King of Comedy Koki Mitani is still going strong in Japan despite his lack of recognition outside the country. Only twelve days after the release of Suite Dreams (aka The Uchoten Hotel / The Wow-Choten Hotel, 有頂天ホテル / ＴＨＥ 有頂天ホテル), the film had attracted 1.5 million audience members to its unique style of comedy. It broke the mould for box office expectations in Japan, by being an original property that was a pure audience pleaser. Speaking with Variety at the time of release, Mitani was quick to give reasons for the success of his comedies: “The audience has become used to enjoying my style of comedy. I’m now reaping what I’ve sowed.” What Mitani has laid down over the last few years is an intertextual love of cinema that is disarmingly hilarious.
The swish Hotel Avanti is readying itself for its New Year’s Eve celebration, but at the same time must contend with the convention of deer specialists who have turned up to honour their Man of the Year. To make matters worse, a disgraced politician has chosen to hide in the hotel with a media scrum in pursuit, and a well-known entertainer is making very public suicide declarations. With one of the general managers growing increasingly erratic, and a duck on the loose, it is up to the other general manager Heikichi Shindo (Koji Yakusho, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai) to calmly guide his “family” of guests through the night.
“Madcap” barely seems adequate to encompass the totality of the massive enterprise that is Suite Dreams. Like many of Mitani’s other films, including the later The Magic Hour, the film exists in its own dimension of space-time, where a bygone era has become lodged inside a hotel and exists as a plane that people can wander in and out of. Inspired by his favourite screwball comedies, Suite Dreams appears to be a direct tribute to the dramas that played out in William Goulding’s 1932 film Grand Hotel. Indeed, a poster of that film hangs in the building and is directly referenced by the lead character. Yet this is a caper, first and foremost, and with his assembled group of Japan’s finest actors, and this is what Mitani does best.
Drawing from his theatrical background, Mitani juggles a large ensemble cast in what would be an unwieldy 2 hours and 15 minutes in anybody else’s hands. From Billy Wilder to Robert Altman, Mitani sees the drama and comedy in every aspect of human existence, and the observation of such could just as easily fit into a Jacques Tati or Peter Sellers work. There is no dead weight in this goliath of a comedy, with quite literally every line ringing true with genuine emotion or comedy gold. This kind of approach could just as easily be tiresome, or at worst a confused mess, but like the screwball comedies that Mitani so clearly admires, the pace is the trick. Mitani uses a “one shot per scene” technique that keeps the momentum going, rather than artificially creating it through editing. There are multiple storylines running here, some of which converge while other remain discreet pockets of joy. In fact, the alternate title for the film is “The Uchoten Hotel”, which roughly translates to “The Ecstasy Hotel”, and this is perhaps the best description of all.
The master balance of comedy and pathos is undoubtedly in the carefully constructed screenplay and Mitani’s capable direction, but the large cast hold it all together. Central to this is Koji Yakusho’s hotel manager, calmly managing the events and only phased by the sudden appearance of his ex-wife. Yakusho’s most recent roles have been in the much weightier 13 Assassins, The Summit: A Chronicle Of Stones to Serenity, The Last Ronin and is known to Western audiences from Memoirs of a Geisha. This experience sees him hold the madness together, but he is also there to be upstaged by the slick Koichi Sato (another Mitani veteran, most recently in A Ghost of a Chance), and of course, Toshiyuki Nishida as Zenbu “Maestro” Tokugawa. The veteran comedian, who has starred in all 20 films of the Free and Easy series and is in no less than five of the films at JFF15 this year, is the kind of character actor who simply owns the space he is given to inhabit.
Suite Dreams is a microcosm of human existence, as are the best comedies of its kind. The film is not without its flaws, including the typically lengthy denouement of Mitani films. Yet while characters such as singer-songwriter Kenji (Shingo Katori, who briefly reprises his role in The Magic Hour), and the airline stewardess who wants to help him achieve his dream, are completely unnecessary, they are welcome inclusions to a cast that make you feel at home. Once you check into The Uchoten Hotel, you’ll find it tough to check out.
Suite Dreams is playing as part of a Koki Mitani retrospective at the Japanese Film Festival on 23 November (Sydney) and 30 November (Melbourne) 2011 at the 15th Japanese Film Festival in Australia..