Hollywood screwball comedies have long been favorites of Japanese filmmakers, with many listing such genre masters as Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder as influences. Screwball comedy heroines, however, are usually self-centered, hard-headed types, while the local feminine ideal on screen is still typically self-sacrificing and soft-hearted. But if Koji Maeda’s debut feature, “Kigeki Konzen Tokkyu (Cannonball Wedlock)” is any evidence, there is at least one funny exception.
Her name is Chie (Yuriko Yoshitaka), a 24-year-old office lady who is not passively waiting for Mr. Right to come along or, as in her grandmother’s day, to be introduced by her parents. Instead, aiming to maximize her pleasure on this planet, she juggles five guys, hanging out with whomever strikes her fancy or fulfills certain needs.
There’s the suave 54-year-old beauty-salon owner (Takaaki Enoki) who underwrites her foreign travel plans; the tall, macho motorbike-shop manager (Munetaka Aoki) who takes her on stress-relieving rides; the tousle-haired college kid (Takuya Yoshimura) who’s scrumptiously cute; and the once-divorced sales exec (Ryo Kase) who listens to all her troubles.
Finally, there’s Takumi (Kenta Hamano), a pudgy, pushy, uncouth guy who works in a bread factory and seems to have no good qualities at all, save an old-shoe familiarity (though she is not thrilled that he takes showers in her apartment as though it were the public gym).
One day, Chie’s best friend Toshiko (one-name actress Anne) announces that she is getting hitched — and urges Chie to consider matrimony as well. Chie brushes off this suggestion — freedom is wonderful! — but begins to have second thoughts when she sees the happy glow on Toshiko’s face at the ceremony.
Ever practical, she comes up with a plan — narrow her beaus down one by one and marry the survivor. Obviously, the first to go is Takumi.
Because “Cannonball Wedlock” is a screwball comedy and Chie is so obviously full of herself, we know from the get-go that her splendid plan will blow up in her pretty face. What we don’t yet know is how ingeniously the script by Maeda and Ryo Takada, adapting his own novel for the screen, makes its various twists and turns not only funny, but right and true.
Bad screwball comedies assume that the mere fact of screwiness — the flouting of convention and common sense — is hilarious, when it’s merely tiresome. Maeda and Takada know that the genre has its own logic and they scrupulously follow it in building to their comic payoffs — and an ending that makes perfect (or rather, perfectly absurd) sense.
Also, instead of slavishly following Hollywood formula, they add only-in-Japan elements, such as the scene of Kase’s sales exec, Takumi and Takumi’s date, Mika (Anna Ishibashi), trading lines from the “Manyoshu” — a 1,300-year-old collection of poems that educated Japanese once knew by heart — as a bored and discomfited Chie looks on.
Imagine two guys in a Hollywood “bromance” quoting Shakespearean sonnets to each other as the woman for whom they are competing silently steams. Wouldn’t happen, right? But in “Cannonball Wedlock,” this scene makes the characters more comprehensible, if not all completely sympathetic. That is, it lights them from different angles, and not always flattering ones.
Yoshitaka, who made her award-winning acting debut in Sion Sono’s 2006 shocker “Noriko no Shokutaku (Noriko’s Dinner Table),” plays Chie as a combination of charming ditz and self-centered princess — that is, likable and obnoxious in equal measures and, in some cases, the same breath. Yoshitaka maintains this difficult balance with little visible strain, similar to the way Bill Murray transformed his jerk weatherman in “Groundhog Day” into a semblance of a human being.
Also excellent is rocker Hamano as the disposable but determined Takumi. A professional comic might have played him solely as a slob loser who gets lucky, but Hamano gives him a winner’s confidence verging on arrogance. Still, he’s a hard sell as a romantic prospect for Chie, even if he’s No. 5 on her list.
The Japanese title, “Kigeki Konzen Tokkyu” (literal translation: “Premarital Express”), may be a nod to the hit series “Ressha” (“Train,” 1967-68) and “Ryoko” (“Journey,” 1968-72) by comedy master Masaharu Segawa. The respective heroes of those two series, Kiyoshi Atsumi and Frankie Sakai, were also hardly Clark Gable (star of pioneering 1934 screwball comedy “It Happened One Night”) in the looks department, while their female foils, including queen-of-cute Chieko Baisho (“Ryoko”), would have been far out of their characters’ reach in the real world.
Will Maeda also spin his brilliant debut into a series? Unlikely — but screwier things have happened, haven’t they?