A beast with no bite

by Mark Schilling

Kankuro Kudo was once hailed as the boy wonder of Japanese show business, first as a scriptwriter for hit TV shows (“Ikebukuro West Gate Park” in 2000, and “Kisarazu Cats Eye” in 2002) and then hit films (“Go,” “Ping Pong,” “Zebraman”). In 2005, he released his first film as a director: “Mayonaka no Yajisan Kitasan” (“Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims”), a madcap period comedy that was widely screened abroad.

Now 38, Kudo has also long been active as an actor, lending his gawky comic presence to “Kiraware Matsuko no Issho” (“Memories of Matsuko,” 2006) and “Quiet Room ni Yokoso” (“Welcome to the Quiet Room,” 2007), among others.

His first artistic home, however, was the theater. In 1991, he joined Matsuo Suzuki’s Otona Keikaku (Adult Plan) comic theater troupe, which with he is still associated.

In 2004, Kudo wrote and produced “Donju,” a play whose title combines the characters for “dull” and “beast,” a reference to its gormless hero. Hideaki Hosono, a young director of TV commercials, thought that the farcical murder mystery would make the perfect material for his first feature film and after various trials and tribulations, Kudo agreed to supply the script.

Is “Donju” therefore a Kudo film by proxy? If only. Kudo’s reputation as a comic genius doesn’t always jibe with his made-for-TV gags, but his mind generates funny ideas the way party favors spew confetti — holding the attention with their sparkle and sometimes even hitting their target (and the audience’s funny bone).

“Donju,” unfortunately, is a miss, with nary a laugh in it. Having not seen the play, I do not know how much of the problem lies with the original or with Hosono and Kudo’s reworking of it. It’s certainly not the fault of the cast, which is headed by Tadanobu Asano as the hero and Kazuki Kitamura as the “frenemy” who wants to do him in. Both can play any point on the scary-goofy spectrum with precision and force, and both exhibit this full range in “Donju,” albeit more on the goofy side.

Director Hideaki Hosono
Run Time 106 minutes
Language Japanese

The film, however, is like a good joke bungled by a clumsy teller, who blurts out the punch line at the wrong moment or forgets it altogether.

The difficulties begin early on, when Shizuka (Yoko Maki), a pretty but grimly earnest editor for a weekly magazine, is sent to a provincial backwater to locate a missing author, Ryuji Dekoyama (Asano). He has been nominated for a big literary prize for a novel the magazine has been serializing, and her grouchy boss wants her to find him.

Before she can reach her destination, however, the train stops suddenly, plunging her face first into the massive stomach of an ice-cream-eating passenger (former yokozuna Onokuni, in one of the film’s few funny gags). Deboarding, she hikes to the nearest outpost of civilization — a gaudily appointed “host club.”

Inside, she finds a frowzy mama (Yoko Minamino), squeaky young hostess (Aimi Atsukawa), casually corrupt cop (Yusuke Santa Maria) and the club’s only host (Kitamura), in all his leering, swaggering, dyed pompadour glory. When Shizuka grills this odd squad, they obligingly tell her Dekoyama’s story in bits and pieces, including ones that incriminate them.

Dekoyama, nicknamed Dekoyan, arrived in town the year before after a 25-year absence. But when the cop and host — his former classmates — began reminiscing about the old days, Dekoyan only flashed a clueless grin and claimed to remember nothing. (Since the stories, which the tellers find hilarious, are about their relentless bullying of Dekoyan, I at first wondered whether he might be suffering from repressed memory syndrome.)

Then the cop and host learn that, far from being a forgetful fool, Dekoyan has been retelling their young crimes and misdemeanors, with only the thinnest of fictional disguises, in a serial novel. The host becomes determined to shut him up and, when Dekoyan smilingly refuses to cooperate, to murder him with the cooperation and connivance of the above-mentioned trio.

But Dekoyan, like Homer Simpson with a pudding-bowl haircut, proves frustratingly impervious to harm. The host and his crew decide to escalate their attempts, feeding him rat poison as though he were a goose being fattened up for foie gras.

Relating all this in flashback to a skeptical, intimidated interrogator, defuses the comedy, however. It’s akin to telling a joke, or rather a shaggy dog story, in the past tense. Just not as funny.

Also, Shizuka is less an active investigator than a comically nervous listener who adds no tension to the story whatsoever, while the story’s mystery element, including why supposed criminals are telling the not-so-gory details of their crime to a stranger, proves to be not so mysterious — or amusing.

Kudo, who has successfully bucked scriptwriting conventions before, may have made the play work well enough, but Hosono’s screen version is disjointed and flat. Running gags, such as a delivery man (enka [Japanese ballad] singer Jero), who keeps popping up and enraging the host, fade rather than build. Meanwhile, the film’s biggest gag — Dekoyan’s idiot immortality — quickly becomes tiresome, despite the energetic mugging of the principals.

It’s not as though Hosono and his collaborators are talentless. The sets and costume designs are a delightful riot of excess, and individual shots burst with cheeky energy and invention, but in the way of 15-second commercials that must only make one big point — buy this product! — not set up the next shot or scene.

At least “Donju” is aptly titled, but the “dull” part was supposed to be ironic.