There’s something “off” about comedian Itsuji Itao’s second directorial film, Gekko No Kamen, which is seeing its release on January 14th. There’s an unsettling clash between the serious tone of the movie and the comedy that the movie is originally based upon. But I’m liking it.
If you’ve heard of the name Itsuji Itao, you probably heard it from one of the many YouTube videos of Downtown and their crazy comedy segments on Gaki no Tsukai, like “Can’t Laugh or Get Beat” and “Silent Library.”
Itao’s humor is subdued and quirky. Not everyone likes it. But it works well in the late-night time slots when you begin laughing at things that you wouldn’t normally laugh at.
Gekko reeks of his strange humor.
The basis for the film is a traditional rakugo story called Sokotsu Nagaya. The original story follows a man named Hachi who finds a unidentified man’s dead body. Recognizing him as his friend, Kuma, Hachi runs to Kuma’s house to tell him that he has died and they must pick up the body. Kuma finds the story ridiculous at first, but because of Hachi’s intensity, he is confusedly convinced that he has died. At the scene of the body, Kuma identifies the man as himself as onlookers look puzzled at the two. The story humorously ends with Kuma holding the dead body in his arms wondering, “The person I’m holding is indeed myself, but who is the person holding me?”
Itao adapts this comedy to the year 1947, two years after the end of WWII. The protagonist, played by Itao, returns to Tokyo from the war. He has bandages around his face and no memory of his past. All he can mutter is the story of “Sokotsu Nagaya.” However, people recognize him as a popular rakugo storyteller who was thought to have died at war. He reunites with his girlfriend. His former master tries to help him back into rakugo. Life appears to be returning to peace until another mysterious man returns from the war.
Despite the funny nature of the source material, Itao gives Gekko a sombre feel. The plot and the actions of the characters remain completely incredible like the original, but the post-war setting, issues of PTSD, and the film’s score and style are serious. This conflict makes Gekko terribly fascinating.
Gekko also has an outstanding cast including the beautiful Satomi Ishihara, Ichi the Killer’s Tadanobu Asano, and many of Itao’s colleagues in comedy such as Taro Yabe, Yuichi Kimura, and Hiroyuki Miyasako.
Gekko no Kamen comes out in theaters across Japan on January 14th. There’s no news yet of an English release. With Gekko in the lineup for January, in addition to Always Sunset on Third Street 3 and Robo-G, 2012 is off to a good start in Japanese cinema.