Koki Mitani is the reigning king of comedy in Japan, as the writer and sometimes director of a string of hit stage plays, TV series and three feature films that culminated in 2006 with “The Uchoten Hotel (Suite Dream).” This laugh-packed take-off on the 1932 Greta Garbo classic “Grand Hotel,” based on an original script by Mitani, earned an astounding ¥6.06 billion at the box office.

As a consequence, Mitani is now in the rare position of being able to do nearly anything he wants in the movie line. He is also under pressure to surpass his own achievements (some of which is self-imposed). When he announced his fourth feature, “The Magic Hour,” last summer — saying he wanted to make “a perfect comedy that will go down in history” and “make the audience laugh three times a minute” — I had a foreboding that he was about to commit what the French called a folie de grandeur. That is, an overblown disaster.

Fortunately, “The Magic Hour” is Mitani still doing what he does best — taking a clever premise to its comically logical (that is, absurd) conclusion with polish and craft, much of which he learned from a close study of Billy Wilder and other auteurs of the classic Hollywood comedy.

The Magic Hour
Director Koki Mitani
Run Time 136 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing (June 20, 2008)

But Mitani began his career, in college, as a playwright and theater-troupe director, and still sees himself primarily as a man of the theater. Hence it’s not surprising that “The Magic Hour,” like all of his films, feels as though it’s unfolding under a proscenium arch. The set, which seems inspired by the Prohibition-era musical “Guys and Dolls,” would look at home on a stage. Also, the actors, though film veterans all, often seem to be emoting to the balcony.

Mitani’s love and respect for the movie world — in which he still sees himself as an amateur — shines through, however, especially with regard to the craftsmen and technicians who keep the gears turning. The final credits sequence is stop-motion footage of these folks building the main set — an enormous, painstaking labor that makes criticism of the film itself feel churlish. Not that that’s going to stop me.

The story begins in Sukago (“Chicago”), a port town that, with its quaint Western-style buildings, looks caught in a 1920s time warp. But things soon become unidyllic when the local gang boss, the portly Teshio (Toshiyuki Nishida), discovers his ex-chorus-girl moll, Mari (Erin Fukatsu), in the bedroom of her nervous gangster lover, Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki).

The quick-thinking Bingo saves his hide by telling the boss he knows the whereabouts of a legendary hit man, Della Togashi, that the boss wants to meet (for reasons that aren’t disclosed). After promising to find Della within a week, Bingo begins a desperate search, since he hasn’t a clue where he might be. Then he has the brainstorm of hiring Taiki Murata (Koichi Sato), a third-rate actor reduced to bit roles, into playing Della for his new movie, which is completely bogus, for a percentage of the box office, which will be zero.

Murata and his bumbling manager (Fumiyo Kohinata) suspect something fishy, but Bingo, by enlisting a good-natured waitress (Haruka Ayase) and bartender (Goro Ibuki) from a local club as “crew,” and borrowing a camera from a real film production on location, assuages their doubts — for the time being.

The laughs start after this elaborate setup, when Murata, in full yakuza gangster mode, swaggers into the boss’s office armed with only a rubber pistol, thinking that the thugs within are fellow thespians. A fan of an old Toho action film that, in the course of the story, he sees again and again, Murata imagines himself as the film’s cool, fearless hero and, immersed in his role, flabbergasts the boss and his underlings with his suicidal bravado. They take him for the real gangster deal, while Murata begins to dream again of stardom.

Mitani, unlike the famously unsentimental Wilder, baldly inserts dramatic confrontations and heartwarming moments, presumably to add emotional weight to what would otherwise be lighter-than-air entertainment. Fortunately, he handles Murata’s struggle to regain his professional self-respect — the heart of his story — with more subtlety, because he knows its real-life context so well.

It could be argued, in fact, that the world of stage and screen is all Mitani truly understands or cares about. This, after all, is a man who has written three film scripts — (“Radio no Jikan (Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald)” in 1997, “Minna no Ie (Everybody’s House),” in 2001 and “Warai no Daigaku (The University of Laughs)” in 2004 — in which the hero is a scriptwriter. Even Bingo is a writer/producer/director of sorts.

“The Magic Hour” may refer to the brief window of time before sunset when filming conditions are best, but the film itself is also magic of the comic kind. Sit back, enjoy and don’t worry about the man behind the curtain, pulling the strings — he’s blowing massive smoke, but the journey he’s sending you on is pure entertainment. His only message: There’s no business like show business.

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