Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2019)

The thing about hotels is, people often go to them when they want to be someone else, so how can you be on the look out for suspicious behaviour when everyone is to some degree acting out of character? Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best known authors particularly praised for his elaborately plotted mysteries. In contrast to some of his famous detective novels, Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル) leans into his softer side, taking its cues from Agatha Christie in its ultimately cheerful exploration of the strange world of hotels while praising the detective acumen both of cynical policemen and eager to please hoteliers. 

The police are hot on the trail of a serial killer and, due to clues found at the previous crime scenes, have concluded the next killing will take place at the Hotel Cotesia Tokyo. To scout out the potential crime scene, the detectives have co-opted the hotel’s basement as an incident room and are preparing to go undercover to keep an eye on things upstairs. Dishevelled detective Nitta (Takuya Kimura) has been assigned to the front desk because of his English skills apparently honed while living abroad in his youth, and is to be paired with earnest hotelier Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) who will do her best to turn him into a first rate hotelman. 

As might be expected, Nitta and Naomi do not exactly hit it off. Gruff and given to giving everyone in 50m radius the hard stare, Nitta is a shaggy haired middle-aged man in creased suits and shiny shoes. The first thing Naomi makes him do is get a haircut which does wonders for his image, but also plays into the peculiar art of masquerade which defines hotel life. Nitta is in the habit of calling the guests “customers” which instantly irritates Naomi who has spent the entirety of her professional life learning to be deferent. She reminds him that in here the guests are in charge, they make the rules and therefore can never break them. Her job is to provide the best service, which means she often has to set her personal pride aside and allow the sometimes unpleasant clientele, the ones who like to come to posh hotels to throw their weight around and abuse the staff, to get away with being obtuse because that’s just part of her job. 

That’s a big ask from Nitta who is both a proud man and a justice loving policeman to whom the idea of letting people act badly is almost anathema. To do his job, however, he’ll have to learn to bear it or risk letting a potential serial killer slip through his fingers. What Naomi realises is that they’re more alike than they first seemed. Both of their jobs rely on an astute assessment of their targets, even if they come at it from opposite ends. Naomi knows that each of her guests is wearing a kind of mask, taking on a slightly different persona when they enter her hotel, but her job is to see past it without ever letting on. A good hotelier knows what the guest wants before they do and is always ready to provide it, that’s the nature of service. So Naomi trusts her guests and is careful not to judge them. Nitta, meanwhile, is a policeman so he’s trained to question everything and suspect everyone. His job is to unmask and confront his suspects with who they really are. 

They both, however got into this game essentially because they want to protect people even if she wants to protect them inside and he out. Which means of course that they can work together after all, learning a little something from each other along the way. Naomi, well versed in the liberties often taken by her guests, is nearly taken in by an obvious scam that only Nitta is quick enough to catch thanks to his cynical policeman’s logic. He’s also first to suspect that there’s something not quite right with a harmless little old lady, and though Naomi senses it too she’s minded to let it go and doubles down on being the perfect servant thanks to her animosity towards Nitta. That “not quite right”, however, proves to be a slight misreading of the guest who, like many Nitta encounters, is pretending to be something they’re not for reasons that prove perfectly understandable once revealed. 

But then, Higashino characteristically pulls the rug out from under us and asks if we haven’t been suckered in buying all those reasonable excuses. Thanks to his conversations with Naomi, Nitta begins to get a grip on the crime, while she struggles with her conscience after learning that her guests may be in much more danger than she thought. Staking all on justice, the pair of them vow to abandon their respective professions if a guest gets hurt, but fail to realise that the crime may hit far closer to home than they’d anticipated. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a strangely whimsical admiration for the weird world of hotels where no one is quite the same person they were before they walked through the revolving doors.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Good Morning Show (グッドモーニングショー, Ryoichi Kimizuka, 2016)

Good Morning Show posterThirty years before Good Morning Show (グッドモーニングショー), No More Comics showed us that the news is serious business and it seems the intervening three decades have not done much to change that. Good Morning Show is the kind of vacuous TV magazine programme that seems to have become popular the world over but Japan has mastered in its entirety. This is a news programme for people trying to avoid the news – there’s just enough of the essentials to keep the average viewer up to date with the big ticket item of the day, but the rest is horoscopes, cakes, and celebrity gossip. The morning news sets the mood for the rest of the day, and isn’t it in everyone’s interest if it’s blue skies all the way ahead? Perhaps so, but whatever happened to serious journalism?

Good Morning Show’s veteran anchor, Sumida (Kiichi Nakai), used to be a top talent on the evening news but a spot of “inappropriate” reporting from the scene of a disaster has had him relegated to the nonsensical early morning magazine show which involves getting up at 3am everyday and becoming something of an expert on pastries. Sumida’s day starts badly when he gets up to find his wife (Yo Yoshida) and son (Mihiro) still awake. As it turns out, there’s a family crisis. Sumida’s student son has got his girlfriend pregnant and has decided to do the right thing and get married, no matter what his dad might have to say about it. Sumida is definitely not happy but he’s also late for work. On the way, he finds out that his co-anchor, Keiko (Masami Nagasawa), with whom he apparently had some kind of drunken indiscretion, has decided that they’re now a couple and is about to announce as much live on air. Luckily for Sumida, a third crisis enters his life when a gunman (Gaku Hamada) takes a cafe hostage and asks directly for the Good Morning Show host to visit him at the scene.

