I used to date a woman who couldn't tell a joke. The main reason behind this handicap was that she thought too much while she told one. She'd take a basic set up like say "a man walks into a bar" and drag it out, adding a whole bunch of unnecessary details, or backtrack to add crucial details she'd missed, plus her delivery was terrible. Either she would tell the joke in a humourless monotone or she'd start giggling in the middle of it. Folks, here's a tip: laughing in the middle of your own joke is just not funny. Once she let the punchline plop down I was always really glad the ordeal was over with. If she'd been less cerebral and more instinctual she might have been able to tell a real zinger, but I loved her for who she was, bad jokes or no. To be honest I really don't think about her as much as I used to, but as I sat watching the 2000 comedy "Monday" that kicked of a mini-retrospective of the work of Japanese filmmaker Sabu (a.k.a Hiroyuki Tanaka) at this year's Reel Asian Film Festival I couldn't help but think of this old girlfriend because here's a film that just can't tell a joke.
Let me try to set this one up for you. A salaryman wakes up in a hotel room and he's got no idea how he got there. When this salaryman, his name's Takagi (Shin'ichi Tsutsumi) checks the front page of the newspaper it says Monday, but the last day he can remember was Saturday. What happened to Sunday? We're left to piece this puzzle together with him as Sabu takes us through Takagi's fragmentary memories of his missing day and let's just say that things start out with a bang. At the funeral of a young hair model named Mitsuo (Masanobu Ando following in the footsteps of Kevin Costner's cameo in "The Big Chill" as a high profile actor playing a stiff) Takagi is called on to do a little post-mortum surgery. It turns out that Mitsuo's pacemaker is still turned on and his doctors have called the family to warn them that if he gets cremated with it still running that his corpse will explode. There's an easy fix though. Just cut open Mitsuo's chest and snip the red wire to shut it off, but don't touch the white wire. So as Takagi spent his youth making plastic models and is good with fiddly details he gets tagged to diffuse the situation, but no one knows what to do when both wires turn out to be red. There's a 50/50 chance so one wire gets snipped and BOOM, Mitsuo explodes! Slowly and quietly Sabu builds the tension, so that by the end we're not just laughing because it's funny, but to release the pressure that's built up during the whole ordeal. It works really well for this scene, but Sabu makes the blunder of assuming that this slow, deliberate approach will deliver big laughs in every subsequent scene.
In his usual circumstantial storytelling style this opening has little or nothing to do with the rest of the film. The plot doesn't really get going until Takagi runs into a bunch of yakuza and gets dragged off to go drinking at their club, and it's the heroic and tragic amount of alcohol that Takagi pours down his throat that explains his memory lapse and ends up being the motivation for the rest of the story. Funny things happen when people get drunk right? Sure! They do funny dances. They get booze courage and say and do things they wouldn't normally do. Sabu has Takagi do all this... slowly... dragging out each... moment... for full... comic... effect. I found it odd that the characters on screen were doing a hell of a lot of laughing, chuckling, snickering and giggling, in some cases for a couple minutes at a time, while the audience just sat and watched. Remember that tip about laughing in the middle of your own joke?
But here's the real punchline of "Monday": Takagi gets so polluted that after finding a shotgun at the yakuza's club he goes on a vigilante killing spree! That's funny, right? It turns out that the hotel's surrounded by police and angry yakuza after Takagi has killed not only their gang boss, but some street punks who mugged a pedestrian. And even through this major plot twist Sabu doesn't adjust his pacing. Everything continues... to be... sooooo funny.... because everthing... is happening sloooowly. And most importantly we have no idea of who Takagi is when he's sober that might have explained this murderous streak. Salarymen are just nutty that way I guess.
While the air of surrealism that Sabu adds to many of the scenes in "Monday" is effective, specifically the inclusion of butoh dancer Akaji Maro as a demonic spirit, and Akira Yamamoto's performance as the yakuza boss is honestly hilarious I was surprised at just how clumsy, belaboured, overly mannered and just plain unfunny "Monday" was; especially after having loved the other film selected for this mini Sabu retrospective, 2002's "The Blessing Bell" (read my review here). Slow and deliberate worked very well for that story of a rambling walk, but it doesn't work with the story of a hilarious alcoholic vigilante murderer.