Laughs Worth the Search

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Sakiko (Naomi Nishida) loves counting money in the wacky and wonderful “My Secret Cache.” (Toho/Pia)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor

Originally published Oct. 1, 2009

Times are tough for too many of us these days, and occasionally we all need a good laugh to help offset our daily worries. I have a particular affinity for Japanese comedies, but finding chuckle-worthy titles can be a formidable challenge. In the States, the most recent trend in Japanese cinema steers toward the horror genre, with the likes of “The Ring” and “The Grudge” ushering in a new wave of scream flicks.

A trip to your local internationally-saavy video shop will also likely have plenty of films based on some manga or yakuza story. Not many laughs there.

In addition to being acutely subjective, comedy also has cultural sensitivities; just ask the French about Jerry Lewis. But as a good rule of thumb, any foreign comedy that has been released in the U.S. has more than likely passed the smell test for tickling American funny bones.

Some of my all-time favorite comedies have come from Japan, including Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” and the delightful “Shall We Dance.” There are also plenty of good laughers that, for one reason or another, take forever to cross the Pacific, and seeking them out can be quite the challenge. Add to the obstacles the fact that standard DVDs in Japan are coded differently and won’t play on U.S. players. The result: getting your hands on a decent Japanese comedy can be anything but amusing.

Here’s where your faithful reporter aims to help; comedies are by far my first choice in Japanese cinema, and from time to time, I do my best to recommend some that are worth the 90 minutes or so to view them. I’ll also try to give a heads-up as to where they can be found, because most of these won’t likely show up at your local Blockbuster (if those folks are even still open for business.)

Predictably, Little Tokyo is the place to start to find Japanese films; there are at least three outlets here that carry all sorts of movies from Japan. There are myriad websites that specialize in J-video, such as Video Action (www.videoaction.net) or Netflix. Even the Little Tokyo branch of the L.A. Public Library has a decent selection that is regularly updated.

This time around, there are two films I’ve seen on DVD that I can recommend. One has a stateside distributor, so it’s pretty easy to find; the other might not, but there’s an Asian release that has English subtitles and is region-free (meaning it’ll play on any DVD player). Both are good for more than a few hearty laughs.

‘Cache’ it if you can

While this film was released stateside on DVD several years ago, it wasn’t rolled out with much of a splash, and that’s too bad. “My Secret Cache” (1997), in Japanese “Himitsu no Hanazono,” is a wonderfully looney flick in the same twisted spirit as the Coen Brothers’ “Raising Arizona.”

The movie’s prologue is narrated by our anti-heroine, Sakiko Suzuki, played by former model Naomi Nishida looking far more catatonic than glamorous in her screen debut. She explains that since childhood, she’s been obsessed with money – specifically, counting it. Her grade school friends are not at all impressed (“You’re weird!”) and her one and only date in high school came to an abrupt end when she suggested to her suitor that rather than take her out to dinner, he simply give her the cash.

Upon reaching adulthood, she becomes an expert loafer, choosing to spend her non-counting hours lying about her mother’s living room floor. The family gets quite a laugh when Mom suggests she get a job counting money at the local bank – which she promptly does, of course.

Though the job puts her in tabulation heaven at first, she realizes that counting cash all day won’t make it hers, and hopes for some dramatic event to change her life, something like a bank robbery, with herself being taken hostage … and that’s precisely what happens. The crooks lock Sakiko in the trunk of their not-so-sturdy getaway car and head for a mountain road, where they take a disastrous turn and plunge off a cliff to their deaths. Clinging to a yellow suitcase full of stolen money, Sakiko is thrown clear of the wreck and into a raging river, over a waterfall and into a remote, hidden watery grotto. Sakiko later washes ashore, battered and bruised, but alive.

Surviving the ordeal – of which she has little recollection – makes Sakiko an instant media celebrity, conducting interviews from her hospital bed. After months of rehabilitation, she is welcomed bank to her post at the bank, where everything is the same: the people, the monotony and her uniform, the same one in which she was kidnapped. Reaching into her pocket, she finds a scrap of a 10,000-yen bill – then it all starts to come back: the yellow suitcase held the half a million yen in robbery loot and she saw where it sank shortly before blacking out. Her aimless existence now has a purpose: find that suitcase.

