Two men and a tot make a half-decent film

by Mark Schilling

When indie directors take a more commercial turn, the usual explanation is the bigger paycheck, but it’s not always so simple. Yuya Ishii’s shift from the raucous films of his early career to the more genteel, mainstream 2013 film “Fune wo Amu (The Great Passage)” raised not only his standard of living but also his status with more traditionally minded domestic critics.

STatsushi Omori’s progression from arthouse filmmaker to multiplex entertainer is somewhat different, but the destination is similar: a higher profile at home. Not that his more serious efforts are lacking critical recognition. Omori’s “Sayonara Keikoku (The Ravine of Goodbye),” a 2013 drama about a woman who becomes the lover of her rapist, won a shelf of best-actress prizes for lead Yoko Maki, as well as a Special Jury Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival.

But to the movie-going public, Omori is probably best known for his “Mahoro Ekimae” (literally, “In Front of Mahoro Station”) films about the misadventures of a pair of scruffy benriya (handymen) whose rundown office is near the fictional titular train station. (Hitoshi One also directed the 12-episode “Mahoro Ekimae” drama that TV Tokyo aired in 2013.)

Mahoro Ekimae Kyosokyoku (Tada's Do-it-All House: Disconcerto)
Rating
Director Tatsushi Omori
Run Time 140 minutes
Language Japanese

Starring one-named actor Eita as Tada, the titular head of this dodgy enterprise, and Ryuhei Matsuda as his lazybones assistant, the first film, “Mahoro Ekimae Tada Benriken (Tada’s Do-it-All House),” became a minor hit on its 2011 release and was named the year’s fourth-best Japanese film by Kinema Junpo magazine’s critics’ poll.

His follow-up, “Mahoro Ekimae Kyosokyoku (Tada’s Do-it-All House: Disconcerto),” is more of the same, if with an admixture of characters from the TV show. This may be confusing for newbies, wondering why a procession of barely introduced people are appearing in scene after scene.

The central story is simple enough, though. The scraggly haired Tada gets a call from the ex-wife (Manami Honjo) of his live-in pal and helper, Gyoten (Matsuda). Her request: care for her daughter Haru (Miku Iwasaki) while she is abroad for work. There is just one problem. The socially awkward Gyoten hates kids. You would think his own daughter would be an exception, but he did little more than supply the sperm for her conception and has never met her. Without telling Gyoten, the good-hearted Tada agrees to take the girl — and the fraught countdown to her arrival begins.

Soon Tada gets another hard-to-refuse request, this time from a local gangster, Hara (Kengo Kora), to check out a cult-like organization raising organic vegetables under the sleepy but watchful eye of their sketchy leader, Kobayashi (Masatoshi Nagase). Hara believes they are not on the up-and-up — but Tada is understandably reluctant to become involved.

More complications and characters are yet to come, including Hara’s short-tempered gangster associate (Hirofumi Arai), an irascible elderly gent (Akaji Maro) and a cute restaurant owner (Yoko Maki) with whom Tada is shyly in love.

As this far-from-complete summary indicates, the story rambles into various bypaths, with many well-known actors in bit roles. The effect is reminiscent of the all-star showcases studios once made to publicize their talent roster, with only a patchwork of a story.

Based on Shion Miura’s Naoki Prize-winning novel, the film wants to be a group portrait of people who don’t fit the middle-class mold, with Tada and Gyoten being 21st-century versions of that 20th-century lovable outsider, Tora-san — the wandering peddler who never got the girl, despite 48 episodes (1969-1995) of trying. The talented cast, though, can’t raise “Disconcerto” above the level of a sitcom with a mood disorder. One moment it is charming us with Gyoten’s fumbling attempts to acquaint himself with his button-cute daughter, the next it is jangling us with blood-soaked violence from what seems like a different movie.

It’s as though Omori, whose artier films go deep into the dark side of human nature, is trying to remind us who is really directing. In Hollywood the mantra for indie directors with mainstream aspirations (or temptations) is “one for them, one for me.” In other words, make the studio films to pay the rent and the arthouse films to justify your creative existence. But with Omori’s latest it’s “half for them and half for me” — and the fans expecting a funny, warm-hearted buddy comedy are left half entertained.


Fun fact: Cast member Nao Omori is Tatsushi Omori’s much-in-demand actor brother and Akaji Maro is his father, as well as the leader of a long-established butoh troupe. Both also appeared in the “Mahoro Ekimae” TV series.