The Good Morning Show exists entirely to cater to its audience’s baser instincts, but its simple charms are apparently going out of style and the show will be cancelled if they don’t get their numbers up soon. The hostage crisis is a godsend in this regard as is Sumida’s unexpected importance to the case which gets the show on the ground reporting live from the scene with exclusive access. Given this shift in broadcast tastes, it’s strange there’s no reference to social media though Good Morning Show is apparently viewable via the internet with a large portion of the audience tuning in on their smartphones during their morning commute. This sense of “community” seems to be key to the show’s appeal as the interactive poling which usually asks silly questions intended to spark debate such as whether or not to throw out gifts from old lovers, becomes central to the hostage case in deciding whether Sumida and the gunman should live or die live on air.

The gunman, like many, turns out to be just another angry young man frustrated that no one will listen to his complaints. At first it looks like Sumida may be in some way responsible, either because of his botched reporting on an earlier disaster or a connection to an incident in the cafe some years previously, but it turns out the major factor is a kind of hypocritical smugness that’s become the Good Morning Show’s trademark. For all of his frustrations with the format, Sumida is depressingly good at mindless twaddle and his fake “worry” about the future of the nation has got the gunman’s back up. The key issue is still more personal as the gunman feels himself excluded from the community feeling fostered by the show when he tries to make himself heard via its channels and is ignored.

A definite irony when Good Morning Show’s major selling point is “ignoring” the real news. Yes, they run a small item on the important headline of the day which provides Sumida a chance to “worry” about corrupt politicians misappropriating public funds etc, but then the show moves on to more cheerful areas like celebrity affairs and delicious cakes. Sumida ends up committing the newsman’s mortal sin – he becomes the news, much as the reporter at the centre of No More Comics did before him, though like the show itself it’s the personal which wins the day. Saying the things he couldn’t say to directly to his own son, Sumida tries to forge a connection with the gunman who is not a bad person, just another youngster at the end of his tether with an uncaring world. The connections are made through glass, but they are made all the same (even if imperfectly and with less than total honesty). Good Morning Show is, like its namesake, a fairly disposable effort but fun while it lasts. Then again sometimes the most harmless things do the most harm.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー, Koki Mitani, 2008)

Magic Hour PosterIf there’s one thing you can say about the work of Japan’s great comedy master Koki Mitani, it’s that he knows his cinema. Nowhere is the abundant love of classic cinema tropes more apparent than in 2008’s The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー) which takes the form of an absurdist meta comedy mixing everything from American ‘20s gangster flicks to film noir and screwball comedy to create the ultimate homage to the golden age of the silver screen.

In classic style the film opens with a bunch of goons chasing a scantily clad club owner out of a hotel window. Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has been hitting the jackpot with the boss’ girl, Mari (Eri Fukatsu), so the two are about to be given a new set of kicks in the latest fashion – cement. Luckily Bingo overhead some of the other guys talking about looking for another gangster, Della Togashi, so he quickly starts talking about him as if he were a long lost friend. The boss, Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida), gives the pair a reprieve on the condition Bingo tracks down Togashi and brings him in within five days. Slight hitch – Bingo had never heard of Togashi before today and has no idea where to start. Finally, with the help  of some of his bar staff he hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part, seeing as no one knows what Togashi looks like. However, the actor, Murata (Koichi Sato), plays his part a little too well and gets hired to work for the gang all the while thinking it’s just a movie! Pretty much everyone is getting a little more than they bargained for…

If you’re thinking that the oddly American looking 1920s street scene looks a little fake and everyone seems to be overacting like crazy, you wouldn’t be wrong but like everything else there’s a reason for that. What originally looks to be the primary setting for the film is a strange bubble which seems to co-exist with the modern world only its filled with people straight out of The Public Enemy or Scarface who think cement shoes is an efficient way of dealing with traitors. Murata, by contrast, is from our world and is completely oblivious to the strangeness of this movie gangster sound stage universe.

Murata is fixated on the Casablanca-esque final scene of his favourite movie in which a dyed in the wool tough guy entrusts the love of his life to a loyal friend before heading off to face certain death. His own career has not been going particularly well and even if he originally turns down Bingo’s offer as working with a first time director on a film where there’s no script sounds pretty fishy to begin with, circumstances soon find him throwing himself into the mysterious leading role with aplomb. Indulging his long held gangster dreams, Murata becomes the archetypal movie hit-man. He’s giving the performance of his life but has no idea there is no film in the camera.

The “Magic Hour” of the title refers to the twilight time near the end of the day when the light is dying but the conditions are perfect for making a movie. Mitani doesn’t fail to remind us we’re watching a film with constant exclamations of “just like a movie” or “doesn’t this look like a film set”. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be – but somehow it all just works despite its rather arch, meta approach. By the point we’ve hit Mari sitting on a crescent moon to give us her rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (we’re back to The Public Enemy again) we’ve hit peak ‘20s though we scarcely mind at all.

Though he is indeed sending a lot of these classic ideas up, there’s real love here particularly for those golden age Hollywood movies with their wounded tough guys and beautiful chorus girls in need of rescue. Mitani adopts a primarily theatrical tone which meshes well with the absurdist, artificial atmosphere but always makes sure to leave us a fair few clues in the way of laughs. However, probably correctly assuming we know these films as well as he does, Mitani doesn’t give us the typical narrative that would almost write itself (or allow Bingo to write it based on his own trips to the motion picture house). The “bad” guy turns out to be not so bad, the “hero” wasn’t who we thought he was and none of our central guys winds up with a girl. Beautifully silly yet intricately constructed, The Magic Hour is another comedy masterpiece from Mitani which is filled with his characteristic warmth, mild sentimentalism and plenty of off-centre humour of the kind only Mitani can come up with.


The Japanese DVD/blu-ray release of The Magic Hour includes English subtitles.