One of the best films I saw in 2011 wasn’t the usual big-budget Hollywood ego piece cooked up to win award after award, but a great and often laugh out loud funny comedy from Japan that’s worth tracking down even if it’s never released in English. That said, I’ll bet writer/director Koki Mitani wants a time machine for his next birthday. I know one of the first things he’d probably do is go back and meet Billy Wilder, Michael Powell and Frank Capra for dinner somewhere expensive where they’d smoke cigars, drink good whiskey and talk movies until the sun popped up like a fresh piece of perfect toast.
I say this because Mitani’s latest film, A Ghost Of A Chance (or Once Upon a Blue Moon if you happen to live in Japan) manages to get in nods to Wilder, Powell, Capra and a few other famous directors while also being as fresh and funny as Mitani’s other inspired comedy work. While a bit overlong, the film is funny (often hilariously so), touching (you’ll probably shed a few tears at some point) and despite a few flaws, is well worth watching a few times. With a plot that’s part crime story, ghost story, courtroom intrigue and romance (for starters), there’s a lot here to keep cinema buffs happy.
The film opens with a tip of the hat to the late Saul Bass in the form of a stellar, stylized animated title sequence (in English, to boot) that shows Mitani has clearly made this film with a western audience in mind. Those animated titles fade into the opening scene of the dark house where a crime of passion takes place. A quick nod to Hitchcock there and then the movie gets rolling as we meet struggling young lawyer Emi Hosho (the excellent Eri Fukatsu) as she wakes up late for a trial, dashes to court and bumbles her way through the proceedings. Back at the office, her boss Mr. Hayami (Hiroshi Abe) offers her one last case to redeem herself which just so happens to be the murder that opens the film.
It turns out that the husband of the dead woman has been arrested for the crime and it looks like an open and shut case. His alibi about being stuck in a remote mountain inn thanks to a case of “sleep paralysis” due to a ghost sitting on his chest combined with a maid’s statement to the police makes him an instant suspect. Emi heads up to the creepy inn in an amusing sequence and discovers that the ramshackle inn is rumored to be haunted by the spirit of a dead samurai. Forced to stay the night, Eri demands the haunted room and gets more than she pays for soon enough. Her encounter with Rokubei Sarashina (played by Toshiyuki Nishida) is one of many highlights and the trip she takes with the ghost into the city will have you nearly falling out of your seat from laughing so hard when the pair and their taxi driver make a stop to grab a bite to eat.
One of the best scenes in the film comes when Eri takes the ghost to the set of a TV drama set in feudal Japan and Rokubei gets to poke fun at a hammy actor with a huge ego in his own ghostly way by ruining an important take. It’s a throwaway scene for sure, but it’s perfectly executed. Nishida gets more laughs in a few vignettes as Rokubei experiences a few other modern world conveniences as a 421-yeard old ghost. In some sections, you’ll be laughing so hard that if you’re lucky enough to have this on DVD, you’ll be zapping back to scenes to catch lines of dialog you missed because you fell off the couch at some point. Yes, it’s all totally goofy if you stop to think about it. But then again, what great comedy isn’t completely absurd because it throws what you expect right out the window?
As Eri attempts to get her boss, then the judges on the trial to believe she’s got a ghost who can assist in her big case, the film zips between grand comedy and some surprisingly emotional moments that don’t hurt the tone one bit. In fact, Mitani’s sure direction and sense of pacing help out when the film introduces one of its more touching moments. There’s a great laugh before, during and after a death scene that would be dragged out for all its two-hanky worth in a lesser director’s hands. Mitani knows just when to make you cry, but he also doesn’t dwell on the sadness because there’s still a huge trial to be had. In fact, the director addresses death in a few ways here that will be quite interesting for western viewers, even bringing in a fun white-suited character for a comic bit that takes the film in some more strange directions for a spell.
That big trial takes up the latter portion of the film and while a bit too drawn out, things definitely spring to life the more Nishida’s character is on screen. Whenever Rokubei is in a scene, there are guaranteed smiles and laughs to be had as he mugs it up and makes his presence known. That said, the film does have some issues with fragmenting itself into too many scenes and over-detailing areas of the main plot. By the time the trial gets underway, a bit of focus is lost because there are so many characters and sub-plots to keep track of that you may need a scorecard. Still, there’s a bit of musical theater, some fun use of CG effects, a twist straight out of a Perry Mason episode and more, all of which keep the laughs coming because Mitani brings it all home by tossing every character into his pot and stirring things up until they’re cooked just right.
While the ending is bittersweet, Mitani manages to generate some big laughs during the closing credits, so definitely stick around for those. I thought all of the performances were strong, but Eri’s boyfriend comes off as a weak link. It’s not clear that he’s pining for her because the character, while well acted, seems much more like the chubby roommate with a good heart putting up with Eri’s quirky nature than a love interest. Perhaps this was Mitani’s intention in showing Eri’s aloofness about him, but I won’t spoil anything here by revealing their future.
As the possibility of this ever getting a US release seems slim to none without a distributor willing to check it out, fix some minor translation errors in the otherwise solid subtitles (and/or invest in an English dub with some great actors), your only chance to see this (legally!) is on an imported DVD. Or perhaps a future Hollywood remake which would probably be disappointing for too many reasons to count. Unless of course, Mitani was involved somehow in the writing, casting and possibly direction. Hell, he’s got his American influences down already, so I say he should be the first choice to bring his vision to North American audiences who keep seeing the same recycled rom-coms and dramas with no end in sight haunt theaters nearly every week for far too long. I guess we’ll see what the future brings, but if you can, make sure to track this one down and enjoy the ride…