The Uchouten Hotel Review
Although he’s only directed three films (All About Our House, Radio Jikan/Welcome Back, Mr. Donald, The Uchouten Hotel) and one TV movie Koki Mitani has established himself very well within the Japanese film industry. A writer, first and foremost - perhaps Japan’s most famous comedy playwright - he penned stage plays and drama serials through the early to mid nineties before pursuing directing and then returning to the small screen with his most prolific written work being Shinsengumi from 2004. That year also saw him churn out the script for Mamoru Hosi’s magnificent University of Laughs; a brilliantly well-drawn satire on Japan’s unforgiving censorship laws throughout the second world war, which used two central characters confined to a single room for a duration of two hours to address such absurdities and show us a side of theatre that would all too often pass by. Mitani shows a wonderful flair for dialogue and a gift for spouting infinitely interesting bouts of exposition. He writes about people and how they can affect each other’s lives in one way or another, intentionally or not. In The Uchouten Hotel Mitani continues to work much in the same way as the afformentioned film and to a large degree his television series by multiplying his numbers and ensuring undoubtedly his most ambitious film to date.
It’s New Year’s Eve and the Avanti Hotel is preparing a line up of events for the big occasion. Accommodation Manager Heikichi Shindo (Koji Yakusho) and his assistant Yabe (Keiko Toda) are busy seeing to it that guests are being comfortably checked in to their suites, while events manager Seo (Katsuhisa Namase) is trying to oversee the Stag Directors Association who are awarding “Man of the Year” to Professor Hotta (Takuzo Kadono); incidentally it just so happens that he’s been having an illicit affair with an elusive call-girl named Yoko (Ryoko Shinohara) who has tracked him down at the hotel and is pestering guests with naked dancing photos of him that she keeps stored on her mobile phone, which Hotta naturally worries will see to him losing face. Meanwhile a press conference looms which is to be held by the corrupt Mutoda (Koichi Sato) who has some big news pertaining to a recent scandal, but he is currently going through a guilt trip, experiencing self doubt and questioning the point of such an event. Also set to arrive is popular entertainer Zenbu Tokogawa (Toshiyuki Nishida) who promises a grand old time for all, but who seems a tad unstable in the mentality department.
Elsewhere in the hotel the staff and other guests are beginning to have problems of their own. The curious Avanti chairman (Koichi Sato) takes off with magician Jose Kochi’s (Susumu Terajima) face paint and subsequently goes into hiding, while room maid Hana (Takako Matsu) finds herself under interrogation from the son (Kondo Yoshimasa) of a wealthy businessman (Masahiko Tsugawa ) when she gets mistaken for his mistress after trying on her clothes. Meanwhile her friend Mutsuko (Keiko Horiuchi) is currently trying to do her job while the hotel porter Tange (Jay Kabira) constantly tries to have a moment alone with her so that he can profess his undying love. And then there’s the bellboy Kenji (Shingo Katori) who has just quit his job at the hotel because he’s come to the realisation that he’ll never make it as a singer and he should perhaps go home and start a new life for himself. When his friend Naomi (Kumiko Aso), a stewardess, arrives at the hotel she tells him that he can’t give up his dream. But before he can make his decision he is called into action one last time as the staff begin to struggle under heavy pressure. Things are about to go from bad to worse when faulty banners arrive, several entertainers cause havoc, reputations are challenged and a duck named Rub-A-Duck runs lose at the hotel of ecstasy.
The premise of The Uchouten Hotel is relatively simple, being set in the space of one evening with everybody working together in unison to achieve success; meanwhile guests come and go and things are thrown into disarray. Mitani takes such simplicity and relishes the opportunity to create havoc with it. Clearly he’s a fan of Edmund Goulding’s pleasant Grand Hotel from 1932 - based upon Vicki Baum’s play - starring Greta Garbo; in fact he pays the highest of respects by having the Hotel Avanti kitted out in a similar fashion, but with star studded names gracing room doors and suites containing mini-posters of said film. It’s all very quirky and self referential and old blueprints provide Mitani with several options, but he takes on a sheer insane approach from which he never looks back. Situational comedy proves to be his forte here, with the characters being the sole reason to get into the whole ordeal. It even harks back to television shows such as Fawlty Towers, replete with crazy shenanigans and painfully embarrassing confrontations, so effective that we’re left to wonder what these people will do next or how they’ll get themselves out of sticky situations. Trouble is that they hilariously keep digging themselves bigger holes. The westernised approach to some of his work is most interesting and he’s branched out in other areas in the past, having also based his first movie script “Gentle 12” on Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men, obviously citing another major influence on his career.
Despite a running time of two hours and fifteen minutes The Uchouten Hotel moves along at breakneck speed. Mitani might not have an extensive directorial background but he knows his way around a camera. The situations that he presents might well easily be captured by simple methods, but the director presents us with a fully breathing environment. The hotel feels alive, with no end of bustling and busy people, as scenes seamlessly converge and transitions come quick. Mitani’s camera moves gracefully throughout the impressive looking hotel, while even the more intimate moments provide equally as much depth, with a great deal of one take situations; all this of course stemming from his days in theatre where he is all too used to similar methods.
