Japanese omnibus films — collections of similarly themed shorts — were more common a decade or two ago than now. They’ve always been risky box-office bets, and film distributors want a surer thing in today’s fiercely competitive market.
Also, critics invariably lead off their reviews by sniffing that some sections are better than others, which makes the whole film seem rather like a bowl of lumpy oatmeal. That is, not appetizing enough for the investment of ¥1,800.
The comedy omnibus “Sabi Otoko Sabi Onna” (which roughly translates as “Groovy Guys, Groovy Girls”) is not one long laugh riot: Some of the four segments are (sniff, sniff) funnier than others. At the same time, the overall talent/quality level is high and the end result is a blissed-out feeling, as though the film has been massaging the stress out of your brain.
Leading off is “Hagemashi Garuzu” (literal translation: “Encouragement Girls”), whose director, Yosuke Fujita, made his feature debut in 2008 with the absurdist gem “Zenzen Daijobu (Fine, Totally Fine).” His heroine is Chiharu (Nanami Sakuraba), a perky college girl who has drafted two pals (Kumiko Shiratori and Emiko Kawamura of the manzai duo Tanpopo) into the title cheer squad.
Instead of football players, they go around bucking up the world’s losers and unlucky, with impromptu but perfectly choreographed cheers that speak directly to their troubles — and hearts. Then the master of the coffee shop (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) that is their own spiritual pit stop tells them about a slumping 52-year-old pro baseball player in need of cheering up. But when they do their routine for the astonished athlete, the outcome is not what they expect.
Fujita’s comedy is a finely balanced blend of the observational and the absurd. The girls’ routines, especially, are brilliantly loopy, if occasionally black, including one that “encourages” a would-be suicide to jump off a roof.
Next comes Tomoko Matsunashi’s “Boy? meets girl.,” where teenage dweeb hero Konosuke (Aoi Nakamura), is hopelessly, silently in love with cute, vivacious Kaori (Misako Renbutsu), the leader of the school photography club. Then, with the help of a chubby classmate who is an aspiring makeup artist (Ini Kusano), he morphs into Miyu, a gorgeous, if big-jawed, girl. The boys’ plan to sell Miyu to Kaori as a photo model goes swimmingly, but while Kaori is happily snapping (and later, confiding) away, Miyu/Konosuke starts to chafe at his disguise. He wants love, not a portfolio.
The Dustin Hoffman comedy classic “Tootsie” covered this ground before — and better. Still, Matsunashi’s segment has its mildly quirky charms, though Nakamura, recently star of the rock-band movie “Beck,” is not the most convincing cross-dresser.
Cranking up the energy level is Mipo O’s “Kuremu Naito!” (“Claim Night!”). Mayuko (Tomochika), a 35-year-old singleton, returns home one night to discover that her electricity has been shut off — and raises holy hell over the phone with the electric company’s maddeningly robotic call-center operator. When Kasai (Tenkyu Fukuda), a company complaint rep, shows up at her door to apologize, she is not easily mollified, even when he rushes out to the store to replace the spoiled contents of her refrigerator. But as they joust, she sees that, under the nerdy glasses and smarmy manner, is a hot-looking guy.
The ensuing back and forth, as Mayuko and Kasai shed their respective tatemae (surface) personas of customer and complaints guy and reveal their honne (true feelings), swings between the erotic and the ridiculous with the breakneck speed, anarchic charge and flawless timing of classic screwball comedy.
Gen Sekiguchi’s “Sebiro Yashiki” (“House of Suits”) is the last and simplest segment, playing like a modern-day fable. Mayumi (Kyoko Koizumi) is an ordinary housewife with a big heart. One hot day, she finds a salaryman, Hirata (Yoshiyuki Morishita) sweltering in a neighborhood park and, with gentle but persistent questioning, learns that he has been fired from his company but is too embarrassed to tell his wife. Taking pity on the mope, she invites him to her childless, petless and temporarily husbandless house.
He likes what he finds and Mayumi, energized by the success of this good deed, goes in search of other out-of-work suits. A cat lover who once collected strays before her husband cracked down, she soon has a new, human menagerie.
Sekiguchi, best known abroad for his wild surreal comedy “Survival Style 5+,” takes a completely different tack in this new film. Other than Mayumi’s unusual new hobby, there is hardly anything truly weird (save for a scene with a never-say-die cockroach), but much that is quietly, glowingly funny.
So what ties all these segments together? For all their differences of style and approach, they’re all about people finding their groove, however defined. Groovy, indeed.