Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラヂオの時間, Koki Mitani, 1997)

Welcome Back Mr. McDonaldKoki Mitani is one of the most bankable mainstream directors in Japan though his work has rarely travelled outside of his native land. Beginning his career in the theatre, Mitani is the master of modern comedic farce and has the rare talent of being able to ground often absurd scenarios in the  humour that is very much a part of everyday life. Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラヂオの時間, Radio no Jikan) is Mitani’s debut feature in the director’s chair though he previously adapted his own stage plays as screenplays for other directors. This time he sets his scene in the high pressure environment of the production booth of a live radio drama broadcast as the debut script of a shy competition winner is about to get torn to bits by egotistical actors and marred by technical hitches.

Mild-mannered housewife Miyako Suzuki (Kyoka Suzuki ) has won a competition to get her radio play, titled “Woman of Destiny”, on air. A romantic tale of a bored housewife unexpectedly finding love at the pachinko parlour, her story may have a thin layer of autobiography or at least wish fulfilment but at any rate she is very close to her material. Unfortunately, “difficult” actress Nokko (Keiko Toda) has been foisted on the production crew due to entertainment world politics and objects to her character’s name because she once dated a married guy whose wife shared it. Eventually Nokko demands to be called something more interesting like “Mary Jane” (the irony!). At this point, all the other actors start wanting changes too and before you know it Miyako’s gentle tale of forbidden romance has become a gangster crime thriller set in Chicago filled with mobsters and tommy guns!

The writer is god, in one sense. Only, god has been locked out of the room leading to total chaos. Each small change necessitates a series of other changes and seeing as this is all being done live and on the hoof, no one is quite thinking through the implications of each decision. When the actor playing “Mary Jane’s” love interest suddenly goes off book and declares his name is “Donald McDonald” (inspired by left over fast food cartons) and he’s a pilot not a fisherman as agreed (though why would a fisherman be in the mountains of Chicago anyway?), everything goes completely haywire eventually ending up in an outer space based love crisis!

If all this wasn’t enough, someone has also wandered off with the key to the sound effects machine which would be fine if they hadn’t added all the gangster shenanigans in the first place. The show’s producer, Ushijima (Masahiko Nishimura), explains to Miyako at one point that radio has a very important advantage over visual media as you really can do anything even on no budget because your biggest resource is your audience’s imaginations. He has a very real point, though the completely bizarre saga of “sexy female lawyer” Mary Jane, her “Nasa Pilot” (a quick save after “Donald’s” plane is reported missing and someone remembers this slot is sponsored by an airline) true love, and her husband who for some reason is a random German named Heinrich is going to require a significant suspension of disbelief from the confused listeners at home.

As a theatre practitioner Mitani is an expert at creating ensemble comedy and even though he is playing with a large cast and a fast moving environment each of his characters is extremely well drawn. We see the shy writer beginning to lose heart after her story is shredded by the unforgiving production environment whilst also trying to persuade her husband who has turned up unexpectedly to go home before he figures out her script is suspiciously close to their real lives. We also see the production team frantically trying to fulfil their obligations so they can avoid getting into trouble with the higher ups and finally go home for the day. Ushijima is caught in the middle, surrounded by nonchalant yes men and lazy bosses, he’s desperately trying to compromise to keep everything on schedule whereas the jaded director just wants to do his job as written. However, it’s the director who is ultimately most moved by Miyako’s script and eventually decides it does deserve the happy ending that Miyako has been longing for.

By the end of the recording, something of the old magic has returned to the otherwise work-a-day world of the radio studio. They’ve even brought back old fashioned foley effects and retrieved the old school sound guy who’d been relegated to playing his gameboy in the security booth because no one needed his expertise anymore. Nothing went as planned, but everything worked out in the end and it’s happy endings all round both in the real world and in the completely surreal radio play. They might even do a sequel!

