Japanese love mysteries, in print and on the screen, but foreigners, by and large, don’t take to Japanese mystery movies. For decades, Japanese producers were happy to concentrate on the big domestic market for local whodunit films, while making only half-hearted attempts to sell them abroad to largely indifferent buyers. So overseas fans are as yet little acquainted with the many films based on mysteries considered classics here, beginning with Edogawa Rampo’s stories about Kogoro Akechi, a detective as famous in Japan as Sherlock Holmes is everywhere.
The Fuji TV network and its partners are trying to change all that, in Asia at least, with “Eiga: Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de (The After-Dinner Mysteries),” a film based on a popular Fuji show set on a real-life cruise ship operated by a Hong Kong-based company. Following its Japan release on Aug. 3, the film will open in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Previous acquaintance with the show is not needed to decipher the standalone story, but any expectations that the film, directed by Fuji TV drama vet Masato Hijikata, will live up to its punchy, fast-paced trailer ought to be put aside. Featuring the show’s main cast, it’s a TV drama episode written large, with the same goofy mugging, clever-clever plot twists and, at the end, shameless tearjerking.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||121 minutes|
|Opens||Opens Aug. 3, 2013|
This doesn’t mean the film will flop abroad: Japanese TV dramas have a big fan base in Asia, while the region’s own commercial takes on the genre can hardly be accused of over-subtlety.
I also can’t say that the setup, based on Tokuya Higashigawa’s best-selling novel, is totally unoriginal. The heroine, Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa), may be the cosseted daughter of a wealthy industrialist, but she’s also a bumbling, if earnest, rookie police officer. Supporting her from the shadows is Kageyama (Arashi boy-band member Sho Sakurai), her smart, urbane, sharp-tongued butler. As the film begins, Reiko is taking a vacation, with Kageyama in tow, on the above-mentioned cruise ship, bound for Singapore. Before she can properly unwind, however, a body falls into the sea and it soon becomes clear that a murder has been committed.
Springing into action is Detective Kazamatsuri (Kippei Shiina), Reiko’s obnoxious, full-of-himself superior, who has been engaged by the city of Kunitachi to safely convey a pricey objet d’art to its new home in Singapore. Reiko soon finds herself on the case, with Kageyama snarking in the background. But since this is a shipboard mystery, with about 3,000 suspects present and two hours to kill, one body is not enough, and nor is one expensive trinket. As the complications multiply, so does the cast of characters, including two lame-brained thieves (Naoto Takenaka and Koji Okura), a slinky lottery winner (Rie Miyazawa), a selflessly dedicated passenger-service manager (Masatoshi Nakamura) and his cute lounge-singer daughter (Nanami Sakuraba).
Not all are obvious suspects in the various murders and thefts, but as anyone who has read Agatha Christie or any of the other mostly British writers of novels with gently bred sleuths will know, the most obvious are also the least likely to have actually done the deed. The film also follows this school of crime writing in the improbability, or absurdity, of its murder methods, as well as in the lengthy final explanation by the solver of the case, who smoothly accounts for every last clue, as they had orchestrated the crimes themselves.
The one interesting addition to this formula is the butler, Kageyama, who recalls Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse’s immortal fictional valet. As played by Sakurai, Kageyama is both impeccably discreet and adept at the insult school of humor, calling Reiko out at every opportunity, while never stepping over the border to outright offense (though with the tolerant Reiko that is a broad border indeed).
He also happens to always be the smartest person in the room, even when it is filled with his social superiors. And in contrast to the strenuous emoting around him, Kageyama is always smooth as silk and cool as ice, almost as though he were a visitor from another, more highly evolved planet.
I may have had my fill of “The After-Dinner Mysteries” after one serving, but I could use a Kageyama to keep me out of trouble, as well as to serve the perfect cocktail. Couldn’t we all?
Fun fact: The “After-Dinner Mysteries” franchise has generated three best-selling novels, two comic paperbacks and one TV series that, broadcast from October to December 2011, scored an average rating of 15.9%.