Koki Mitani is one of those very Japanese conundrums: Considered a master of comedy and a box-office king at home, he remains little known abroad — despite a career that spans three decades and includes work as a playwright and scriptwriter, as well as his six films to date as director.
The usual explanation — comedy doesn’t travel — doesn’t quite fit, since Juzo Itami, who resembled Mitani in his Hollywood-influenced scripts, media smarts and knack for commercial comedy, had his share of overseas success, beginning with his 1985 international hit “Tampopo.”
The big difference, seen in Mitani’s new period comedy “Kiyosu Kaigi (The Kiyosu Conference),” is the junior director’s strong domestic focus. In contrast to the easy-to-understand story about the quest for a perfect bowl of ramen in “Tampopo,” “The Kiyosu Conference” focuses on a real-life meeting in 1582 to determine the successor to leadership of the powerful Oda clan. The previous lord, Oda Nobunaga, had been killed by the troops of a treacherous general, Akechi Mitsuhide.
Though called the first political meeting of its kind in Japan, the Kiyosu Conference and its main players are little known abroad outside Asian-studies departments. Also, the film’s large cast of characters, based on historical figures, is not outlander-friendly. I can imagine staffers at foreign festival screenings handing out programs filled with potted history lessons and captioned mug shots.
The surprise is that this film, which would seem to be aimed at workaholic salarymen, is Mitani’s sharpest and cleverest in years, if not his laugh-out-loud funniest.
It reminded me of “Juninin no Yasashi Nihonjin (The Gentle Twelve),” a 1991 courtroom comedy scripted by Mitani and directed by Shun Nakahara. Instead of one lonely juror stubbornly arguing the defendant’s innocence, as in its 1957 model “Twelve Angry Men,” the film focuses on average Japanese bumbling toward consensus.
The new film follows a similar arc, with a comparable shades-of-gray morality, though the four main male characters — Oda clan generals who attend the titular conference — differ radically in temperament, as well as strategy. The bluff, hot-tempered Shibata Katsuie (Koji Yakusho) backs Nobunaga’s earnestly mediocre third son Nobutaka (Minosuke Bando), while Shibata’s quicksilver, razor-sharp rival Hashiba Hideyoshi (aka Tokichiro and played by Yo Oizumi) supports the improbable candidacy of Nobukatsu (Satoshi Tsumabuki), Oda’s clownishly inept second son. (The natural heir, eldest son Nobutada, was killed in battle.)
Also participating in the conference are the wishy-washy Ikeda Tsuneoki (Koichi Sato) and the crafty Niwa Nagahide (Fumiyo Kohinata). Shibata and Tokichiro (as he is called in the film’s English-subtitled version) have to woo these two to win the 3-1 vote needed to decide the succession. Waiting in the wings are crowds of retainers and family members, including Nobunaga’s terror of a sister, Oichi (Kyoka Suzuki), who loathes Tokichiro for causing the death of her son, while she conducts an aggressive flirtation with the awkward if ardent Shibata.
This middle-aged romance, as well as much else that unfolds on the sidelines, is intended as comic relief. But along with the silliness is a power struggle that fascinates with both its chess-like maneuvering and its universal drama of shattered pride, betrayed trust and dashed hopes. The motivation, however, is the very local desire for clan/community/corporate unity, whatever the personal cost.
Movie ads here routinely trumpet the go￣kana (“splendid”) cast, but here the adjective fits. Mitani and his producers have recruited a roll call of name actors, many for supporting or bit roles. More importantly, he has directed a truly ensemble performance, while keeping the pace brisk and opening up the action beyond the confines of the conference room. He has not, however, cured his habit of nattering on as the climax approaches; the film clocks in at an unwieldy 138 minutes.
One standout is Suzuki, scarifying and amusing as the temperamental, implacable Oshi, whose black-toothed grimaces can make the strongest samurai quail. Another is Oizumi as Tokichiro, who can turn from capering buffoon to glint-eyed strategist on a dime. Humanizing the proceedings, as usual, is Yakusho as Shibata, whose bluster and passion are both funny and real. While most other characters merely seek to profit from Nobunaga’s death, Shibata actually mourns it, while being fiercely loyal to the clan.
Those who know their Japanese medieval history will not be surprised by the various twists: The result of the conference has been well known for nearly 450 years. And even the ignorant will sense the outcome since, as with almost any Japanese meeting of consequence, the participants mostly make up their minds well before it convenes.
But a study of human nature in fevered, funny action, “The Kiyosu Conference” can school us all.
Fun fact: Hashiba Hideyoshi later took the family name Toyotomi and became Japan’s most powerful warlord. He failed, however, to secure a smooth succession for his own son following his death in 1598.