The Japanese film industry makes many comedies, but few parodies of the “Airplane,” “Naked Gun” or “Austin Powers” variety. This is puzzling, since Japanese comedy directors have been borrowing freely from Hollywood for generations, including Koki Mitani (“Uchoten Hotel”), who worships at the altar of Billy Wilder.
The argument that the irony-free Japanese audience just doesn’t get parody is contradicted by the success Hollywood parody pics have had here. Mike Myers, for one, must be very pleased with his Japanese box-office receipts.
Local filmmakers who try the genre have demonstrated that they can do it side-splittingly well. Two are Richiro Mashima and Masaki Kobayashi, whose “Ski Jumping Pairs — Road to Torino,” a faux documentary about the fake sport of ski-jumping pairs, made me laugh until I choked. Another is Makoto Shinozaki, whose “0093 Jo Heika no Kusakari Masao (0093: Her Majesty’s Masao Kusakari)” claims to be Japan’s first true spy parody. Given that the Hollywood spy spoof has been around for four decades now, Shinozaki has a lot of catching up to do, but he brings it off in fine, funny, highly localized style.
“0093″ is not the sort of film I thought Shinozaki would be making when I saw his feature debut, “Okaeri,” in 1996. A starkly probing meditation on love, loneliness and madness, shot in a beautifully restrained one-scene/one-cut style, “Okaeri” was one of the outstanding films of the 1990s. Shinozaki followed in 2000 with “Wasurerarenai Hitobito (Not Forgotten),” a sympathetic, if borderline sentimental, elegy for the dwindling World War II generation.
But he also revealed an antic side as the producer of the “Deka Matsuri (Detective Festival)” series in 2003. Directed by everyone from unknowns to established names, these 10-minute shorts all had detectives as central characters — and many were hilarious genre send-ups. In short, the groundwork for “0093″ has been well laid.
Shinozaki’s title subject, Masao Kusakari, was a pretty-boy star of the 1970s and ’80s, appearing in Masanobu Deme’s “Okita Soji” (1974), Kinji Fukasaku’s “Fukkatsu no Hi (Virus)” (1980), Shohei Imamura’s “Eijanaika (Why Not?)” (1981) and Haruki Kadokawa’s “Yogoreta Eiyu (Dirty Hero)” (1982). Kusakari is now mostly active on television, though he still appears in the occasional film. Shinozaki evidently saw him as a Japanese version of Leslie Nielson, who found a profitable second career parodying his straight-arrow image as clueless cop Frank Drebin in the “Police Squad” TV series and “Naked Gun” film series.
Unlike Nielson, Kusakari plays himself in “0093″ — that is, a middle-aged actor who is still a well-known name, though his teenage daughter (Mayu Kusakari) barely acknowledges his existence. He has another identity, however, as a secret agent, though it’s been two decades since he last got the call to duty and, in a senior moment, he’s forgotten the whole spy business.
Kusakari is summoned to investigate an IT company president named Miwa (Kyusaku Shimada), who has ambitious plans for a new television station — and has stolen a disc containing powerful mind-control software. Miwa, we learn, has a mad plan to manipulate the brain waves of all humanity and set himself up as world dictator. Somehow Kusakari has to recover the disc — and save the planet.
Serendipitously, the saturnine Miwa and his lank-haired henchman (Mitsuru Karahashi), who looks like a host-club enforcer, approach Kusakari about appearing on the station. They also hire his daughter to serve as an “image girl” (i.e., stage decoration) at the station’s gala opening. She takes the job without telling her father, who is loudly opposed to her showbiz ambitions.
Meanwhile, Haruki Kirishima (Mei Kurokawa), a nosy, if cute, reporter for a tabloid weekly, has heard rumors about Kusakari’s secret life as a spy. She conducts an apparently innocent interview with him — and drops the word “spy” several times in the conversation to gauge his reaction. Now convinced that the rumors are true, she sallies forth with a long-suffering cameraman (Sohkoh Wada) to track Kusakari’s every move.
On the night of the opening, all of the principals end up inside the station building, which Miwa has transformed into an elaborate death trap. By now he knows Kusakari’s game and is determined to make him the trap’s first victim.
Shinozaki and scriptwriter Junya Sato have packed this absurd story with yuks, from puns (“spy” gets heavy play) to sight gags (a UFO vaporizing terrified citizens, while an oblivious Haruki spies on Kusakari) and a running joke revolving around bananas. For anyone who has seen “Airplane” and its many imitators, much of this will be familiar, but Shinozaki has cleverly reworked, not mindlessly recycled, his inspirations, while adding original bits to the mix.
One example are the handwritten wall signs in the background that comment on everything from idiot pratfalls (yappari — yep, he did it again) to cornball emotional moments (naka naori — kiss-and-make-up). I don’t recall seeing anything quite like that in “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery,” but maybe I wasn’t paying attention.
Kusakari stays a good sport throughout these shenanigans, playing his macho image to the ridiculous hilt, while never goofing on the material. As Miwa, the always excellent Kyusaku Shimada delivers more than the expected rock-jaw caricature, including a surprisingly passionate and reasoned (if loony) defense of his New World Order. Mei Kurokawa goes a bit over the top as the spunky girl reporter Haruki, but then, someone has to.
I used to hope that Shinozaki’s genre parody thing was a lark and that he’d return to serious film-making. Perhaps some day he will, but I’m in no hurry now. The man has a talent for comedy — the Cannes Grand Prix can wait.