エミアビのはじまりとはじまり 「Emiabi no Hajimari to Hajimari」
Running Time: 88 mins.
Director: Kensaku Watanabe
Writer: Kensaku Watanabe (Screenplay)
Starring: Ryu Morioka, Tomoya Maeno, Haru Kuroki, Hirofumi Arai, Mari Yamachi,
Emi-Abi is a film marked by death but it is incredibly life-affirming. Written and directed by Kensaku Watanabe (he adapted the novel The Great Passage into a script for the big screen), it tells the tale of artistic endeavour in the face of disaster and comes up trumps with a happy ending in a film that perfectly balances tragedy and comedy.
The story begins at the end of the manzai act Emi-Abi. The duo has lost its funny-man Unno (Tomoya Maeno) in an accident. All that remains is the handsome straight man Jitsudo (Ryu Morioka) and his dutiful manager Natsumi (Haru Kuroki) who has a comedy streak funnier than her remaining charge. With Unno’s funeral in the past and an uncertain future as a mere pretty-boy performer in a pretty crowded field, Jitsudo is on his way to his comedy sempai Kurosawa’s (Hirofumi Arai) home to pay respects and to get advice.
Despite knowing Unno for 10 years, Jitsudo doesn’t know how he died or much about his partner’s private life which explains why he doesn’t realise that Unno had a special connection with Kurosawa’s younger sister Hinako (Mari Yamachi). The only thing on Jitsudo’s mind are his suddenly reduced career prospects. He could sing songs, write books, direct films, but he started out as a comedian and, as Kurosawa states, “if you’re a comedian, that’s your first priority!” As Kurosawa grills the younger comedian, secrets are explored and so is the history of the duo and their connection with Kurosawa. Perhaps finding out more about his partner’s demise might bring life back to Jitsudo’s comedy career.
What transpires for the rest of the film is a narrative that jumps back and forth in time, from the fateful night that robbed Jitsudo, Kurosawa, and Natsumi of their loved ones, the formation of the Emi-Abi act, and the present where each character carries emotional bruises. As the narrative chugs along, we understand how the characters come to be the people we meet at the start and, to a person, they are all utterly charming and go through believable changes.
Like Manzai itself, the focus is on the performers and their simplistic but comedic dialogue-heavy performances and this dynamic is brought onto the screen with profound emotion and passionate glee whether it is drama or comedy. Every line is freighted with a funny observation that taps into deeper meaning honing each character’s personality and not a breath is wasted. The physicality of each performer is also perfectly weighted.
Ryu Morioka plays Jitsudo as an extremely confident and conceited character, highly pampered and fancily coiffured and dressed to the nines, audiences may take against him but a glimpse at a more down-at-heel and ambitious young man shows complexity and humanises him. His is an everyday sort of arrogance that we all have and as we see him struggling in the wake of his partner’s death, we feel sympathy. Guiding him is his goofily kawaii manager Natsumi played by Haru Kuroki is a wonderful comedic turn. Dressed as a goth and prone to big emotions and physical comedy, she helps keep things light when the men around her prefer to be dark. Her passion is a sight to behold.
Arai’s Kurosawa is described by Jitsudo as the “channelling type, he gets inside his character like the De Niro of comedy,” and Arai absolutely NAILS it when he’s on stage and we see the dedication to the craft that the man puts in, transforming from comedian adrift to consummate professional.
The most charming performances though are from Tomoya Maeno and Mari Yamachi as an utterly enchanting pair of characters. Maeno is winningly soft as a good-natured bumbleking while Yamachi’s Hinako is a great foil as a more angular and super-sharp comedy nerd. Their childish innocence is something to behold, something that we all want to experience, a pure connection. Being around them gives the film a beating heart and makes the tragedy and the happiness all the more powerful and helps explain why the others make the changes to themselves that they do. If you love something with purity, you will be ready to defy the laws of nature to achieve it and keep it safe. Here, Maeno flies high in comedic and romantic stakes, so Jitsudo and Kurosawa and Natsumi also have to learn to fly professionally once again, to treasure what they have and fight for it.
Kensaku Watanabe defies the idea that a talky art-form like manzai needs to be shot by statically. He knows when to use handheld cameras and tripods. Performances are seen from the crowd or from up on stage via crazy angles. Although the film is mostly shot in interiors and a few outdoor locations, through careful choices of shots, a small selection of locations become bigger, a whole world. The film remains fleet of foot despite and there are fun scene transitions like screens being pulled apart. Overall, the performers are celebrated and being in their presence is great.
While the direction the journey takes is never in doubt, going through it, seeing the highs and lows, the good times and the bad, it’s a fun ride with a fun cast of characters. You’ll be sure to shower the film with a few tears and a lot of smiles and hopefully find inspiration from them.