Mitani breaks the action every now and then to take us outside of the studio environment and into the cab of a petrol tanker being driven by a strangely dressed trucker (in a brief cameo from Ken Watanabe, no less!) who keeps trying to change the channel for more country influenced Enka but finds himself enthralled by the strange tale of the true love between Mary Jane and Donald mcDonald. We might not be quite as moved as he is, having been party to all the backstage goings on, but we have perhaps laughed more than cried through the almost screwball comedy and farcical set up of Mitani’s spot on depiction of the less than glamorous workings of the fast paced live production environment.


English subtitled trailer:

Hatsukoi (First Love) (初恋, Yukinari Hanawa, 2006)

hatsukoiThe 300 Million Yen Affair is one of the most famous and intriguing unsolved mysteries in Japan, not least because the missing cash has been lying dormant somewhere, apparently untouched, ever since that fateful day back in 1968. Seeing as the true story has never been discovered, the crime has taken on legendary status and become the focus of many kinds of fiction. Misuzu Nakahara’s fictionalised autobiography is just one of these as she retroactively claims responsibility for the robbery as a teenage girl in love with a detached revolutionary.

Misuzu (Aoi Miyazaki) begins her tale a couple of years before the crime as she lives a lonely and introverted life in the house of her uncle, her father having died and her mother apparently absconded with her older brother in tow but leaving her behind. It’s her 16th birthday, but no one cares. Soon enough she starts hanging around a shady jazz bar before another woman convinces her to come inside and join their group of layabout beatniks – a group which is actually lead by her estranged older brother, Ryo (Masaru Miyazaki). These are the heady days of students protests – against the old order, against the ANPO treaty, against the war in Vietnam, against just about everything. Misuzu grows closer to one of their number, the quiet and mysterious Kishi (Keisuke Koide), who has a proposition for her….

Hatsukoi (AKA First Love, 初恋) is a film which is thick with period detail from the authentically smokey, sweaty jazz bar and its counterculture denizens to the nostalgic atmosphere and 1960s street scenes. However, evoking Misuzu’s own sense of ennui, director Yukinari Hanawa opts for a detached, dispassionate tone which is entirely at odds with the otherwise searing, youth on fire tension of the time period. Misuzu is always on the edges of things, younger than the other members of the group she feels as if she’s merely being permitted to stay and listen rather than invited to participate. Nevertheless, even if it’s the case that Misuzu is a by nature a passive person, the film pushes the intense nature of the social revolution going on all around her into mere background, squandering its power to bring out the sense of passion that the film feels as if it needs.

At heart, the robbery is something of a mcguffin as the real story is the true love tragedy hinted at in the title. Misuzu and Kishi grow closer through their plotting of the crime which is born of his desire to commit a different kind of revolutionary act. The money is intended to pay the bonuses of Toshiba employees and Kishi feels the best way to make a protest against economic inequality and the power of large corporations is to hit them in the finances. Misuzu plays her part well enough and the robbery comes off OK despite minor hitches allowing only a brief honeymoon period for its would be Bonnie and Clyde before history begins to move forward and eventually rips them apart. For Misuzu the robbery becomes the defining event of her youth and the birth of the love that she seemingly cannot let go. After this the jazz club is over, the protest movement dies as do some of the protestors, or else they move on to more conventional lives. Not quite a coming of age, but a death of youth before it had hardly begun.

Some injuries never heal, says the kindly old man who teaches Misuzu how to drive. A prescient remark if ever there was one. Misuzu seems locked within this brief period of her youth, before her friends died, left, or disappeared once the turbulent atmosphere of protest and revolution gave way to the consumerist 1970s and everyone forgot about the necessity for social change in the hurry to make money.

Hatsukoi becomes less a about the first love itself than about the period that surrounds it. The love was lost, but so was the bubble in which Misuzu had begun to define herself as a young woman. What Hatsukoi lacks is a sense of personal tragedy, of a soul crushing, spiritual death which locks each of the group members into their own tragic fates and seems somehow dictated despite their insistence on defining themselves in the new, youth centric world. Often beautifully photographed, Hatsukoi’s air of desolation and cold, detached tone weaken its ability to engage making its painful end of youth journey all seem rather dull.