“My Secret Cache” makes no apology for its wackiness. There are several poorly-constructed dummies used in stunts, laughably implausible situations and plenty of shots with Sakiko in a nebulous daze with her mouth agape. The (sort of) lovable loser now has meaning in her life and will do anything necessary to find her stash, which everyone else believes burned up with the robbers. She enters swimming contests, enrolls in geology and scuba courses, and – hilariously – takes a job as a bar hostess, all to help her find  her way to the lost money.

Director Shinobu Yaguchi treats the film’s subject with an appropriate touch of silliness, and that keeps it from being a condemnation of a woman who will do anything for money. A string of failures and setbacks only strengthens Sakiko’s resolve, which ultimately propels her forward in her life. The end result is Sakiko finding many things other than a suitcase full of cash – some self-esteem, a few hidden talents and a sense that she can do anything she puts her mind to. The story moves along squarely on the shoulders of its star, staying wonderfully faithful to her deadpan lead. Nishida, who won a Japanese Academy Award for the performance, also appears in another of my favorites, the marvelously quirky “The Happiness of the Katakuris.”

If this film ends up a little sappy and neatly resolved at the end, it’s a small trade-off for the madcap ride it offers along the way. “My Secret Cache” is an unexpectedly laughable 83 minutes – count on it.

“My Secret Cache,” 1997, Japan, unrated. Directed by Shinobu Yaguchi, 83 minutes. Released on DVD in the U.S. by Geneon Entertainment.

An inspired ‘Hour’

“The Magic Hour” (in Japanese, “Za Majikku Awâ”) was a runaway hit in Japan, and deservedly so. A stylish, well-paced comedy with big stars and a terrifically good-natured story line, it’s a laugh-out-loud homage to screwball comedies of the 1930s and to movie-making itself.

From left, Fumiyo Kohinata, Satoshi Tsumabuki and Koichi Sato in a fine mess, in “The Magic Hour.” (Fuji Television/Toho)

The film opens in an ornate Euro-esque village, where we find that Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a nightclub manager and bottom-rung organized crime lackey, has just bedded down the big boss’ trophy girlfriend, played to disinterested perfection by Eri Fukatsu. The pair quickly find themselves with their feet in buckets of hardening cement, with their next stop likely the bottom of the local river. Spewing out any promise he thinks will save his life, Bingo tells boss Teshio (superb veteran actor Toshiyuki Nishida) that he can bring in the internationally famous – but never seen – assassin, Della Togashi, whom the kingpin has long been dying to meet.

Given 24 hours to make good on his promise, Bingo and his cohorts scramble to arrange the meeting, but obviously have no idea where to find the underworld’s most renowned killer. Instead, he finds washed-up action movie actor Taiko Murata (Koichi Sato) and convinces him that he can play the lead in a new gangster flick that will revive his career. His part is that of the famous assassin, Della Togashi, and the filming will be so dedicated to realism that all the cameras and crew will be hidden, to allow the actors to be completely immersed into their roles.

Desperate to return to the top of the action box office – and completely unaware of that everything happening around him is real and not make-believe – Murata jumps at the chance and plays the part with an inspired level of hamminess. The first meeting between the mob boss and the swaggering, idolized “Della” is a tense and priceless, hold-your-breath exchange.

Director Koki Mitani, who already held the distinction of having helmed Japan’s top-grossing comedy with “Suite Dreams,” does at least two things right with “The Magic Hour”: he maintains the threat of serious yakuza retaliation at a sinister level, while keeping the whole of the story light-hearted and fun. There are fistfights and plenty of gunplay, but no one is seriously injured. As gunfire erupts between the gangsters and a group of jilted Chinese arms smugglers, Murata fires his pistol skyward with macho delight, still blithely unaware that the ammo is real and convinced that his stardom will soon be flying as high as the bullets.

The score and look of the entire production is a glorious tribute to the classic Hollywood productions of the early part of the 20th century, when too much was never too much. The film offers a loving nod to Billy Wilder, as well as the kind of “Roman Holiday” pacing that has all but vanished from modern comedies.

The only catch in this recommendation could be finding the DVD. It’s available at Netflix, and it was such a monster hit that any video store specializing in Japanese cinema is likely to have it. “The Magic Hour” is a couple hours of belly laughs and shouldn’t be missed.

“The Magic Hour” (“Za Majikku Awâ,”) 2008, Japan, unrated, from Fuji Television/Toho. Written and directed by Koki Mitani, 136 minutes.

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