Movie Review – Emi-Abi (JAPAN CUTS 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Absolutely no idea.

REVIEW: Comedic dramas, or dramedies, are an incredibly hard genre to pull off. A delicate balance and an assured hand in directing is key so the audience can be able to accept the switch in genres without alienating the audience or worse, causing unintentional laughter. Some really bad or disappointing comedy-dramas are the insufferable Patch Adams and the badly realized superhero film Hancock. Films such as those lack a delicate balance that makes them fail miserably. Now we have the director of one of my personal favourite Aoi Miyazaki films, Loved Gun, who is also the award-winning screenwriter of the fantastic drama The Great Passage; coming back into film-making after an 8-year absence with Emi-Abi, a dramedy about a comedy duo going through a tragic event that is no laughing matter. Does director Watanabe still have his directing chops to make a great dramedy or has he lost his touch and will end up with an unintentionally comic disaster?

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Ryu Morioka and Tomoya Maeno stars as Jitsudo and Unno, two aspiring comedies whom together combine to make a comedic duo called Emi-Abi. But unfortunately, Unno had tragically passed away in a car accident, which leaves Jitsudo depressed and his career dwindling. The accident also affects retired comedian Kurosawa (Hirofumi Arai), whose sister Hinako (Mari Yamachi) was also in the same car as Unno was. Supported by his manager, Natsumi (Haru Kuroki) who may have more comedic chops that Jitsudo does, he and Kurosawa gradually learn to come to terms with the passing of their loved ones as well as summon up the courage to learn the true depths of what comedy truly is.

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The story makes it sound like it is going to be a hard feat to pull off, but goddamn, director Watanabe pulls it off. His direction of how he handles the tone shifts are smooth and never takes the audience out of the movie. There is a scene in the movie where Unno and Hinako are in a conflict and Unno is forced to make the bullies laugh for them to leave unharmed, so he does a comedy routine that involves flatulence and Watanabe pulls off the scene with ease. His storytelling with time shifts are always well-integrated into the film without fancy transitions and he never leaves the audience feeling lost within the narrative. There is even an element of surrealism that accentuates the depths of comedy that the characters are looking for. It also provides a convincing story element that conveys courage and the push that the characters desperate need to drive themselves as well as adding unpredictability into the story. Like the hilarious use of the deus ex machina trope in a scene where Kurosawa tries to make family members of the deceased to laugh.

Much credit should be given to the actors, who make their characters much more developed than the tight running time would imply. Ryu Morioka is convincing as Jitsudo, as he conveys the character’s fear, anger and brash attitude really well, and his comedic chops are also well-done. Tomoya Maeno plays the comedic side of Unno with ease, but it is the dramatic aspects that Maeno is a surprise to see, even when all of it is overacting and cliched. We clearly see his motivations and thoughts (a shy introvert who’s unlucky at love) and thanks to Maeno’s performance and Watanabe’s script, the character presence of Unno hangs over the film, even when he is not on-screen. The two share fantastic scenes together with wonderfully funny comedic routines that involve penile gags that are visually wondrous. Yeah, I said it.

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As for the supporting cast, the same goes for Mari Yamachi, who provides an amusing contrast to Maeno’s performance, with her acidic tongue used towards Unno while hiding her true feelings. Hirofumi Arai handles the character’s depression effortlessly while also playing the straight man to the comedic antics with aplomb. His thousand-yard stare is pure comic perfection. And last but not least, Haru Kuroki provides ample support as the mother manager of Morika’s character who gets him out of his rut. She also engages in the antics and brings out the best of the actors. The chemistry with the cast and the three-dimensional portrayals is what makes the film stand out.

As for flaws, it does take a bit for the story to get going as the through-line is not readily apparent and the tone shifts will irk some, since having comedy being executed during a serious matter is not universally seen as a good thing. But apart from those nit-picks, Emi-Abi is a wonderful surprise that packs plenty of laughs, tears and gasps that guarantee a wonderful time at the movies. The film’s title translates as “showered with smiles” and the film certainly does that.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances from the main cast

Well-realized and distinct characters

Watanabe’s assured direction melds opposing genres with ease

Surprisingly emotional and substantial within its short running time

CONS

Tone shifts may irk some

A bit of a slow start

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Ryu Morioka, Tomoya Maeno, Haru Kuroki, Hirofumi Arai, Mari Yamachi
Director: Kensaku Watanabe
Screenwriters: Kensaku Watanabe

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