笑の大学 & The Last Laugh

笑いの大学   (Warai no Daigaku) (DVD)

A 2005 film version of Mitani Koki’s most famous stage piece. I had never seen the show on stage, but will be seeing a British adaptation called The Last Laugh next week and wanted to catch a production in the original Japanese first. I’ve always had problems with Mitani Koki’s shows since they tend to be a bit contrived. The ones I’ve seen have all been elaborate farces with numerous quirky characters and complicated plots that all get tied up a bit too nicely in the end. I’ve always felt like he simply gives the characters the traits they need for his story or for a particular moment rather than creating natural human beings, and the stories themselves can be pretty artificial, though he does have a nice way of juggling multiple plot strands. I had been curious about this show since it only has two characters, a far cry from anything I’ve seen by him before, and the show next week was a good excuse to rent the movie.

The time is 1940. An unsmiling government censor (Yakusho Koji), a cold bureaucrat who sees no moral or social purpose in comedy, is vetting plays for performance. In comes a nervous young playwright (Inagaki Goro) from the Warai no Daigaku troupe, who brings his latest comedy for approval. He tries to explain to the uncomprehending censor why certain lines or routines are funny, but none of his eager line readings or actions raise even a grin. Rather than rejecting the script outright in the face of this enthusiasm, the censor makes petty and impossible demands in hopes of getting rid of the playwright, but the latter, through a combination of naiveté and an irrepressible desire to please, unexpectedly meets the requests with creative changes that actually improve the work. For example, the censor insists that the entire show, a parody of Romeo and Juliet called Romilette and Julio, be shifted to Japan and all characters be Japanese. The playwright realizes that this gives the piece greater relevance for the audience and thus makes it funnier. The censor’s request that he include a paean to the nation (“お国のために死んでも構わない” “I’ll gladly die for the nation (kuni)”) becomes the source of outlandish punning (such as “お肉のために死んでも構わない” “I’ll gladly die for meat (niku)”).

As this process continues and the indefatigable playwright returns every day with a better piece, the censor gradually becomes pleased with himself and morphs unwittingly into a play doctor. For instance, he asks that a policeman, used in a scene just for a laugh, be given a proper motive to be there, which is quite right. He even helps recite lines and perform scenes. However, towards the end, after a heartfelt thanks from the playwright for helping the show, the censor snaps back to his old self, realizing that he has compromised his position. He demands that the playwright remove all humor from the play, saying that he will refuse to allow a performance if even a single laugh remains. The deflated playwright, who has worked so hard to ensure a performance for his troupe, surprises the censor by agreeing, if dejectedly, to the request.

He returns the next day with a play that has more laughs than ever. The outraged censor, having laughed himself silly at a script for the first time in his life, demands to know the playwright’s intentions in presenting such a piece with full knowledge that it would be rejected. The playwright reveals that when he returned the previous night to work on the piece, he discovered a draft notice in the mail. Aware that he might never see the performance anyway, he resolved to put all of his life and years from the theatre into the final piece, at least remaining true to himself. He parts from the censor saying, “お国のために死んでも構わない” (“I’ll gladly die for the nation”), as if accepting the government line that one should be willing to sacrifice oneself for the nation. In defiance of the official stand, the censor cries after him, “Come back safe!” The playwright smiles, bows and leaves.

