Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Without the writer there is no story. Makes sense, right? So if you follow that logic then the most important person behind any film is the man or woman sitting behind the keyboard, right? Wrong. Very wrong; and of all the films I’ve seen I’ve never seen one that presents this in such a direct and flat out entertaining way than Koki Mitani’s “Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald” (1997). Granted this isn’t a behind the scenes exposé of filmmaking, but instead follows the production of a radio drama, but six of one and a half dozen of another… “Mr. McDonald” still shows you that the writer lands somewhere right around the bottom of the entertainment production food chain.
Things start out simply enough: Miyako Suzuki, a simple Japanese housewife, has written the winning entry in a write-your-own-radio-drama competition put on by a local Tokyo radio station. Her entry (in actual fact the ONLY entry) “A Woman’s Destiny” is a melodramatic tear-jerker about a woman who is literally swept away from her tired life working in pachinko parlour by a handsome fisherman… much to the chagrin of her car salesman husband. It’s hardly Shakespeare, but in a few short hours it will be broadcast live to an audience of millions. It’s a huge moment for the quiet, sweet Miyako. She’s referred to by station staff as “sensei” and gets ushered around by her own producer, Ushijima.
After the initial read through things start to fall apart. The star of the radio play, Nokko, a washed up actress and enka singer, demands that her character’s name be changed from Ritsuko to something more Western, like Mary Jane. Ushijima, who is the dictionary definition of obsequious, can’t say no, so Mary Jane it is, but this one name change starts an avalanche of revisions that will have Miyako wondering where her original story has gone to. If the main character gets to have a Western name then why can’t the other actors? Okay, then we’ll set the story in New York. But there are no pachinko parlours in New York! That’s okay, she can work in a diner. Why can’t she work as a high powered lawyer and be prosecuting a mob boss. Sure, it’s just a small change. But the mob is in Chicago not New York! Okay, we’ll switch to Chicago… and the changes come fast and furious, most of them taking place just minutes before the play is to go on the air, but once they’re broadcasting the revisions keep coming leaving the director, Kudo and his crew to fly by the seat of their pants looking for sound effects to compliment the ever evolving storyline, and Miyako to look after her understandably distraught husband who she used as inspiration for the jilted husband in her radio play.
Yes, any kind of radio or stage play, film or performance is a collaborative effort with everyone from the director, actors, and technical staff using their artistry to make the story better, but we’ve all heard about the horror stories like the one that we see in “Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald”, which is what makes the film so funny. With every 180° turn the radio play took I found my self laughing out loud. This was helped in no small part by the wonderful interaction between the actors that reminded me of something between a sitcom and a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 40’s. Oh, and how can I forget?! Koki Mitani had a lot to do with the success of “Welcome Back Mr. McDonald” as well, not just as the director, but as the all important writer too.