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Comedy is hard. That’s what many comedians say, at least. Think of Charlie Chaplin filming hundreds of takes per immortal gag.

But Koki Mitani — the famously workaholic comic playwright, scriptwriter, director and producer — makes it look easy, with a stupendous number of film, TV and stage credits. And unlike the many comic talents that rely on collaborators, Mitani operates mostly as a one-man creative factory, while drawing heavily on the works of Neil Simon and Billy Wilder for inspiration.

Mitani films are like classic Broadway and Hollywood comedies in contemporary Japanese guise. Highlights include “Rajio no Jikan” (“Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald”), his 1997 debut about a neophyte scriptwriter’s disastrous professional bow, and “The Uchoten Hoteru” (“Suite Dreams”), his 2006 megahit about a chaotic New Year’s Eve at the title hotel. But as seen in “Gyarakushi Kaido” (“Galaxy Turnpike”), Mitani’s first venture into comic sci-fi, his work also expresses some very Japanese sentiments. Difficult or even dastardly characters reveal their essential niceness and everyone achieves a warm harmony by the credit crawl. Given Mitani’s shout-outs to local values, it’s no surprise that his 10 films to date have mostly become domestic hits, though they are not often shown abroad. Somewhere along the line, though, actual laughs have gone missing — or perhaps it’s just me, having seen his wheezy screwball comedy riffs too many times.

Galaxy Turnpike (Gyarakushi Kaido)
Rating
Run Time 110 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Oct. 24

“Galaxy Turnpike” begins in 2265 on an off-ramp from Route 246666, which connects Earth to a space colony located between Jupiter and Saturn. Here a married couple, Noa (Shingo Katori) and Noe (Haruka Ayase), run the venerable fast-food joint Sandsand Burger, now in its 150th year of operation.

Their customers, space aliens all, are a varied lot. At a corner table a shy doctor (Kanji Ishimaru) sits with a sketchy pimp (Koji Yamamoto) flipping through a photo album of alien hookers, some of whom look vaguely human. At a nearby booth a bespectacled bureaucrat (Yasunori Danta) taps at his PC, with chirping cartoon birds, a yapping cartoon dog and a mincing elderly mime (Kazuyuki Asano) hovering nearby. Don’t ask why.

The story revolves around a marital crisis that erupts when Noa’s flower-headed former girlfriend (single-named Yuka) waltzes in with her pointy-eared husband (Zen Kajihara) and tries to rekindle her ex’s long-extinguished love. Soon after, a nervous chap (Kenichi Endo) in the building-renovation business shows up to woo an alarmed Noe — and somehow she goes missing with him.

Save for an odd quirk or two, such as the psychic ability of a sullen fry cook (Shinobu Otake) to blow the Sandsand’s electric circuits when she overloads from stress, the aliens are basically humans with funny costumes and makeup whose problems are recognizably earthbound.

Meanwhile, the comic bits play like improv skits from bad late-night TV. One concerns the negotiations between a jaded hooker (Rika Tamura) and her medico john, who becomes flummoxed as she drives her price up to ridiculous heights. Another focuses on an earnest security guard (Shun Oguri) who reveals to his disbelieving superior (Kenji Anan) that he possesses superpowers. The comic potential in both skits goes painfully unrealized. But pop star Takanori Nishikawa (aka T.M. Revolution), playing a frog-like alien, delivers a big song-and-dance number with wacky gusto.

As usual, Mitani throws in plenty of plot twists, but most already had gray beards when Neil Simon was writing “The Odd Couple” (1965) and Billy Wilder was directing “Some Like It Hot” (1959). Perhaps Mitani should revisit those comedies, which now look familiar since so many people have stolen from them. Or he should step off the comedy treadmill for a while — and find new kicks on Route 66.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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