This is easily the best piece by Mitani Koki that I’ve seen yet. The film did have shots outside the interrogation room, including daily walks by both characters past the theatre and a particularly memorable scene with the stone-faced, unfathoming censor watching a comedy amidst a theatre full of wildly laughing viewers. But basically the action takes place within the confines of the interrogation room. It is easy to imagine this show as the two-man theatre piece that it is, and it was very impressive that the director resisted the temptation to “open it up”. It is a credit to the writer, director and actors that a show with only two characters never flags. I had imagined from a story about censorship that the censor would be an ogre and the writer a paragon of virtue. It wasn’t at all so cut and dry. While it’s true that the censor was a gloomy sourpuss who saw no point in comedy, he opens up in the course of the power game with the playwright, revealing some semblance of humanity inside. On the other side, the playwright is such an innocent and appealing creation that he never lapses into an onerous symbol of freedom or justice or such. He is honestly just doing what he knows best in a guileless belief that making people laugh is its own justification. I imagine that the play can be seen as a criticism of censorship itself, but this is no didactic piece. I was really taken by the development of the two characters. The playwright is resigned in the end to dying for his country but refuses to betray himself by writing a comedy without humor. The censor, though still a stuffy bureaucrat at the end, has finally laughed for the first time and recognizes the humanity in the playwright, and his final line suggests that he is questioning the system as well. The scene of him in the theatre, befuddled at the howling laughter surrounding him, reminded me of Sullivan’s Travels, where the socially committed film writer suddenly sees the value of “meaningless” humor in a theatre filled with laughter.

One disappointment: I realized later upon replaying the end of the film that the censor, upon learning of the writer’s draft notice, said that in fact he had just asked the authorities to leave the kid alone; the request and draft notice must have passed each other in the mail. That coincidence seems pretty corny. I think it’s better that the bureaucrat be shocked at the sudden reality of war and what it might signify, i.e., the potential loss of someone he actually knows and respects as a human rather than a mere soldier. I hadn’t caught this the first time, which was fortunate. If I ever download this film, I’m going to edit that line out.

Yakusho Koji was as good as ever as the censor, hard-nosed and uncompromising at the beginning, blissfully silly as he caught the theatre bug in the middle, and increasingly human towards the end. He’s set a pretty high standard for himself in his career – I’ve never seen a misstep – and he pretty much matches expectations here. The surprise was Inagaki Goro. I tend to dismiss the SMAP singers offhand, and he would not have been my first choice in this role in any case. But he brought just the right amount of nervous energy and innocence to his part, never overplaying his hand in either the humorous or sentimental scenes. (I wonder if that mild lisp was part of his characterization or his usual way of speaking. Either way, it was effective.) He hasn’t shied away from tough parts in the past, such as the supporting role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and from the evidence here, I should take him more seriously.

I understand that the British version places the show in an unspecified location during an unspecified war. One source of the power behind the Japanese version was that such censorship actually existed in those days, within living memory for many; the censor’s disturbing militaristic ideology was hardly just a product of the writer’s imagination. It remains to be seen whether a foreign production can work completely without this specific background. Judging from the movie, I imagine in theory that the play could work in another environment, though it would obviously need some serious rewriting to make the comedy parts funny. (I see on a Web site that the movie’s English subtitles had a great solution for the お国 and お肉 pun: “for the sake of the nation” became “for the steak of the nation”. Perfect.) I look forward to seeing how the British creators maneuver this.

The Last Laugh

12 December 2007 (Thurs), Tokyo

An English-language import of Mitani Koki’s 「笑の大学」(see above). The show is a British concoction that has just finished a regional tour in England and is headed next month for the West End. The actors are both fairly well-known theatre/film stars in the U.K.: Martin Freeman (“The Office”) as the writer, Roger Lloyd Pack (“Harry Potter and the Something or Other”) as the censor. The setting has been transferred to an unspecified European nation at a time of war, though the time still seems to be the late 30s or early 40s given the old phone and other props, and the censor is now a soldier rather than a bureaucrat. It follows the Japanese fairly closely in terms of the story (judging from the film), but as it is directed towards a completely different audience, there are some pointed changes, both for better and worse.

First, the slightly altered story. The writer enters with a box of chocolates for his usual censor only to find a military officer in his place – the previous censor having been put under investigation for bribery. The officer is a serious type who has no interest in drama or the arts, actually boasting that he has never even set foot in a theatre. This in fact is the first play he has ever read. Regarding the writer’s proffered work, Romeo and Juliet: The Comedy, the censor says that he has never heard of the original play or even Shakespeare and demands changes. Thereafter the battle between the two proceeds. The censor considers laughter an affront to the soldiers who are risking their lives for the nation, while the writer keenly defends his craft, explaining in great detail why laughter is not only important but necessary. There is a side story about a crow with a broken wing that is healing at the censor’s home and the assistance provided by the writer (advice, a makeshift birdcage, two finches). The story also suggests at one point that the soldier, tiring of the writer’s untiring efforts to get his play approved, has secretly called the recruiting agency in order to get the writer drafted. More importantly, the censor learns late in the show that his son has died in the war. He breaks down at the news, showing emotion for the first time. We learn that he later snuck off to the theatre, but he avoids admitting that he might have enjoyed it. When he hears that the writer has in fact been drafted, he offers to get him off the hook, but the writer refuses. At the end of the show, the soldier is alone reading the script, laughing heartily, as the explosions grow closer and more frightening.

