Ornithologist Hiyori Soma (Kei Tanaka) is about to head off on a bird-watching expedition when his politician wife, Rinko (Miki Nakatani), poses to him a life-altering question, delivered with the nonchalance of someone asking if she should get a new haircut: Would it bother you if I became prime minister?
When he returns 10 days later, apparently having been out of cellphone range for the whole trip, the deed is already done. Through some canny maneuvering, Rinko — who is so effortlessly cool, she leaves people swooning in her wake — has become the first woman to lead the country, and Hiyori is forced to play the acquiescent political spouse.
The premise of Hayato Kawai’s “First Gentleman” may still have felt like speculative fiction when the film’s source, a novel of the same title by Maha Harada, was published in 2015. In an interesting bit of timing, however, it’s now being released in the middle of a Liberal Democratic Party leadership contest that may, in fact, produce Japan’s first female prime minister.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||121 mins.|
Yet the producers of this determinedly cutesy comedy seem to have been more worried about causing offense than they were with the possibility that reality might overtake them. Even the gentlest satire is apparently too much for “First Gentleman.” Koki Mitani’s benign 2019 political comedy, “Hit Me Anyone One More Time,” looks like Voltaire in comparison.
There’s something Candide-like about Hiyori’s induction into the world of top-level politics. Though he’d rather be off sketching birds, he dutifully joins his wife on the campaign trail (pro tip: “don’t react, keep smiling”), gets caught in a tabloid sting, and even inspires his own fan club of middle-aged women.
He also has to placate his own family: Hiyori is the black sheep in a corporate dynasty overseen by his older brother (Ainosuke Kataoka) and domineering mother (Kimiko Yo), both of whom are keen to extract favors from the new administration.
Perhaps this privileged background explains why he and Rinko can afford to live in a mansion even before they move into the prime minister’s official residence. The film may be willing to imagine a female premier, but it presents politics as a world that’s best left to the elite.
As for what that world really involves, “First Gentleman” is as light on specifics as Rinko’s inspirational, vaguely progressive agenda. There’s a smattering of in-jokes, and some mild intrigue courtesy of veteran powerbroker Kuro Hara (Ittoku Kisobe), whose polite faceoff with Rinko over a traditional New Year’s meal is one of the few scenes that generate any heat.
While Tanaka plays things as broadly as he did with his breakout performance in TV series “Ossan’s Love,” Nakatani can’t quite find the right balance for the trickier role of Rinko. Her professional persona is a mixture of well-oiled charm and sangfroid, but when she has to cozy up with her hubby at home, she switches into a Stepford Wives mode that’s downright creepy.
After managing to sustain some momentum during the first hour or so, the film drags badly in its final act, when an unexpected — though, for the audience, wholly predictable — turn of events forces Rinko to choose between her professional and personal obligations. Though “First Gentleman” ultimately finds the right solution to that particular dilemma, the film has already missed its moment.
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