‘Wakiyaku Monogatari (Cast Me if You Can)’

Rare Japanese take on the rom-com is full of heart


When I hear rants from foreigners about the badness of Japanese acting, I don’t rise to the defense of the hammy emoting or smarmy mugging I’ve seen on the screen here, of which there’s been plenty. But I do run through the long list in my head of the Japanese actors, from stars to supporting players, who regularly turn in good-to-great performances, even in movies that are mediocre to awful. That is, I’m hopelessly glass-is-half-full.

Atsushi Ogata has cast many of these folks in his debut feature, “Wakiyaku Monogatari (Cast Me if You Can)” — so many, in fact, that I marveled at not only his tastes, but his connections. How does a first-time director finagle Hiromi Nagasaku, Masahiko Tsugawa, Keiko Matsuzaka and Akira Emoto — in-demand veterans all — to appear in his low-budget comedy? Not to mention hiring Akane Shiratori, a scriptwriter who has worked with the likes of Kaneto Shindo, Tatsumi Kumashiro and Shohei Imamura? And what about the film’s talented younger actors, such as Tasuku Emoto, Noriko Eguchi, Yasuhi Nakamura and Ai Maeda, who appear only in bit parts?

In any event, he has done it, and the result is a comedy not so much laugh-out -loud funny as intelligently, if sadly, aware of the realities of show biz and the costs of celebrity, especially for those in celebrity’s shadow. While striving to be borderless and commercial — with visions of international sales no doubt dancing in its producers’ heads — it also manages to be touchingly personal, perhaps too much so for its own box-office good.

Wakiyaku Monogatari (Cast Me if You Can)
Director Atsushi Ogata
Run Time 97 mins
Language Japanese

Veteran character actor Hiroshi Matsuzaki (played by veteran character actor Toru Masuoka) lives with his famous playwright father (Tsugawa) and seems doomed to shuffle into old age without a starring role to his name. Then, by some miracle not fully explained, he is cast as the lead in the Japanese remake of an unnamed Woody Allen movie.

Hiroshi’s joy doesn’t last long, however, since he is photographed in ridiculous and compromising circumstances with the oblivious wife (Matsuzaka) of a powerful politician. Once his mug is on the front page of a sports paper, his big role is kaput.

Hiroshi’s problem, we soon see, is more than just a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is a living, breathing illustration of the cynical maxim that no good deed goes unpunished, with nearly all his well- meaning attempts to help strangers turning into disasters large and small. It doesn’t help that his personality is so protean (or negligible) that he is constantly being mistaken for store clerks, ushers and other factotums.

His luck changes when he comes to the aid of the cute, vivacious Aya (Nagasaku), a struggling actress who not only knows his name, but praises his talent for disappearing (or being disappeared) into other people — the mark of a true actor, she says.

From this point on we know two things: a) Love will bloom between Hiroshi and Aya, and b) Hiroshi’s troubles, romantic and professional, are far from over.

We’ve seen similar complications in many a romantic comedy (including Allen’s) and Ogata doesn’t resolve them in any particularly original way. What he does do is take us inside the complicated relationship between Hiroshi and his father Kenta — an old smoothie who charms all and sundry, including Aya. Hiroshi doesn’t hate the old man — in fact, he is genuinely concerned when Kenta falls ill and has to be hospitalized — but he also chafes at his eternal “son of” status. Not that he believes he can do anything about it — in life as in art, he sees himself a born bit player.

As Hiroshi, Masuoka is something of an awkward fit. A big, heavy-featured actor who often plays clever, slippery types, he is not the obvious choice for this sad-sack role, and his clumsiness with the comic bits shows why. He also doesn’t have much romantic chemistry with Nagasaku, at whom he spends much of the movie looking with disbelief, annoyance or vague alarm. But he does get the peculiar mix of loneliness, self-effacement and pride that is Hiroshi.

Whether that mix also describes Ogata — the son of world-renowned diplomat Sadako Ogata who became a filmmaker relatively late in life — I really can’t say. But he was smart to make his first feature film about a subject close to his experience and, from the evidence on the screen, heart.