Nezu no Ban (A Hardest Night) Review
If you were to ask most Asian film fans to talk about traditional Japanese comedy they would most likely mention Manzai: the 2-man stand up routine that usually involves a straight man bickering with a funny idiot. Rakugo would probably not be the first form of comedy said fans would mention, even though it shares a rich 200+ year history and can be seen briefly in the films of many contemporary Japanese directors. In a nutshell Rakugo is simply the art of comedic storytelling. One man in a kimono kneels down on stage armed with his trusty fold-out fan and delivers a meticulously crafted comedy monologue to his audience, the material is rarely original – indeed most of the stories are based around a series of classic stories called Ujishûi Monogatari that is almost 800 years old now – so the art of Rakugo lies in the delivery of the dialogue and body language of the storyteller. Also the wordplays and closing punchlines are usually incredibly idiomatic, so the humour is almost completely lost on a foreign audience. This hasn’t stopped myself from enjoying films based around this subject matter though, indeed I laughed quite heartily through the 2005 TV special: Tiger & Dragon, and found the subsequent TV series even funnier still. Nezu no Ban though, from first time director Masahiko Makino, doesn’t try to give Rakugo a new contemporary spin, instead it celebrates the stories and culture of a group of people to whom the traditional artform is a huge part of their lives.
Rakugo master Shomantei Kyokaku is on his hospital deathbed surrounded by wife Shizuko, son Kyoya, and his 4 pupils: Kyoji, Kyota, Kyoshi, and Kyoshichi. When asked about his last wish, the frail old man whispers into Kyoji’s ear: “I want to see…” The others frantically gather around Kyoji enquiring what their master said, Kyoji informs them: “He wants to see…A pussy!” One last time the old man wants to see the delicate flower of womanhood, but how are his students going to meet the master’s last wish? This is just one of the dilemmas and stories shared between the students and family of the Shomantei clan as they see their beloved master off into the next world with bittersweet celebration. As fate would have it, it’s not long before other members of the family also pass on, which means more funerals and more stories and comical reminiscing for the surviving members.
Nezu no Ban is one of those films that is so inherently steeped in its own native culture that it is difficult to define why it should appeal to foreign viewers. It’s promoted as a riotous comedy, but in truth probably only its target audience of the older Japanese generation will find the film gut-wrenchingly funny – so you can imagine how much the humour appeals to us Westerners. No, Nezu no Ban will most likely have you laughing sporadically and grinning throughout. It might also have you blushing, because Makino’s debut film is surprisingly rude, featuring scatological gags, bestiality and numerous other twisted sexual situations, oh and dirty songs – lots of dirty songs! Drama also plays an important part in counter-pointing the comic tomfoolery. The characters all feel like a genuine family unit, and although only three are related by blood you can definitely feel the history and love they share for each other, which brings an incredible amount of pathos into the funerals. If comedy is the driving force behind the film’s narrative, then remembrance, the sadness that people you love will not be playing a further part in your life, and the profound small personal moments you shared with them in the past, are all conveyed and anchor the film whenever the comedy looks in danger of becoming too extravagant.
Credit for this must go to Masahiko Makino’s skilful direction. If his name doesn’t sound too familiar then this is because it’s a pseudonym for veteran character actor Masahiko Tsugawa, who has starred in numerous films over the years - of which his frequent collaborations with Juzo Itami are of particular note because Itami’s fingerprints are all over Makino’s directorial debut. There are numerous nods towards Itami’s own directorial debut: The Funeral, but also Makino handles the ruder comedy with a twinkle in his eye that is heavily reminiscent of the late legend. More impressively, he effectively captures the rhythm of Rakugo monologues and the abrupt punchlines that so characterises the medium. This is never more apparent than in the early death bed scene where the Shomantei students learn of their master’s dying wish and its pay-off that’s delivered towards the end of the opening act.
