‘Shugo Tenshi’

Loser loses film

by Mark Schilling

Salaryman comedies go back the prewar days. Even Yasujiro Ozu portrayed the tragicomic trials of the salaryman in such films as “Tokyo no Chorus” (“Tokyo Chorus,” 1931) and “Umarete wa Mita Keredo” (“I was Born but . . .,” 1932), though the genre reached its popular peak in the 1960s, when Hitoshi Ueki was romping across screens as a slacker salaryman who never does a lick of work if he can avoid it.

The salaryman of the present moment, however, more closely resembles that of Ozu’s sad-sack office workers, haunted by the shadow of the Depression, than that of Ueki and his blue-suited companions, living off the fat of the corporate land in boom times.

Thus the recent spate of films about recession’s victims, the latest being Yuichi Sato’s comedy “Shugo Tenshi” (“Guardian Angel”) — whose hero is about the saddest sack salaryman imaginable. Played by TV funnyman Kaningu “Cunning” Takeyama, title hero Keichi Suga drudges away as a low-paid corporate drone. His termagant of a wife (Shinobu Terashima) doles out only a ¥500 coin for his daily expenses, so he can’t even buy a sports paper if he wants more than a couple convenience store rice balls for lunch. But when he tries to snag a free one on the commuter train’s overhead rack he is pushed away by the exiting hordes.

Shugo Tenshi
Director Yuichi Sato
Run Time 109 minutes
Language Japanese

Short, fat and homely, with a bad pudding-bowl haircut and a cheap perma-wrinkled suit, Suga is a walking definition of schlub. He gets no respect — but he is a promising comic hero. Think a Japanese Rodney Dangerfield.

“Shugo Tenshi,” however, quickly crosses over into boys’ excellent adventure country, with a plot that borrows heavily from Hollywood comedies about guys on idiotic missions, as well as Japanese save-the-princess games. This doesn’t mean it is ipso facto terrible — dumb premises can produce great comedies — but Sato, a TV-trained director whose 2007 comedy “Kisaragi” was nominated for three Japan Academy Awards, can’t decide what sort of film he is making.

His attempts to crank up the tension range from the silly to the halfhearted, while his staging of the comic bits seldom rises above the TV-variety pedestrian. In fact, given the thinness of the story and the scarcity of real laughs, the entire film could have been condensed into a 10-minute TV skit — and probably come out funnier.

In his first starring role, Takeyama shambles through the film without developing much in the way of screen presence or comic momentum. Meanwhile, his supporting cast, starting with Terashima as his wife and Kuranosuke Sasaki as his pushy gangster pal, ends up stealing the film from him. He seems to think that playing a mope who apologizes for his existence means he has to act apologetic for being the star.

But back to the story. When an angelic high-school girl (Kyoko Miyano) helps Suga recover his ¥500 coin after an embarrassing fall, the poor sap is bedazzled. Though a ridiculous chain of events, he learns that the girl is being tracked on a Web site for sexual predators — and becomes determined to protect her from whatever evil plans the webmaster is cooking up. To this end, he enlists two old school buddies — including the aforementioned gangster — to serve as the muscle and a pretty-boy recluse (Osamu Sasaki), to provide the Web-savvy brains.

Despite their brainstorming at the mahjongg club where the gangster hangs out and where Suga is thoroughly intimidated by his friend’s irascible boss (Ren Osugi), the girl is snatched anyway. The mismatched trio is soon hot on the trail, while the villains — an even odder squad — ponder what to do with their victim. Simply abuse her — or carve her into small pieces?

This story, as you have probably noticed, by now has nothing to do with the recession whatsoever, though it does allow Suga to rise to the occasion, before the inevitable pratfall. That is, he becomes the guardian angel of the title, though his motives may not be as snowy white as the film would have us believe. What we have, minus the gags and heroics (or rather the gag heroics), is a sex-starved guy in his mid-30s chasing after a teenager.

Too bad Rodney Dangerfield (who would have been great in the Hollywood remake by the way) isn’t around any more to tell us what he thinks of Suga. I’m imagining another Yiddish put-down starting with “s” — and unprintable in a family newspaper.