Comedic dramas, or dramedies, are an incredibly hard genre to pull off. A delicate balance and an assured hand in directing is key so the audience can be able to accept the switch in genres without alienating the audience, or worse, causing unintentional laughter. Some particularly disappointing comedy-dramas are the insufferable Patch Adams (1998) and the poorly realized superhero film Hancock (2008). Now we have Kensaku Watanabe, the director of one of my personal favourite Aoi Miyazaki films, Loved Gun (2004) and also the award-winning screenwriter of the fantastic drama The Great Passage (2013) stepping back behind the camera after an 8-year absence with Emi-Abi, a dramedy about a comedy duo going through a tragic event that is no laughing matter. Does Watanabe still the directing chops necessary to make a great dramedy or will he end up with an unintentionally comic disaster?
Ryu Morioka and Tomoya Maeno star as Jitsudo and Unno, a pair of aspiring comedians whom combined to make a manzai duo called Emi-Abi. But unfortunately, Unno has tragically passed away in a car accident, leaving Jitsudo depressed with his career dwindling. The accident also affects retired comedian Kurosawa (Hirofumi Arai), whose sister Hinako (Mari Yamachi) was also in the same car as Unno. Supported by his manager, Natsumi (Haru Kuroki), who may actually have more comedic talent than her client, Jitsudo and Kurosawa gradually learn to come to terms with the passing of their loved ones as well as summoning the courage to learn what comedy truly is.
The synopsis makes it sound like this is going to be hard to pull off, but goddamn, director Watanabe does it. His handling of the tonal shifts is smooth and never takes the audience out of the movie. There is a scene where Unno and Hinako are in a situation of conflict and Unno is forced to make the bullies laugh in order for them to be left unharmed. He performs a routine that involves flatulence and Watanabe pulls off the scene with ease. Time shifts are always nicely integrated without fancy transitions and he never leaves the audience feeling lost within the narrative. There is even an element of surrealism that accentuates the depths of comedy that the characters are looking for. It also provides a convincing story element that conveys courage and the will that the characters desperate need to drive themselves as well as adding a sense of unpredictability to the proceedings, such as tthe hilarious use of the deus ex machina trope in a scene where Kurosawa tries to raise laughter from family members of the deceased.
Much credit should be given to the actors, who make their characters more developed than the tight running time would usually allow. Morioka capably conveys the character’s fear, anger and brash attitude, and his comedic chops are also considerable. Maeno plays the comedic side of Unno with ease, but it in the dramatic aspects of his performance that Maeno really surprises. We clearly see Unno’s motivations and thoughts (a shy introvert who’s unlucky at love) and thanks to Maeno’s performance and Watanabe’s script, the character’s presence is felt even when he is not on-screen. The two share fantastic scenes together with wonderfully funny comedic routines involving penile gags that are visually wondrous. Yeah, I said it.
As for the supporting cast, the same goes for Yamachi, who provides an amusing contrast to Maeno’s performance, using her acidic tongue while hiding her true feelings. Arai handles his character’s depression effortlessly while also playing the straight man to the comedic antics with aplomb. His thousand-yard stare is pure comic perfection. And last but not least, Kuroki provides ample support as the manager who gets Jitsudo out of his rut. The chemistry of the cast and the three-dimensional portrayal of each character make Emi-Abi stand out.
As for flaws, it does take a while for the story to get going as the through-line is not readily apparent and the tonal shifts, although well handled, will irk some, since having comedy being executed through an engagement with serious matter is not universally seen as a good thing. But apart from those nit-picks, Emi-Abi is a wonderful surprise that packs enough laughs, tears, and gasps that guarantee a wonderful time at the movies. The film’s title translates as “showered with smiles” and the film certainly does that.
Embi-Abi receives its world premiere as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film on Sunday July 24 at 4:30pm at Japan Society. This film is a Programmer’s Pick alongside The Actor and Being Good so it comes especially recommended by the festival organisers.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.