- Original title
- Maiko Haaaan!!!
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 120 minutes
- 21 August 2007
by Tom Mes
There seems to be no stopping Kankuro Kudo's triumphant march through the Japanese media landscape. In a world where the cute, the beautiful, and the talented are chewed up and spat out in a matter of months, this impish, scrawny, bucktoothed comedian / musician / writer / actor / director / radio DJ's career has shown an uninterrupted upward curve ever since he first appeared as an extra in Takeshi Kitano's Kids Return in 1995.
These days, it's hard to imagine the entertainment industry without him. Not just in the countless credits Kudo has built up in the intervening years (he wrote Go, Ping Pong, Iden & Tity, Zebraman, 69, and Drugstore Girl for the big screen, Ikebukuro West Gate Park and Kisarazu Cat's Eye for TV, and directed Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims, to mention only a sampling of his output since the turn of the millennium), but in the fact that he seems to be absolutely everywhere. And doing something interesting every time. Although his pop cultural sensibilities seem to place him firmly in otaku territory, a closer look reveals that he can lash out at his references as much as he can wallow in them. Or give them a spin and send them careening off into territories no one but he could have imagined.
Such is the case of Maiko Haaan!!!, the latest fruit of Kudokan's pen. This tale of an irrepressible nerd (Abe) obsessed with apprentice geisha, who dumps his airheaded but devoted girlfriend (Shibasaki) so that he can fully dedicate himself to sampling the delights of Kyoto's Miyagawacho and Gion districts, starts out abrasively hyperactive, turns thoroughly engaging, and eventually becomes a portrait of foolhardy single-mindedness that on occasion manages to echo nothing less than Yukio Mishima's Temple of the Gold Pavilion (Kinkakuji). And it's funny too.
Onizuka, the nerd in question, is a bowl-haired, irascible, and, frankly, insufferable know-it-all, something of a high-strung Nippon version of Charlie Higson's ginger-haired office git on BBC comedy series The Fast Show. So short-tempered is he, that the frequent flame wars on the forum of his exhaustive website on apprentice geisha (maiko) tend to be his own doing. One such fiery exchange in particular, from an anonymous who questions whether Onizuka has actually ever had any experience with maiko except from taking their pictures in the streets of Kyoto on his off days, makes Onizuka fume at the ears, because it precisely hits the sore spot. When his employer, a large producer of instant noodles, offers him a transfer to the Kyoto branch, he jumps at the chance to relocate to the Mecca of all things geisha, leaving his girlfriend Fujiko and their relationship behind. That the Kyoto branch is dead in the water and consists of a handful of employees who have long tired of their jobs matters little; Onizuka is there for the maiko. His first attempt to penetrate the inner sanctum is a miserable failure: "No first-timers allowed!" is the common creed at the geisha houses. Only an introduction from a trusted client - say, the president of his instant noodle company, who just happens to be a regular - will get him across the threshold. Just to get in tight with the boss, Onizuka invents a new style of costumisable ramen that becomes a runaway hit. He has now reached his goal. But further obstacles await inside. Naito (Tsutsumi), a pro baseball star, keeps occupying Onizuka's favourite girls, especially a newcomer freshly arrived from Tokyo who under all that white face paint looks uncannily like ex-girlfriend Fujiko.
This is only the beginning. Those who have seen Yaji and Kita will know that a Kudo story can twist and turn like a snake with stomach cramps, and while it doesn't take detours through the after life and drug-induced hallucinations the way Kudo's directorial debut did, Maiko Haaaan!!! has its hero making inroads into baseball, movies, and politics, to name but a few, as his rivalry with Naito - who just happened to be the agitator on Onizuka's web forum - spirals ridiculously out of control after Fujiko appears on the scene. This is also when the film really gathers steam and the until then often insupportable character of Onizuka becomes at once tragic and loveable: everything he touches seems to turn into gold, but he keeps overlooking the one thing he yearns for most.
For lead actor Sadao Abe, Onizuka is an addition to a gallery of manic, off-the-wall characters that stretches at least as far back as his appearances as sinister schoolboys in Hisayasu Sato's Splatter: Naked Blood and Higuchinsky's Uzumaki. He really began to excel at them through his work alongside Kudo and their mentor Suzuki Matsuo in the Otona Keikaku ('Adult Operation') theatre troupe and the spin-off project Group Tamashii, a rock band he started with Kudo and Seminosuke Murasugi that is like the bastard offspring of The Ramones and Monty Python.
Casting glamorous Kou Shibasaki as the toad-faced Abe's girlfriend seems the most glaring example of miscasting in years, but the actress obviously relished the opportunity to play against type, slouching around with unkempt hair and screwing up the simplest office jobs like a caricature of the OL stereotype. But Maiko Haaaan!!! is as much her story as it is Onizuka's, thus deftly avoiding the trap of making her little more than a piece of window dressing hankering after the man who dumped her. Shinichi Tsutsumi, meanwhile, delivers his best screen performance in quite a while. Much like American stars who suddenly start making vapid Jerry Bruckheimer films after winning an Oscar, the man whose film appearances once seemed limited to his fine lead turns in the films of director Sabu had become something of a poster boy for big-budget studio pap these past few years, in the wake of a score of awards for his television work in the first half of this decade that culminated in a Best Actor prize at the Japanese Academy Awards for his supporting turn in Takashi Yamazaki's vapid nostalgia piece Always: Sunset on Third Street (Always Sanchome no Yuhi, 2005).
Many a Japanese film these days is directed by a first-timer with a background in television. With budgets rising and hit films increasingly modeled after small screen successes, the choice to go with TV talent is an obvious one for a lot of producers. With on the whole less outspoken artistic preferences than most established filmmakers, yet with plenty of experience in managing the logistics of a shoot, they can deliver what is expected of them. For the most part, this is not much to write home about. See here one reason why new talent worthy of discovery has been so few and far between these past few years: the real talent no longer receives the opportunity to show what they are made of and are left to flounder with microbudget jishu eiga.
Maiko Haaaan!!! ostensibly fits that pattern: helmer Nobuo Mizuta (whose sole film credit was the previous year's comedy Boy Meets Ghost) doubtlessly got the job thanks to his history with broadcaster NTV, one of the film's main investors. Thankfully, this is one time where the taskmaster rises to the occasion; the film fits seamlessly into the (ongoing?) succession of gaudy comedies that have been coming out of the Otona Keikaku pipeline, indistinguishable in style and tone from Yaji and Kita or Suzuki Matsuo's Koi no Mon: Otakus in Love. They are an acquired taste, to be sure, but Maiko Haaaan!!! has the potential to appeal to both the otaku crowd looking to satisfy their thirst for extravagant pop cultural ephemera and those who like something with a bit more meat on the bone. As long as they don't mind their meat a very lurid shade of red.