‘Tsumi toka Batsu toka’

Almost too wacky for words

by Mark Schilling

Contemporary Japanese comedies generally come in two varieties: wacky and noisy (most films written or directed by Kankuro Kudo), or quirky and dry (Satoshi Miki’s “Ten Ten” [“Adrift in Tokyo”] and Yosuke Fujita’s “Zen Zen Daijobu” [“Fine, Totally, Fine”]).

Whatever the type, more Japanese comedies try to not only entertain but say something about the present state of society, or such eternal themes as love and hate, good and evil, or, as Keralino Sandorovich’s new film “Tsumi toka Batsu toka” states right in the title — crime or punishment.

But wait — shouldn’t it be “crime and punishment” (tsumi to batsu), the same as the title of the classic Dostoevski novel about the consequences of murder for the perpetrator’s soul? True, but this comedy — one both wacky and noisy, quirky and dry — tosses conventional morality into a blender and hits the “high” button. The movie is not a plunge into an amoral abyss, though it does journey into the surreal, absurd and perhaps, if you take your Ten Commandments seriously, offensive.

Sandorovich (nee Kazumi Kobayashi), who was a musician, comedian and stage director before releasing his first feature, “1980,” in 2003, is better at dreaming up gags than structuring a film: “Tsumi” shambles and stumbles, but it also takes wild comic risks that pay off, more often than not, much in the manner of Sandorovich’s heroes, Monty Python.

Tsumi toka Batsu toka
Director Keralino Sandorovich
Run Time 110 minutes
Language Japanese

His heroine in “Tsumi” is Ayame (Riko Narumi), a budding gravure tarento (“pin-up girl”) who, in circumstances I will not explain for fear of giving away the film’s brilliantly tricky opening, witnesses a tragic, if idiotic, accident that kills a witness to a murder who, in his dying words and actions, involves her in its solution.

More upsetting for Ayame, however, is her discovery that a sleazy men’s magazine, Nadeshiko (an abbreviation of yamato nadeshiko, or “flower of Japanese womanhood”) has printed her head shot upside down in its back pages, while giving the cover to Momo (Sakura Ando), her once mousy high-school pal, who has transformed into a slinky gravure star. When Ayame tries to pay for a copy of the offending issue at a convenience store, she comes up short and, in a fit of pique, runs out with the magazine in hand with the store manager in hot pursuit.

Cut to Ayame sitting next to her sharp-tongued manager (Inuko Inuyama) and contritely apologizing to the manager and a bored cop. Her punishment? The local police need a female tarento to be their station chief for a day as a PR gimmick. Their first choice, Momo, is not available, so they settle on Ayame. But after she gives her speech, in a police uniform, to a small crowd (including a gang of up-the-skirt photo enthusiasts), she is informed that she will have to serve until midnight (the cops are literalists about the 24-hour thing) and learns that her police escort is a former boyfriend, Haruki (Kento Nagayama), who is now a junior detective.

How annoying! How embarrassing! Meanwhile, a gang of three is plotting to rob the convenience store — a crime that will force Ayame to morph from a fake cop into a real one. For her, however, the biggest shock will come from Haruki, who confesses to a most unusual and unforgivable addiction.

Just 16 when she made “Tsumi,” Riko Narumi has already had a substantial career, including starring roles as a piano prodigy in Koji Hagiuda’s “Shindo” (2007) and a troubled teen in Jun Ichikawa’s “Ashita no Watashi no Tsukurikata” (“How to Become Myself” [2007]).

This is her first all-out comedy, though, and as talented as she is, Narumi does not look so comfortable or convincing as a girl who has signed on for a job that requires taking it off. Still, she projects baseline likability as naturally as a lost puppy (which, in some scenes, she resembles).

More problematic than her profession is her relationship with Haruki, who, in his dark suit and tie, looks to be at least in his early 20s, while confessing to a sexual resume that resembles Bluebeard’s, Nagayama, who made his film debut last year in Kensaku Watanabe’s “Fure Fure Shojo” (“Cheer, Cheer, Cheer”), is not much older than Narumi, but the vibe between the two is borderline strange.

When the story moves toward its madly inspired climax, and Ayame rises boldly to the occasion, these quibbles fade. Also, the comic talent of the supporting cast is formidable (if overly forceful), particularly Sakura Ando as Momo, who spends much of the film as a slyly mocking figment of Ayame’s imagination.

Next time out, Sandorovich should prep with “A Fish Called Wanda,” a Pythonesque masterpiece, that is a film, not a blenderized stew.