Japanese Title: ジャッジ！
Running Time: 105 mins.
Release Date: January 11th, 2014
Director: Akira Nagai
Writer: Yoshimitsu Sawamoto (Screenplay)
Starring: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Keiko Kitagawa, Lily Franky,
KyokaSuzuki, YosiYosi Arakawa, Yoji Tanaka, Denden, Ryo Kase, Etsushi Toyokawa, Iyo Matsumoto,
What I am about to say is very important…
The final film I saw at the Terracotta Far East Film Festival 2014 was the international premiere of Judge! and it was a fantastic way to finish the event. Akira Nagai flew in to introduce the film and even took the time to talk to me.
Taking a break from an award-winning career in a Tokyo-based advertising company, director Akira Nagai makes his feature film debut with the 2014 comedy Judge! Both Akira Nagai and writer Yoshimitsu Sawamoto have careers in advertising which they both draw on to make a sleek, light-hearted, and hilarious satire on the international ad industry which made me roar with laughter.
Their experience and love for advertising is shown in the misadventures of Kiichiro Ota (Tsumabuki). He is an earnest kid who was inspired to get into the world of advertising after seeing a classy shoe ad when he was a kid in 1981. He believes in the power of advertising to change a person’s world for the better. His mantra is, “I want to make ads that make everyone happy.”
With inspiration guiding him he has scored a job at an advertising agency but when we first encounter him he is dressed up like a fox and wiggling his butt in a tacky ad for noodles, reputedly the favourite dish of kitsune (foxes). This is overseen by his lazy boss Ichiro Otaki (Toyokawa) who couldn’t be less interested in what Kiichiro is doing.
The clients who ordered the ad aren’t that taken with the results and request changes like turning the fox into a cat which Kiichiro finds tough to do because everything is fox-focussed. He simply ads on-screen text and shouts “Nya” in a recording session for new audio.
It seems that Kiichiro’s career is stalling and things get decidedly dicier when Ichiro sends him to the world’s biggest TV advertising festival in Santa Monica. Ichiro wants to skip out on judging the competition and sends Kiichiro, his almost-namesake subordinate, with orders to secure victory for their company’s ad by any means necessary. Like scheming, bribery and so forth.
Alas, Kiichiro’s English skills are awful and so he drags along his brilliant colleague Hikari Ota (Kitagawa), a girl with a gambling addiction. What Kiichiro doesn’t know is that unless his company’s commercial wins a prize he’ll be fired and booted out of the ad industry. Can he do it and reinvigorate his love for advertisements?
In his introduction to the film Akira Nagai stated that he crafted it primarily for teens and young adults, extolling the beauty of ads whilst simultaneously pointing out the absurdity of the industry. It is all done in the film through a fertile mixture of satirical scenes mocking the creatives and spoofing the ads by showing the surreal and absurd things they create.
When a director has had a career in advertising, film reviewers are legally required to state that working on adverts brings short-comings because, as a medium, advertising works when directors make shallow slices of short films full of visual fizz and sparkle designed to appeal superficially to those with low attention spans. When a film by an ad person does hit the mark, film critics then get to act surprised. This was a most welcome surprise, a laugh-a-minute and joyful comedy all about the artistry of advertising.
Nothing gets done without me
The film is not an overly intellectual deconstruction of advertising, more an affectionate look and through Kiichiro it delivers the message that in the commercial world of advertising, artistic vision is more important in creating adverts than we naturally assume.
The comedy is a mix of farce, culture clashes, screwball-comedy, satire, physical pratfalls, innuendo, and broad stereotypes of Japanese, gaikokujin – Do you know karate? Is your wife a geisha? – an outrageously camp gay couple, and otaku. Played in a mostly un-ironic fashion, the culture clash elements are far from malicious because the film mocks everyone in a warm-hearted equal opportunities mockery way.
Sawamoto’s script seems formulaic but he plays a canny long game as he litters many memorable details, jokes, and characters throughout the story that pop up again and again in call backs and long-running gags. This bring about the sense of unexpectedness and dynamism to events and make them funnier. On paper the characters may seem familiar but the writing and execution of the directing and acting ensures that these guys look and sound unique, with a strange or sympathetic elements.
With Kiichiro played by Satoshi Tsumabuki, we find a wonderfully good-natured lead that the whole audience can root for. As super -handsome as he is, it’s easy to relate to him as being a hapless put-upon ad man because he throws himself into the physical elements, the costumes, and gets chased around and shouted at and pulls all of the right faces.
He leads an awesome cast full of great actors who take on all sorts of small roles. He has excellent support from Atsushi Toyokawa who is side-splittingly funny as the long-haired pretentious rock star ad director who wears sunglasses indoors. He strides around his office with a harem of sexy assistants and has a run of empty phrases “the flipside’s the flipside” and “creation without creativity” – which work on people who nod sagely as they pretend to get what he means!
Kiichiro’s otaku and English lessons with Kagawa are hilarious and convince me even more that Lily Franky is a brilliant actor as he demonstrates to Kiichiro how to sway the jury through empty tricks.
The screwball comedy involving Kiichiro and Hikari functions along standard misinterpretation gags but has bite because Keiko Kitagawa can be blunt and aggressive. Pretending to be the husband of Hikari can be painful since she can unexpectedly turn mean and that usually translates into dumping Kiichiro into even more extreme and absurd situations where the misinterpretations work all the better because Kiichiro is charmingly hapless and surrounded by a bunch of strange foreigners, all drawn in broad brush-strokes.
Bet he’s good at pitching
Nagai uses the language and techniques of cinema to craft an unashamedly funny film that has a broad appeal and is easily accessible but like Sawamoto, he employs many unexpected cuts or flashbacks to pull the rug out from under the viewer with something that upsets expectations and keeps them awake and provides emotional resonance.
The sense of pace is astounding and makes the comedy pour forth in a deluge. It feels like every scene and sequence has the perfect rhythm and not a second is wasted. The sense of movement is maintained by the camera constantly panning around sets or cutting at opportune moments to, say, some bizarre reaction-shot that lengthens jokes. In short, when things seem serious expect a smash cut to a funny scene that counters things or prepare for the camera zoom in and out of details so the film can flip from serious to comedic. From the fox noodle ad at the very beginning to the party at the very end, the film is pacey. A slide-cut doesn’t just slide across the screen, it rushes by at 1000 mph, usually bringing in some short and sweet sequence to illustrate a comedic point.
Judge! was the perfect way to finish the Terracotta Far East Film Festival. It had the audience laughing so much that I cannot think of a recent cinema trip to rival the levels of enjoyment that seemed to be had. A light-hearted and fast-paced comedy, it zooms along powered by a cast of actors having a ball. Everybody from Tsumabuki in the lead to Lily Franky and Yosiyosi Arakawa gives an amusing and warm-hearted performance and it was an absolute pleasure to watch.
I was tempted to weave some real ads into the review but thought it was meandering enough as it is. Here’s some Japanese ads plus a funny European one.