Nobuhiro Yamashita is one of the great comic talents working in Japanese films and also one of the most unusual. Unlike the many directors and actors here who equate “funny” with “over the top,” Yamashita is low-key, ironic and very sharp. If he were an American he might have written for “Curb your Enthusiasm,” if a Brit, for “The Office.”
But since he is Japanese — and thus a square peg in many round entertainment industry holes (TV variety shows, mainstream comedies), he first found his comic voice in independent films, beginning with “Hazy Life” (1999) and continuing with “No One’s Ark,” “Ramblers” (2003) and his break-out hit, “Linda, Linda, Linda” (2005). The last film, about an amateur girl band prepping for its big debut at a school festival, had more crowd-pleasing elements, including a winning turn by Korean star Bae Doona as the band’s naive-but-soulful lead singer, but it was still all Yamashita in its off-beat humor and minimalistic visual style.
In his new film, “Matsugane Ransha Jiken (Matsugane Potshot Affair),” Yamashita attempts to stretch farther, into something resembling serious drama. No, he is not doing his version of “Interiors” — Woody Allen’s 1978 impersonation of Ingmar Bergman; “Matsugane” is still recognizably Yamashita. What has gone missing, however, is the humor.
Yamashita’s comedy — much like Larry David’s in “Curb” and Ricky Gervais’ in “The Office,” best unfolds in an artfully circumscribed world, where the harsher, uglier aspects of reality are mostly filtered or excluded. True, Gervais’ obnoxious office manager David Brent finally gets the sack, but sadistic punchups, screaming family flareups and bouts of kinky, exploitative sex are not part of his experience. All of the above and more occurs in “Matsugane,” however.
What passes for comedy in the Japanese mass media is often little better than ijime (bullying) played for laughs — one comedian baiting or beating another — so in a sense Yamashita is simply going mainstream, but, no fan of ijime in any of its infinitely varied forms, I watched much of the film stone-faced. At the same time, I appreciated its ingeniously pointed and layered observations of life’s frustrations and absurdities. In other words, the Yamashita I like and admire hasn’t gone completely missing — perhaps into hiding.
His hero is Kotaro Suzuki (Hirofumi Arai), a good-hearted, but irritable cop who mans a koban (police box) in the rural town of Matsugane. He lives at home with his chuckle-headed twin brother Hikari (Takashi Yamanaka), his scapegrace dad (Tomokazu Miura), his peace-loving mom (Midoriko Kimura), his much-put-upon sister (Mari Nishio), her nondescript husband and, last but not least, his senile granddad.
Nothing much ever happens in Matsugane — until one day the body of a woman (Miwa Kawagoe) turns up in the roadside snow. When Kotaro is examining her naked corpse at the morgue, she suddenly awakens and he learns that she was the stunned victim of a hit-and-run driver.
The woman, Miyuki, is suspiciously uncooperative with the cops, refusing to explain an ice-pick wound in her hand, but they have no choice but to let her go.
Soon after she reunites with her thuggish boyfriend, Nishioka (Yuichi Kimura), and together they go to a frozen lake, where Nishioka proceeds to dig and, using lighter fluid, burn a hole in the ice. Whatever for?
Meanwhile, back home, Dad admits that he impregnated Haruko (Tamae Ando), the simple-minded daughter of a beauty shop proprietor. Hearing the news, Mom proclaims her eternal embarrassment, but the mother of the abused girl shrugs it off. What is going on here?
Soon after we see a sweaty Hikari at a restaurant with Miyuki and Nishioka — who accuse him of being the guilty driver. Never the bravest of men, Hikari becomes their tool and slave. Back at the lake, they make him dive for — gold bars. What is their game?
The mystery of “Matsugane” is not so mysterious, though, just as its thrills are not so thrilling. Instead, Yamashita, as usual, focuses more on the small, but telling, ironies and idiocies of his characters’ actions, while making it clear that even the eternally childish Hikari and doggedly disciplined Kotaro cannot remain immune from the madness and badness around them.
This is all well and good, but the film’s tone of wry detachment works better in minor keys. When “Matsugane” reaches for major, melodramatic chords, its tone starts to feel superior and wrong, like a teenager smirking at someone else’s emotional meltdown, just to show he’s above it all.
Still, it’s hard to hate the film — Yamashita is generous toward all his characters, even ones, like the hapless Hikari, he uses as comic props. But it’s also hard to care much about their assorted dilemmas. Like the potshots of the title, they make a bit of noise, but leave little impression, as their echoes dissipate in the cold air.