Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: Emi-Abi

In their Manzai comedy duo act, Jitsudo is definitely the Martin to Unno’s Lewis, but the straight man can’t even croon. Unfortunately, when his partner is killed in an auto accident, Jitsudo’s career starts to look just as dead. Of course, dealing with his complicated feelings of grief, guilt, and jealousy would be a good first step in Kensaku Watanabe’s Emi-Abi (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Jitsudo was the preening Abbott while Unno was the goofy Costello. They were a natural pairing, but it was Kurosawa, the respected Manzai veteran, who brought them together. After retiring from the stage seven years ago, Kurosawa has developed a reputation for aloof eccentricity, perhaps not completely unlike Bill Murray. After weeks of feeling sorry for himself, Jitsudo is finally facing up to his pseudo-mentor, but it will be difficult, because Kurosawa’s beloved younger sister Hinako also died in the car with Unno.

That meeting will go spectacularly badly, but perhaps there is a method to Kurosawa’s madness. In any event, their encounter spurs flashbacks to Unno’s first datish night out with Hinako. It also took an ugly turn, but it vividly explains how they forged such a deep connection.

Emi-Abi sounds like a tonal mine field, but Watanabe (the award-winning screenwriter of The Great Passage) manages to scamper through unscathed. A good deal of credit goes to the uniformly understated cast. Surprisingly, this most definitely includes Tomoya Maeno’s poignant Unno. He might be rubber-faced when the footlights are on, but Maeno plays him as the grandpappy of all crying-on-the-inside-clowns off-stage.

To keep us off balance, Haru Kuroki periodically cold-cocks the audience with out of left field humor as Natsumi, Jitsudo’s long suffering manager. Kuroki is in the midst of an amazingly productive period, gracing distinctive and diverse films like Solomon’s Perjury, Nagasaki: Memories of My Son, and A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. Mari Yamachi is also wonderfully sweet and distressingly vulnerable as Hinako. Ryu Morioka nicely portrays Sanemichi’s late twenties midlife crisis, but as Kurosawa, Hirofumi Arai gets to drop all the film’s sly little surprises—and he makes the most of each one.

Man, if ever there was a bittersweet film, Emi-Abi would be it. Sometimes it is absolutely charming, but there are scenes that are downright painful to watch, involving predatory street violence and deliberate humiliation. That’s Manzai for you. Highly recommended for those who appreciate drama with heart and an edge, Emi-Abi screens this Sunday (7/24) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts 2016.