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Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald

Friday September 17, 1999

     "Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald" is an unexpected name for a Japanese film, but on the other hand there's never been a Japanese film exactly like this one. A classic screwball farce graced with high energy and wonderful comic timing, "Mr. McDonald" is as genuinely funny as it is surprising, and that is saying a lot.
     "Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald" (it's not until the film's over that you appreciate or even understand the title) is the directing debut for its screenwriter, Koki Mitani. He was the founder of Tokyo Sunshine Boys, described as an avant-garde theater troupe, and this film is based on a play called "Radio Time" that he wrote and directed for his actors' gang.
     Though almost every event in it takes place on one large set, the studio of a Tokyo radio station, "Mr. McDonald" doesn't feel hampered by its surroundings. Traditional screwball comedies like "The Front Page" also had a limited number of physical settings, and the clever work of the film's ensemble diverts our attention from the location.
     The film begins just as the final rehearsal of a contest-winning radio drama, "Woman of Destiny," is winding down. It's a silly and soapy romantic triangle, with lines like "This is not the beginning of the end, just the end of the beginning," and at precisely midnight it will be broadcast live over the network. "Unusual, isn't it?" says producer Ushijima (Masahiko Nishimura) of the live transmission. "But life demands adventure." Little does he know. . . .
     Aside from this obsequious character, "McDonald" is peopled by a number of other expertly realized types. These include Nokko Senbon (Keiko Toda), a temperamental diva of a leading lady; Hiromitsu (Jun Inoue), her self-absorbed co-star; Kudo (Toshiaki Karasawa), the otherwise sensible director with a weakness for expensive sweaters; Horinouchi (Akira Fuse), the spineless executive producer; and, finally, Miyako Suzuki (Kyoka Suzuki), the earnest writer.
     A housewife in sensible shoes, she only won the contest because no one else entered. "I'll surely remember this night as long as I live," Miyako says early on, not dreaming exactly why that will be true.
     It's Nokko, probably just looking to be difficult, who starts the trouble. Her character's name, Ritsuko, troubles her: Why can't she be called Mary Jane? Her co-star, not to be outdone, wants an American name, too, and, with the help of a handy hamburger bag, he eventually becomes Donald McDonald.
     Changes of the kind poor Miyako never dreamed possible overwhelm her simple script. Soon the setting is changed from the humble Japanese village of Atami to Manhattan, Mary Jane goes from being the hostess of a pachinko parlor to a high-powered defense attorney, Donald from a simple fisherman to a dashing pilot, and the sweet love story soon involves machine guns, bursting dams, rocket launches and characters named Heinrich and Giuseppi. No sooner does the eager-to-please Ushijima say, "Nothing else has to change," than something else does.
     Though this situation may sound too flimsy to sustain an entire feature, it's one of writer-director Mitani's gifts that he knows how to let the comic momentum build. He also periodically brings in new and amusing characters, like the Hawaiian shirt-wearing Bucky (Moro Morooka), the show's demon rewrite man, and an ancient security guard (Shunji Fujimura) who turns out to be an expert at producing radio special effects. There's even an amusing cameo for veteran Japanese star Ken Watanabe as a long-distance truck driver who may be the drama's only listener and biggest fan.
     Periodically, one or another of these characters makes a speech about how much radio drama means to him or her, and though those are played for laughs, filmmaker Mitani's obvious fondness for the genre is what sustains the comic edifice he's built. And while the screwball form is quite Western, it's how stereotypically Japanese the characters are--concerned with apologizing, accommodating and saving face--that adds a final twist to this completely delightful situation.

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald, 1999. Unrated. A Fuji Television Network/Toho Production in association with Premier International. Distributed by Tidepoint Pictures. Director Koki Mitani. Producers Takashi Ishihara, Kanjiro Sakura. Executive producers Koichi Murakami, Hideyuki Takai. Screenplay Koki Mitani, based on his play "Radio Time." Cinematography Kenji Takama. Music Takayuki Hattori. Sound Tetsuo Segawa. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Toshiaki Karasawa as Kudo. Kyoka Suzuki as Miyako. Masahiko Nishimura as Ushijima. Jun Inoue as Hiromitsu. Shunji Fujimura as Sound effects man. Keiko Toda as Nokko. Akira Fuse as Horinouchi. Toshiyuki Hosokawa as Hamamura.

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