Hatsukoi was released with English subtitles on blu-ray in Taiwan, and on DVD in Hong Kong though both editions now appear to be OOP.

Unsubtitled trailer:

Tokyo Heaven (東京上空いらっしゃいませ, Shinji Somai, 1990)

title-752In Japan, Shinji Somai is a well known and highly regarded director yet few of his films have ever made it overseas and he remains almost unknown in the West. Even by these standards Tokyo Heaven (東京上空いらっしゃいませ, Tokyo Joukuu Irasshaimase) seems to be something of a forgotten episode in Somai’s career and is difficult to find even on unsubtitled DVD. Though it may not be among his best works and is undoubtedly of its time, Tokyo Heaven still displays Somai’s characteristic visual flair.

Set in 1990, the film begins with spoilt brat up and coming idol star and soon to be campaign girl Yu (Riho Makise) at a glitzy launch party. It’s time for 16 year old Yu to be heading home, but sleazy producer Shirayuki (Tsurube Shofukutei) has other plans and instructs his underlings to set her up with him which they, guiltily, do. However, during the cab ride home Yu eventually escapes his mollestations by jumping out into the middle of the road where she’s immediately mown down by an oncoming car. Waking up in a pastoral vision of heaven, Yu meets her guide, “Cricket” who looks exactly like Shirayuki – the last face she had in her mind before she died. Given the opportunity to return to Earth but not as her old self, Yu tells Cricket to make her the girl on her campaign posters. Waking up in the room of one of the advertising executives working on her account, Fumio (Kiichi Nakai), she discovers resurrection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Taking its queue from A Matter of Life and Death, Tokyo Heaven is first and foremost a fantasy romance (in the broadest sense) though leaning more towards bittersweet comedy than heartrending tragedy or profound human truths. Yu has returned to Earth but is unable to make contact with her family or let her presence be known to anyone other than Fumio. She no longer appears in photographs or mirrors and gradually comes to the realisation that her life really has ended and this small reprieve is only temporary. Many of Somai’s films focus on the emotions of younger people and the irony here is that Yu only grows up once she’s technically dead. Having had the chance to experience a “normal” adolescence with a part-time job at a fast food restaurant and a tentative romance Yu eventually feels ready to move on.

At only 16 years old, Yu was about to become a the face of a large scale advertising campaign. Her image haunts the streets of Tokyo and the loathsome Shirayuki is desperately trying to spin the tragic events into some kind of narrative that will both cover-up his entirely inappropriate behaviour with a school girl in the back of his chauffeur driven car and save some of the hard work already in place on the campaign itself. Hence, no one other than the girl’s parents is being told that Yu is dead and all previous commitments are being cancelled due to “poor health” or “taking a break” etc. Even after death, Yu’s image is being exploited and her soul ignored.

The conflicted trombone player, Fumio, comes to appreciate Yu for who she really is during their brief time together, resents Shirayuki’s treatment of her and wants the campaign to go ahead in an attempt to prolong her “presence” even if in image only. Through his contact with the increasingly vivacious Yu, Fumio who has previously been berated by his brother for not wanting to join their family bathroom fittings business and labeled as someone with an impenetrable shell who prefers his own company by his sometime girlfriend from downstairs, also comes to appreciate the joys of being alive a little more and reconsider some of his previous life choices.

Bearing Somai’s trademark long yet dynamic takes, Tokyo Heaven is a colourful tribute to Tokyo right before the bubble burst. Almost a prescient warning about the dangers of praising image over reality, Tokyo Heaven becomes a poignant tale of learning to appreciate the sheer pleasure of being alive. Its slightly strange and perhaps abrupt ending has the potential to be misread, but the general message about the transience of life and the importance of living the way you want to live is one that cannot be overstated.


Screened from film as part of the London Japanese Embassy Filmshow programme on 19th November 2015.

There isn’t even a trailer available for this but if you can understand Japanese there’s a talkshow event with star and comedian Tsurube Shofukutei recorded at the recent Tokyo Filmex Somai retrospective in 2011.

And a musical scene from the film featuring Yosui Inoue’s Kaeranai Futari