Makino’s casting is equally impressive, Nezu no Ban features an ensemble cast of talented character actors and a few veteran stars, all bringing the most to their roles. Most impressive of all is Kiichi Nakai, a heavily respected film star in Japan who has built a career on stand-out performances. Here he juggles the humour and sadness of Shomantei Kyokaku’s second most senior pupil: Kyota superbly, fleshing the character out beautifully and even selling a story where Kyota reveals he’s done something nasty to a Manta Ray. Hiroyuki Nagato, Junko Fuji, and Takashi Sasano as Kyokaku, his wife Shizuko, and senior pupil Kyoji respectively all threaten to steal the film away from Nakai with similarly warm, humorous performances, but ultimately it is Nakai who owns the film. Masaaki Sakai turns up in a memorable supporting role in the final act as well; fans of the 70’s show Monkey should remember him fondly. Here he proves he’s lost none of his comic flair, helping to make the film’s final act a comedic high point and thoroughly joyful way to end a bittersweet comedy that, while maybe a little slow and perplexing to foreign viewers at times, manages to be both poignant and tremendously uplifting by the time the final credits roll.
PresentationNezu no Ban has come out on DVD in Japan as a single disc Standard Edition and this 2-disc Special Edition that. Disc 01 is the same in both sets, but the 2nd disc of the Special edition holds exclusive extra material.
Presented anamorphically at 1.85:1, Nezu no Ban looks good, but not great. The very grainy transfer exhibits natural skintones, pleasing brightness levels – although contrast is a touch high - and a strong colour scheme; which does feature some bleeding. Likewise, the print is clean, save the odd nick here and there, and the image is reasonably sharp. However, surprisingly for a r2j release this is only a DVD-5, and while there’s no macroblocking or chroma noise and low level noise, the transfer is constantly dogged by mosquito noise. The biggest problem lies with heavy Edge Enhancement that results in thick ugly halos around people and objects in a number of scenes.
Only a Japanese DD2.0 soundtrack is present on the disc, which does this dialogue driven film justice. The audio is crisp and clear with good dynamics; dialogue sounds rich and is clearly audible throughout. There is some tearing when characters start screeching at the top of their lungs, but it sounds like this is down to the original recording rather than the DVD. Likewise bass is deep and warm, ensuring the classical score sounds suitably weighty.
Optional English subtitles are provided. The English subtitles have no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.
ExtrasBefore discussing the extra features in this 2-disc set, I want to just state up-front that none of the extras feature English subtitles, and I have a policy of not rating any extra material that I cannot understand. Instead I’ll just take you through what each option in both discs’ main menus will give you:
The main menu of disc01 presents you with 5 options, 3 of which are devoted to special features. Starting from the left, the 1st option is a simple brightness calibration tool to test for your display. The 2nd option is the Special Features section; in here are 4 more options. Again starting from the left we have: Theatrical Trailer (2m 23s), Teaser Trailer (1m 23s), a 3rd option that just plays the film, and the last option on the right is an Audio Commentary With Cast & Crew. Moving back the main menus, and the 3rd option there is a lengthy Cast & Crew Biographies section. The final two options will take you to the chapter menu and play the film.
Here’s where all the extra features unique to this Special Edition lie. Pop this disc in an the main menu presents you with 4 options, so from left to right we have:
Option 01: Deleted Scenes. In here are 2 deleted flashback sequences that were probably dropped from the film for pacing reasons. The first deleted flashback runs 3m 15s long and is set either just before or soon after Kyota’s marriage to Shigeko, and they’re meeting up with Kyokaku to break the news of Shigeko’s pregnancy. Part of this sequence is in English as the couple bump into an American Santa Claus man. The 2nd flashback is longer (4m 33s) and is based around some sort of mix up involving an item Kyokaku has lost or something like that.
Option 02: Nezu no Ban Premiere Footage (19m 22s). This includes a lengthy pre-screening press conference of sorts with director Masahiko Makino and cast: Kiichi Nakai, Kimura Yoshino, Hiroyuki Nagato, and Ittoku Kishibe. Hen this has ended we cut to the post-screening Questions & Answers session.
Option 03: Making Of Featurette (41m 40s). This feature incorporates cast & crew interviews, behind the scenes footage, and rehearsal footage to cover pretty much every aspect of the production. Although I couldn’t understand it, it comes across as a particularly well put together featurette.
Option 04: Dirty Songs Karaoke. The final section is a series of basic Karaoke videos so you can sing-along to your favourite dirty songs from the film – if you can read Japanese that is.