When Koji Fukada’s “Kantai (Hospitalite)” won the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Eyes section of last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, I wasn’t surprised: It’s brand of black comedy is funny in smart, original ways. Many reviewers have since compared it favorably with Yoshimitsu Morita’s classic 1983 comedy “Kazoku Gemu (The Family Game),” which had a similar story about an eccentric stranger taking over an apparently normal, but dysfunctional, family. Many festivals have since screened it, including in Rotterdam, Hong Kong, ?San Francisco and New York.
And yet at TIFF I heard angry criticism of this film by foreigners, which may seem strange given its full-throated celebration of gaijin in general, with the xenophobic characters getting their comeuppance. ?But it does traffic in negative stereotypes, mostly via the stranger’s sultry blonde girlfriend, who has a great sense of rhythm (she’s a salsa teacher) but casually flouts social rules (including the one about not hopping into bed with another guy the minute your boyfriend walks out the door) and can barely string together two words of Japanese after five years in the country.
It’s also hard, however, to detect any hint of mockery or disdain. In this sharply pointed but gentle-spirited film, gaijin serve the same role as the whiskey-pickled Irishmen in John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” (1952): that is, exotic color and comic relief. Just as Ford loved the people he was caricaturing, Fukada admires his gaijin as live-for-the-moment free spirits. But their actions, as do those of the more conventional Japanese characters, have consequences not always pleasant.
The setting is a small print shop in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward that the mild-mannered, middle-aged owner, Mikio Kobayashi (Kenji Yamauchi), inherited from his father. His wife and accountant is the far younger and definitely hot Natsuki (Kiki Sugino), whom he married after divorcing the mother of his young daughter, Eriko (Eriko Ono). Also living with them is Mikio’s thirtysomething sister, Seiko (Kumi Hyodo), who clings to her dream of studying abroad despite Mikio’s urgings to give it up. He himself seems content to print envelopes forever.
One fine day, a bearded stranger named Kagawa (Kanji Furutachi) ambles into the shop claiming to have seen Eriko’s missing pet parakeet. One thing leads to another and soon Kagawa is working for and rooming with the Kobayashis. Then, without asking anyone, he moves in his “Brazilian wife,” Annabelle (Bryerly Long), who is neither Brazilian nor his wife, and makes noisy love with her while the Kobayashis listen through the paper-thin walls in simmering disgust (Natsuki) and horny envy (Mikio).
Here the twists start multiplying, propelled by the various lies the characters tell and cover up. Kagawa at first comes across as a brazen drifter, who blithely presumes again and again on Mikio’s good (or rather, weak) nature, much to Natsuki’s discomfiture. If that were his whole game, he would become irritating, but Kagawa also has a sensitive nose for BS — essential equipment for a con man, which he uses to pursue his own brand of rough justice.
How do foreigners figure into it? They simply show up, like dancing fairies in a glen — or the hordes that cram into the ship’s stateroom in “A Night at the Opera,” the 1935 Marx Brothers comedy that Fukada claims as an inspiration for “Hospitalite.” But where the stateroom scene is madcap perfection, Fukada’s attempt at something similar is merely mildly farcical and stagy, with the gaijin serving as a faceless chorus line who kick up a ruckus as the shop’s nosy neighbors go into shock.
But laughs are not the film’s only aim, just as its message is not as simple as “We are all brothers under the skin” — or rather, under our lies.
Instead of wrapping everything up tidily, with victory for the truthful, tolerant good and punishment for the lying, intolerant bad, “Hospitalite” takes a more ambiguous approach. And Kagawa, the catalyst who sets the story in motion, is not only as tricky as a leprechaun, but also as elusive. My own take away? Finding a lost parakeet, kids, is like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And don’t believe the smiling stranger who tells you otherwise.