Daihachi Yoshida has a keen sense of how to cinematically portray pathology. After crafting the gut punch of Eriko Sato's breakthrough performance as Sumika, the emotional dominatrix in 2007's "Funuke: Show Some Love You Losers", I wouldn't have guessed that his next film as writer and director would be the conman comedy "The Wonderful World of Captain Kuhio". But "Kuhio" is deceptive: It's funny, but the humor masks the persona of a protagonist as damaged and unstable as Sumika.
Masato Sakai stars as 'Captain Kuhio', a grifter who seduces women under the guise of a U.S. Navy operative on a special mission in Japan. He moves with military precision and purpose, always pressed and looking sharp in one of his various uniforms. But he doesn't limit his impersonation to mere cosplay; He is so entrenched in the disguise that he's had rhinoplasty to look more gaijin-like. And the nose plays: Sakai looks so absurd with a long, pointy schnozz that people have to take him at face value since no Japanese ever sported such a beak by natural means. When asked how he came to speak Japanese so fluently, Kuhio passes himself off as a Hawaiian (a descendant of near-legendary King Kamehameha, no less) who was so often mistaken for Japanese that he learned the language. He must choose his victims carefully since his English is limited to random military jargon and (very) small talk. He's got naïve bento-shop owner Shinobu (Yasuko Matsuyuki) on the hook, and is leveraging her out of every penny she's got; His act is so effective that she's halfway to bankrupting herself to fiannce their sham marriage. Kuhio, a charming sociopath, keeps her strung along but is searching for new revenue streams in the forms of museum worker Haru ("Love Exposure" and "Kakera" star Hikari Mitsushima) and bar hostess Michiko (Yuko Nakamura). When Shinobu's greedy and streetwise brother shows up looking to mooch off of his responsible sister, he quickly susses Kuhio's scam and blackmails him under threat of exposure. As Kuhio spreads himself thinner and thinner he has more difficulty juggling the lies, and much of the film's humor comes from his increasingly desperate attempts to keep his multiple victims credulous.
Like the better grift films ("House of Games", "The Grifters"), "Kuhio" is both a seductive peek into a world of grown-up make-believe and a cautionary tale. The glamour and daring of Kuhio's lifestyle quickly give way to a comically mad scramble for survival, yet the film doesn't shy away from showing the very real effects of the con on its female victims. Haru is young and decidedly not rich, seemingly victimized as an ego boost for Kuhio--why else choose someone who wouldn't have any cash to finance his lifestyle? Michiko is clearly savvy to the game, another odd choice for someone whose success depends upon victims who don't look too deeply into his stories. That Kuhio would choose these women as potential targets reveals a need beyond the fiscal: he's compelled to continue the charade by more than money, and when the deception unravels his life is as deeply affected as those of his marks.
Yoshida stumbles a bit here as he seems unsure of how to handle the final third of the film: The situations and performances warrant serious drama but tonally the film is still a comedy, and the two don't quite mesh. By the time Kuhio enters Walter Mitty territory it's no longer clear if he's been seeing the world as we've seen it, or through the filter of a rich yet psychotic fantasy life where he really has been sent on dangerous missions and awarded medals for bravery. It's a terrific role for Sakai, allowing him to go from leading-man suave to frantic, sometimes in the same scene. After the more or less one note role he had in the fluffy "The Triumphant General Rouge", it's heartening to see him in a role which requires him to be charming and oily and also sympathetic.
The film is most successful in its middle third, fluctuating from screwball comedy to emotional drama, but the whole thing really works. Though adapted from outside material (Kazumasa Yoshida's novel of the same name), this is Daihachi Yoshida's second film both writing and directing, and his second success. His next film, currently in production, is another comedy, this time starring Miho Kanno. I hope at some point he returns to straight drama since his "Funuke" was a film of singular intensity, and "Kuhio"--while a comedy--has a dark underbelly which makes the whole that much more rewarding.
Fun note: Mitsushima shares several scenes with her costar from "Love Exposure" Sakura Ando in an essentially thankless minor role, but the two have a near-catfight which will delight fans of Sion Sono's recent masterpiece.