way he sees it, this stuff is making the work better so who cares what it’s all about, really, so long as the work is good. His actors, though, feel differently and Tsubaki is paying a heavy price for his awkward quasi-friendship with the government stooge. Nevertheless, the two develop a strange bond with the previously stiff Sakisaka bucking his rigid adherence to government doublespeak in opening up to Tsubaki’s comedic education. However, their friendship may not be as deep as Tsubaki hopes when he unwisely reveals his real feelings about the regime causing Sakisaka to remind him where his loyalties lie. This is 1940 after all and the spectre of war lies all around. In the end, even if Tsubaki’s now near perfect work is passed for presentation, he may be unable to realise it in person.
Consciously old fashioned, University of Laughs has echoes of Fellini though perhaps filtered through mid period Woody Allen. The Nino Rota-esque score further enhances the association as does the idea of the fascist state as a mad circus where one is forced repeat the same actions over and over again until the ringmasters finally applaud. Warm, witty and surprisingly engaging for a film that is essentially two guys in a room for two hours, University of Laughs is another impressive effort from the pen of Mitani which offers both a cutting critique of oppressive censorship, a defence of the artist and an exultation of the universal power of laughter.