Film / Reviews

'Tokyo Ningen Kigeki (Human Comedy in Tokyo)'

Revisit Fukada's witty debut character drama

by Mark Schilling

Koji Fukada’s 2010 black comedy, “Kantai (Hospitalité),” about a smiling stranger who wanders into the lives of a middle-class family and wreaks havoc, has a lot of invention and charm, despite the slightly silly conga-line climax. Deserved winner of the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Eyes section of the 2010 Tokyo International Film Festival, it went on to win more accolades at festivals around the world and is now back in Tokyo for screenings at the Auditorium Shibuya theater.

Also showing there, with English subtitles starting July 30, is the even better “Tokyo Ningen Kigeki (Human Comedy in Tokyo),” Fukada’s debut feature, which came and went in a blink in 2009.

It is a three-part anthology — a format that is often box-office poison here. And Fukada, who had made only a handful of award-winning shorts, and his cast, mostly members of the Seinendan theater troupe, were unknowns at the time of its release.

But this film, inspired by Honoré de Balzac’s multivolume masterwork, “The Human Comedy,” is entertainingly ambitious and adventurous in both its themes and treatment. Also, I suppose Fukada read his Balzac before writing his script, but as a filmmaker he is closer in sensibility to Eric Rohmer, that master of teasing drama from the flow of daily life with insight and wit.

Fukada, however, is more cynical than Rohmer about his creations, though it’s hard to fault his sharp-edged comic observations about their delusions and evasions. They cut fine and true.

In his first segment, “Shiro Neko (White Cat),” two women become acquainted at a performance by a famous improv dancer (the real-life Toru Iwashita as himself) and learn more about each other as they rush about in the rain trying to find a program for him to autograph. One (Eriko Nemoto), who has misplaced her ticket, appears to be a lonely soul; the other (Reina Kakudate), who gives her an extra belonging to a no-show boyfriend, is at least in a relationship, however rocky. But they have more in common than is first apparent, including an inability (or reluctance) to see the truth, similar to the way a discarded plastic bag can look, from a distance, like a white cat.

In the second segment, “Shashin (Photographs),” Haruna (Yuri Ogino), a perky amateur photographer, is preparing for her first gallery opening, but her friend Jun’s wedding party is the same evening. Instead of the expected comedy of errors as Haruna tries to juggle both commitments, the story becomes a darkly comic illustration of the difficulty of art as a vocation and business, even when you put out a tableful of free food for the masses.

The last and strangest segment, “Migi Ude (Right Arm),” features the newlywed couple from the previous part, Masaki (Masayuki Yamamoto) and Jun (Minako Inoue), as they settle into married life. A pregnant Jun is happily preparing for motherhood when Masaki is hit by a truck and, in an emergency operation, loses his right arm. Rather than the usual Japanese medical drama of gaman (toughing it out) through tears, the story focuses on Masaki’s frustrating treatment for phantom limb syndrome.

Once again, a character’s specific dilemma serves as a metaphor for more universal issues. Aided by an oddball doctor (Kotaro Shiga), Masaki tries to fool his brain into believing his severed arm still exists, so he can unclench his ghostly hand that is causing real pain. In the same way, we see, a couple’s lies can take on a grotesque life of their own, with unintended consequences.

Fukada ties together the three segments not only thematically, but also with characters who overlap from one to the next. At the same time, he is not trying (and failing) to construct a conventional narrative arc, but is rather telling individual stories that naturalistically resonate with each other, like ripples in a pond colliding to make new patterns.

All this may make “Tokyo Ningen Kigeki” sound like a Zen response to Balzac. It’s instead something of a hybrid: more European art-house film than typical Japanese drama in style, but, from first frame to last, freshly, distinctly Fukada.