In keeping with the theatrical style of Uchouten Hotel, Mitani has brought in a fantastic ensemble cast of seasoned veterans, familiar character actors, and rising talents. The list of people is huge - perhaps the best cast of the year - and Mitani skillfully weaves memorable character arcs for each one despite the complications that ensue. Those more familiar with Mitani’s television work will spot several regulars, many of whom worked together on Shinsengumi, including Shiro Ito in a magical performance as the hotel chairman, decked out in white face paint; Koichi Sato trying to hold it together as a corrupt politician; Keiko Toda as Shindo's loyal assistant, Jo Odagiri (almost unrecognisable as the in-house caligrapher) and “SMAP”’s Shingo Katori. Headlining is Koji Yakusho of Shall We Dance and University of Laughs (perhaps more familiar to many readers for his turn in Memoirs of a Geisha) fame who is the perfect embodiment of a man insecure in his own ways. Authoritative and proud, his character takes an interesting journey as unforeseen events get the better of him, though certainly not his imagination. Special mention goes to Takuzo Kadono as Mr. Hotto (a.k.a. Snakeman), who is at the hotel to receive his “Man of the Year” award. As we discover he has the odd skeleton in the closet and this evening’s events are about to shake up his reputation big time. Kadono is really put through the paces and serves up a class performance as an easily manipulated, hooker addicted buffoon who gradually descends into madness, all in the most hilarious of ways.
But these men are carried by so many great players, who have small but essential roles. TRICK’s Katsuhisa Namase gets a valuable turn as events manager Seo, acting as a counter-balance to Shindo’s calm authority, with Mitani also allowing him opportunities to show off his range of comedic skills. Western viewers might also recognise a few faces; YOU from 2004’s Nobody Knows puts in another oddball appearance, this time as wannabe Jazz singer Sakura Cherry with which she does wonders; her vacant facial expressions and squeaky voice being highly deceptive until the final pay off. The brilliant Susumu Terajima turns up to entertain as a struggling magician, while Ryoko Shinohara lights up the screen with her evasive antics. Jay Kabira and Masanori Ishii do wonders with their characters of the hotel porter and hotel detective respectively, while Takako Matsu and Keiko Horiuchi breath plenty of life into their room maid roles. Almost stealing the show, however, is the legendary Toshiyuki Nishida as Zenbu “Maestro” Tokugawa. Nishida has had some up and down health problems over the years, but he’s always bounced back more energetic than ever. As usual he puts his all into the role of a famous singer who finds himself struggling to come to terms with ageing and losing inspiration; a backstage glance at the troubles of a performer who everyone believes is perfect. The actor perfectly balances hilarious comedy and light drama in a truly memorable performance. The most obscure honour goes to voice actor Koichi Yamadera - famed for his roles in Cowboy Bebop, Captain Harlock, Ranma ½ and Ghost in the Shell - as Rub-A-Dub the duck, the other member of a ventriloquist duo.
With all of his comical moments hitting every mark Mitani still finds time to make a point of it all. Much like University of Laughs he leaves us with a simple and kind message, which ends on a breezy, uplifting note. Both this and his previous screenplay University of Laughs offers the viewer a glimmer of hope as it tells us to simply be ourselves. Ordinarily I might find this kind of approach somewhat tiring and Mitani certainly pushes it upon the viewer several times, and yet it doesn’t feel forced, instead rather sincere. The characters in The Uchouten Hotel represent characteristics in all of us and that makes it a wholly involving experience: deceit, vanity, pride, dreams and ambitions; a spectrum of human emotion and flaws that ultimately conveys to us that we should be true to ourselves. A chain of events occur in which two dozen characters - which amazingly never feels convoluted - will affect the lives of one another. That’s what reality is and that’s what Mitani superbly captures: humanity in its simplest forms, despite some unlikely and considerably loopy scenarios.
Yesasia has sent us through the standard, single disc release of the film. As such extra features are light.
Presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio The Uchouten Hotel looks gorgeous. Slight edge enhancement quibbles aside (and it is very little to worry about) this is a damn fine release from DVD Toho, which offers a great amount of detail, deep blacks and good contrast levels. Colours are natural across the board, with nice skin tones and primary colours maintaining consistency throughout, with no bleeding or garish qualities, while the hotel aesthetics offer pleasing auburn and cream shades which give it that nice classic feel.
Sound options consist mainly of a 5.1 surround track, with an audio commentary in 2.0. Things sound great on the main surround front. This is a very talkie piece and it’s nice to hear solid directionality, with the central speakers catering for much of the dialogue, while Yousuke Honma’s infectious score is gracefully carried through to the surrounds. Here he provides another superb, cheery score that consists of a little classical, swing and jazz.
Optional English subtitles are included and come across clear and punctual, with just one or two very slight errors early on.
Koki Mitani and Fuji Television presenter Takashima Aya - who plays the screaming woman - offers up their thoughts on an audio commentary, while the rest of the bonus material consists of theatrical trailers, TV Spots and announcements. As usual there are no subtitles for the commentary track, which is a great shame as it comes across as being very lively and fun.
The Uchouten Hotel proves to be yet another triumph for Koki Mitani, delivering intelligence, sharp wit and hilarious visual gags, spurred on by a dedicated cast of wonderful faces. A superb presentation all round for one of this year’s best films.