Friday, January 23, 2009
REVIEW: University of Laughs
笑の大学 (Warai no Daigaku)
Running time: 121 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Tokyo, 1940. It's been three years since the invasion of Manchuria and only a year until Pearl Harbor. Militarism and propaganda is in the air... and so is strict censorship. In a bare room in the back of police headquarters a government censor named Sakisaka (Koji Yakusho) goes through dozens of stage plays with his red pencil and stamp. Offending passages involving anti-Imperial sentiment, polluting foreign influence or any hint of public affection are circled and stroked out in red, the page is tagged with a red flag and if by the end of the process the red flags exceed the permissible percentage the play is either stamped "Approved" or "Not Approved". Likewise if the author of the play is interviewed and he or she does not agree to the required revisions their play will be stamped "Not Approved". It takes someone with a strong grasp of government policy, a firm resolve, plus someone who has their emotions in check to get the job done right. That description fits Sakisaka perfectly. Formerly stationed in Japanese occupied Manchuria where he was responsible for quelling anti-Japanese thought Sakisaka is single-minded in his mission, but he has no clue as to why he's been transferred to this office. Spending hours, days and weeks reading through mostly idiotic comedic plays? He hasn't laughed in years and there's a war on! Just ban them all and be done with it! This is no laughing matter!
Enter Tsubuki (Goro Inagaki), a young playwright from Asakusa theatre district whose only mission in life is to make people laugh, it says so right in the name of the theatre he writes for: The University of Laughs. The roaring and guffawing of the audience is his one reward for days spent crafting a play and now his latest work, a comedic romance "The Tragedy of Juleo and Romiet", is up for review, but Sakisaka can't comprehend "why a barbarian love story?" and "on the 2600th anniversary of Emperor Jinmu's ascension," no less! He's sorry but the play cannot pass, it's beyond fixing, but Tsubuki won't take no for an answer. He'll cooperate, make changes, whatever is required so that the play can run as scheduled at the end of the month; and thus begins a struggle between two men who are as Sakisaka puts it as different as "chalk and cheese" to come to an agreement as to what's permissible and most importantly what's funny.
I have to admit that I didn't know much about Mamoru Hoshii's 2004 film "University of Laughs" except that it had been written by director Koki Mitani (based on his 1997 stage play of the same name), and as I watched the first half of the film it was that connection that disappointed me. In order for Tsubuki to get his play approved he must make a series of ridiculous revisions: set the play in Japan and remove all Westerners, include the phrase "for the sake of our nation" not once, not twice, but three times in a single scene, remove all kissing from the play (even though it's a love story) and so on and so forth. So desperate is he to gain approval that Tsubuki spends a week running back and forth to Sakisaka's bare, joyless office and each day his play has taken radical turns to accomodate Sakisaka's demands. Yakusho and Inagaki perform splendidly as these two idealogiocal adversaries, especially Yakusho as the humourless straight man, and having Tsubuki make constant revisions all the while trying to keep his play funny is a very clever idea, but it's one that we've seen Mitani use before in his 1997 comedy "Rajio no Jikan (Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald)". In that film a young housewife must do up a series of ridiculous rewrites of her prize-winning radio play to appease the actors, producers and sponsors so that by the end it bears little resemblance to her original story. It's one of my favorite comedies of all time and I think that Mitani is a genius, so I was a bit disappointed to see him trotting out the same formula again. Shame on me for not having the patience or the faith in Mitani's talent.
With "University of Laughs" Mitani takes the central conflict from "Rajio no Jikan" and transforms it from being a clever comedy of errors into a universal tale of the triumph of the creative spirit, and not just Tsubuki's either. The real surprise and joy about "University of Laughs" is the change that occurs within Sakisaka, how the revisions he orders go from being motivated by government policy to personal creative input. Eventually the two rivals join forces to make the play even funnier and we get the privilege of watching Sakisaka flower before our eyes.
"University of Laughs" although saddled with a rather over the top ending, is an instant classic, and while I am not advocating any sort of remake its story could easily have taken place in Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany or McCarthy-era America with the same comedic and emotional impact. Laughter is universal and that makes this film ripe for audiences to enjoy worldwide.