The most striking difference from the Japanese was the emphasis on the wartime setting. From the very opening, the sounds of bombs, sirens and other militaristic sounds were audible from the window, along with lighting suggestive of explosions and such. This continued throughout the play. The soldier referred constantly to the war and the sacrifices of the soldiers, and was himself transferred to the censor’s office because of a war mishap in which he lost his hand. That metal hand, by the way, not present in the original, seemed a spurious addition. It didn’t tell us anything more about the character or add anything to the show other than the opportunity for some lame jokes (“People would give their right arm to see this – oh, sorry”). By the end of the show, the subject of the hand had been forgotten entirely. If it was supposed to be a symbol for something, it went over my head. The play would lose nothing whatsoever by abandoning that meaningless change. I wasn’t quite sure either about the soldier’s limping at the beginning of the second act, evidently the result of some sort of unnamed struggle. Whatever that was is distracting and should be axed.

Turning the censor into a soldier was an interesting approach, but by making him such a boob and accentuating the fighting, the play seemed eager to make an anti-war or at least an anti-military statement, which is rather simplistic. Censorship doesn’t need war, as shown for example by the Soviet Union (which appeared to be the inspiration here judging from the outfits and dreary office); the play diluted its theme by stressing the fighting. The writer, for example, speaks sarcastically of a war begun under false pretenses, which I presume is supposed to make us think of Iraq. But just who exactly is pro-war anyway? The soldier’s fervent belief in his cause and objection to wartime merriment were reasonable character traits, and his laughter at the writer’s script at the end was a very effective sign of his conversion. But did they have to make him so dumb? Did he have to be that stiff? He had never heard of Romeo and Juliet? He would really take every statement from the writer so literally (“The priest jumped the gun.” “Why does a priest have a gun?”)? I think the piece would work better if the character was less cartoonish and more real. The passionate soldier was an interesting contrast with the original’s bureaucrat, a passionless rubber-stamper who believes only what he is told to believe. But the real difference was that the latter was played straight, and his gradual conversion was therefore very convincing. The problem in the British version was that it crossed the line into caricature.

The writer was also problematic. He had an unfortunate tendency to explain things to death, such as his belief in the power of comedy. It bordered on the didactic and crossed at times into the boring. I’m not sure that a fish needs to be aware of the water; it just needs to swim. In the original, the writer didn’t justify himself by citing the significance of comedy; he just wrote and rewrote, and his natural comic sense even in the face of the most absurd requests was its own argument. His innocent confidence in his work and his innate desire to please were the perfect foil to the bureaucrat’s unthinking rejections. It’s funny that the one time that Mitani Koki has created nicely balanced characters, the adaptation features exaggerations.

I really think the play would have benefited from greater specificity as in the original. It seems vaguely modeled on the Soviet Union or an Eastern European nation, but I don’t see why it couldn’t have actually been those places or even England itself (which had strict regulations on the theatre before, during and after the war, though of course not to this degree). As censorship was a very real phenomenon in Japan in 1940, the location and timing of the Japanese version gave the work a greater sense of reality. There were actual references to Churchill and Hitler, and lines like “I would gladly die for my country!” were a stark reminder of the times. The bureaucrat’s ignorance of Romeo and Juliet was quite believable in this context given his Meiji or Taisho Era education. The fight was thus between people rather than character types: the passionless bureaucrat wasn’t faceless, and the young artist wasn’t a mere symbol. The theme that stood out for me was the writer’s struggle between his honesty as an artist and the practical needs of the theatre. A more cynical case was made in the Robert Altman movie The Player, where the writer has completely abandoned his ideals after his original version bombed in Peoria. By the end of the Japanese show, the writer is willing to risk his life for his country but not to sacrifice his own integrity by taking the comedy out of his comedy. He’s willing to bend but not to break. The message in the English version, I think, was more muddled. I imagine it will be seen as a plea against censorship, but that doesn’t strike me as something very controversial or deep.

