Koki Mitani is Japan’s most successful comedy writer and director, with a long string of hit plays, TV dramas and films to his credit, most recently “The Uchoten Hoteru (Suite Dreams)” and “The Magic Hour.”
His films bear a family resemblance to the hits of the late Juzo Itami: Both directors’ works are heavily influenced by Western models (Billy Wilder and Frank Capra are among Mitani’s heros) and are intended first and foremost as popular entertainment.
But whereas Itami was an on-screen essayist with strong opinions and a biting sense of humor (which once got him knifed by gangsters who didn’t care for his depictions of their kind), Mitani presents himself as a consummate show-biz pro whose only aim is to make his audience feel good and, every once in a while, a little teary.
This he accomplishes well enough in his new comedy, “Suteki na Kanashibari” (also titled “Once In a Blue Moon” in Japan but “A Ghost of a Chance” internationally). But what promises to be a sprightly, clever tribute to the otherworldly classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age — think the “Topper” series or Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” — finally turns treacly in a distinctly Japanese way. Instead of Capra’s ghost, Mitani is trying to please the home folks who enjoy a good cry over the fictional dearly departed.
Emi Hosho (Eri Fukatsu) is a bumbling lawyer given one last chance by her strict-if-oddball boss (Hiroshi Abe), whose quirks include tap-dancing alone in his office. Her client is a poor mope charged with murdering his rich wife (Yuko Takeuchi) at a spooky inn in the middle of nowhere. In reality he was stricken with sleep paralysis (the kanashibari of the Japanese title) and unable to move a muscle at the time of the murder — especially after he noticed the ghost of a samurai pressing down on him from above.
The spook is one Rokubei Sarashina (Toshiyuki Nishida), a portly general now dead 421 years. When Emi goes to the inn to investigate she also sees Rokubei as plain as day — and begs him to testify as the only witness to her client’s innocence. A kindly soul for all his bluster, he reluctantly agrees.
There’s just one problem: Rokubei is visible and audible to only a chosen few. Also, the buttoned-down prosecutor (Kiichi Nakai), who has firmly declared his disbelief in the supernatural, will never allow a ghost in his courtroom. The very idea would strike him, not to mention the more left-brained in the audience, as absurd.
But the absurdity of a middle-aged angel named Clarence didn’t exactly stop Capra — and Mitani also boldly embraces a premise bordering on the ridiculous. He gets the expected laughs, as when Rokubei senses that the prosecutor is only pretending not to see him — and the two play a perfectly timed game of glances (one trying to lock eyes, the other looking everywhere but at his antagonist).
Mitani also has the right lead, with Fukatsu playing a character totally different from her breakthrough turn last year as a lonely, desperate woman who runs off with a murderer in the critically acclaimed “Akunin (Villain).” Fukatsu embraces Emi’s inner ditz, while making her evolution into a real fighting lawyer feel like a natural stoking of hidden fires, not a plot construct.
If this were all, the film would clock in at a brisk, laugh-filled 90 minutes, but Mitani spins out the story nearly an hour longer with various subplots, such as Emi’s pining for her long-dead father and Rokubei’s desire to right wrongs in the historical record, that slow the pace and send the film’s sugar count soaring.
What begins as a fun ghostly romp ends as a creepy, smarmy seance, with the white-suited Angel of Death (Fumiyo Kohinata) grudgingly making exception after exception to the rules separating this world from the next.
The rules of movie comedy are stricter: Keep them laughing or lose them. In “A Ghost of a Chance” Mitani shows he has mastered those rules, while willfully flouting them. What’s the eternal punishment for that, I wonder? In this life, Mitani’s brand beats any bad reviews: The movie is already a No. 1 hit.