University of Laughs (笑の大学, Mamoru Hoshi, 2004)

warainodaigakuUniversity 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.

Library Wars (図書館戦争, Shinsuke Sato, 2013)

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Based on a series of light novels by Hiro Arikawa, Library Wars is another adaptation of a popular multimedia franchise from the director of the live action Gantz movies. Like Gantz, it’s another bug budget, tentpole style block buster with a subtle (though not insubstantial) desire to inject a bit of social commentary into what can be an entirely trivial genre. The manipulative forces at play here, however, are far less mysterious and unfortunately much more plausible than the mysterious black orbs of Gantz as they come in the form of crypto fascist censorship enthusiasts known as The Media Betterment Force. Having achieved the kind of success Mary Whitehouse could only dream of, The Media Betterment Force managed to pass the Media Betterment Act in the alternate Japan of 1989 which required all books containing ‘objectionable’ material to be destroyed. All is not lost though as the last bastion of intellectual freedom, the library, takes up arms and defends its right to disseminate whatsoever information anyone might desire with a government mandated assurance that library property can be safeguarded – with military force if necessary. Thirty years later in the near future of 2019, a young girl joins the LDF (Library Defence Force) full of idealistic zeal for protecting literature and a not so altruistic mission of finding the LDF officer who once saved her favourite book for her during in a MBF raid on a bookshop. Politics, romance, action! It’s all here for your edification and enjoyment.

If this all sounds a bit silly, well it is – but only in the best possible way. This is not a film about the evils of censorship, or how intellectual discourse and freedom of information are essential parts of any fully functioning society, though those themes are there if only in passing, so much as a big glossy blockbuster with just about every genre you can think of vying for the spotlight. The creeping totalitarianism is more backdrop than anything else but perhaps the absurdity of anyone picking up arms to defend access to information speaks to our unwillingness to prevent a gradual slide into a world of book burning and (not really) well meaning nannyism. First and foremost, Library Wars is science fiction action film modelled on the familiar boot camp genre following an underdog rookie recruit’s path to frontline glory. Yes we have training montages galore complete with the strained friendships and ‘you’re off the team!’ moments that appear in every film of this kind but the absurd premise and the film’s successful adoption of a warm comic tone help smooth over over any genre clichés and thankfully the film also manages to impress with several large scale battle scenes.

The romantic comedy element is arguably the least successful as it lacks the traditional climax many fans of the genre maybe hoping for (though one suspects a sequel may well put that right). That said the central relationship definitely falls into the ‘cute’ category and cleverly avoids the melodramatic nature of most blockbuster romances. Yes, the audience knows right away who the much sought after prince is but that only makes it more fun even if the post-idealistic bitterness of the man in question is another genre cliché. Supporting characters are also nicely fleshed out and each enjoys a decent amount of time in the spotlight creating a nice ensemble feel which is often rare in a blockbuster. As in Gantz the acting style remains fairly grounded rather the bigger, TV inflected performances which have been creeping into mainstream cinema and the strong performances from a fairly high profile cast help to lift Library Wars above some of its cinematic brethren.

Viewers expecting another Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 will obviously be disappointed in Library Wars’ fairly superficial examination of its themes but those hoping for a rip roaring, if slightly ridiculous, adventure are in line for a treat. Though the subject matter is itself absurd, such care has gone into the world building that it all makes a curious kind of sense assuming you’re willing to let yourself go with it. Most importantly, it’s remarkably self assured in terms of its tone – it knows exactly what it is and isn’t afraid to embrace its own nature. With much more heart than your average blockbuster, Library Wars is a warm and funny action comedy that also manages to be genuinely romantic. Now if they can only hurry up with Library Wars 2 so we can all enjoy the romantic resolution we’ve been waiting for!