Other points:

  1. When the Japanese writer brings a sweet potato in the opening scene, it’s a natural gesture from an innocent kid. When the bureaucrat accuses him of bribery, it’s funny precisely because it’s such a silly accusation, showing the bureaucrat as insensitive and the writer as charmingly naïve. In the English version, the chocolates really are a bribe, which immediately establishes the writer as a guy who knows the game and is willing to play. This is not necessarily a wrong approach, but I found the Japanese version much more appealing.
  2. The joke about “Dear Old Leader” was weak. The censor asked the writer to put in a reference to the leader, and the writer used it to refer to a horse. The original had used お国 (honorable nation) to refer jokingly to a woman, which is nice and short and could in fact be a woman’s name in Edo times. The English play should have stuck with “For the sake of our country” and “For the steak of our country”.
  3. The crow, which seems to have been in the original play, was a nice touch, especially as the absurdities built in that Mitani-esque way (the crow couldn’t get out of the box, the freed crow bit the wife in the nose, the soldier tripped over the birdcage, the crow returned with more crows, etc).
  4. There were several small scenes, one of which seemed no more than 30 seconds. The lights go up, a line or two is spoken or a few gestures are made, then the lights go down again. One of two of these might be effective, but they become trying after a while. There must be a way to trim these. In one case, the janitor (a third actor, who makes the briefest of appearances in a few scenes) comes in, cleans the trash, eats a chocolate and leaves – all to no apparent purpose whatsoever. Is the director simply giving the main characters a chance to change costumes here or catch their breath, or is there some other reason for this unnecessary scene? Very distracting.
  5. I’m still not sure what to think about the soldier calling the draft board to summon the writer for duty. I’m not certain if he sincerely wanted the kid to do something meaningful for the country or just wanted to get rid of him. It wasn’t necessarily out of line with the soldier’s personality and was an unexpected twist, but it would seem to contradict his sadistic desire, which he admitted later, to break the writer down.
  6. The parting of the two characters at the end seemed more heartfelt in the Japanese, especially as the censor reacts to the writer’s mocking re-statement of the earlier line, “I would gladly die for my country.” But the British ending after that parting was great, the soldier finally laughing out loud as he sits alone with the script (though I could have done without the room shaking from the bombs).
  7. The actors were both fine. The soldier was near perfect, including a strong voice and terrific comic timing, and physically quite tall and straight like a soldier should be. The writer was a bit more television-oriented, especially in his somewhat mannered reactions (both the actors are television stars in Britain), but he was spirited and held up his end well enough. I much preferred Inagaki’s anxious portrayal than Freeman’s self-assuredness, but that might have been a function of the direction.

Even taking the English show entirely on its own terms, I think the war theme is overplayed, the soldier overly dim, and the importance-of-comedy theme overdone or over-talked. I don’t like being bashed on the head with these things. That being said, the English do seem to like talky shows, and their humor can be beyond me. (All of us were totally baffled by what the writer describes as his favorite joke: “Is your husband in?” “Sorry, we’ve just buried him.” “Oh… Well, did he say anything about a green tin?” There wasn’t a laugh in the entire audience, but I have to assume that the British writer thinks it’s funny.) I’m curious to see how this is received over there. I can understand not wanting to do a straight translation that keeps the setting in Japan, especially having tried that myself in a show way back when. But I personally would love to see such a version tried in Japan, where the viewers might understand it better.




One thought on “笑の大学 & The Last Laugh

  1. Pingback: Welcome Back, Mr McDonald (ラジオの時間 ) | sekenbanashi

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