The struggles of comics, be they up-and-coming or down-and-out, is a popular theme in Japanese film and television. A recent example of this was “Hibana,” a 10-part original Netflix drama about the decade-long career arc of a manzai (comic duo) act.

A similar concept is present in the scrappy comedy “Laughing Lucky Cats” (“Warau Maneki-Neko”), based on Yukihisa Yamamoto’s 2004 novel about a female manzai duo. Ken Iizuka’s film version comes out April 29, following the completion of a four-part drama starring the same characters — played by Fumika Shimizu and Rena Matsui — on the MBS and TBS networks, which began airing last month.

The producers of this project are neither lucky nor laughing since their star Shimizu announced her retirement from show business in February to devote herself to the Happy Science cult. But even if Shimizu had resisted the allure of a higher calling, she couldn’t have saved this film from its scattershot plotting and frenetic dramatics.

Laughing Lucky Cats (Warau Maneki-Neko)
Run Time 127 mins
Language Japanese
Opens April 29

Admittedly, manzai routines are hardly babbling brooks. The film’s 27-year-old heroines, Hitomi (Shimizu) and Akako (Matsui), try to get laughs with rapid-fire patter, not wry observational quips. And in their manzai roles of tsukkomi (straight woman) and boke (fool), with Hitomi kidding and berating Akako for perceived errors and idiocies, they create the comedy of punch-and-counterpunch, not frothy witticism.

As the story begins, this on-stage aggravation has carried over into their off-stage lives. After five years in the game, with little to show for it, they are constantly at each other’s throats and on the verge of breaking up.

Then the women catch a junior high schooler (Naoki Inukai) in the act of stealing Hitomi’s bike. He is, they learn, the victim of group bullying (his “friends” forced him to swipe the bike), so the women and their pals from their now distant college days decide to help. “You have to be the hero” the fiery Akako tells the kid. But soon after she informs her stoic manager, Nagayoshi (Akihiro Kakuta), that she is quitting. How heroic is that?

What follows is more stir-the-pot action: The kindly owner (Taro Suwa) of the bento shop where Hitomi works is stabbed; Akako attacks a more successful comic who has slighted her, starting a mini-riot at a crowded club. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, “So it goes” … and goes and goes.

Nonetheless, the narrative progresses amid all the yelling, shoving and flashing back to more innocent days. Our pair scores a TV variety show gig and gets to open for a more famous duo. Hitomi finds time for romance, much to her partner’s displeasure. Marriage, Akako believes, will be the ultimate act killer.

But as I waited to learn Akako and Hitomi’s fate, I found myself wanting more laughs, less noise, more fully rounded characters and fewer folks who come and go with the speed of our battling duo’s quips.

More fundamentally, I didn’t find Akako and Hitomi’s manzai all that funny, even after they had polished their routine to a bright (for them) sheen. Abbott and Costello — the closest American comics ever came to manzai — created some classic fast-talking bits (“Who’s on First?”), but that was several comic generations ago. I loved Bud and Lou, but today my Netflix queue belongs to Dave Chappelle.

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.


Coronavirus banner