Daring auds and distribs — ones who can get beyond the fact that this is a comedy about cancer — are in for an offbeat arthouse treat from Juzo Itami, who played with food in “Tampopo,” tackled corruption in the “Taxing Woman” series, and already skirted death in “The Funeral.”
Idea for “The Last Dance” came when helmer was attackedafter finishing his last effort, the yakuza-spoofing “Minbo,” and began contemplating the depersonalized, hypocritical treatment of Japanese hospital patients. Here, his alter ego is Buhei Mukai (Rentaro Mikuni), a schlocky director starring in his own soapy opus about a composer struck down by cancer, when he himself is given an ominous bill of health.
Collapsing from internal bleeding, Buhei is told by the ever-smiling Chief Surgeon Ogata (Masahiko Tsugawa) that he just has a bad ulcer, but the director’s wife (Itami’s radiant leading lady, Nobuko Miyamoto) is informed that it’s the big C. The audience knows even more, since huge white type appears on the blackened screen, reading “365 days left.” The numbers go down rapidly after that.
Although most of the remaining year takes place within the walls of a modern Tokyo hospital, the material is never claustrophobic.
Buhei’s love of life is so strong that his oversize appetite for booze, cigarettes and sex — he gives up groping the forthright ward nurse (Midori Kiuchi) and his mistress/star (Haruna Takase) only toward the very end — is eventually seen as intensely, if obnoxiously, human.
His indomitable individualism slowly transforms the lock-step medicos, and they ultimately release the dying director in time to finish his film, which climaxes with the composer’s death while conducting a spectacular, elegiac work (actually penned by Toshiro Mayazumi) combining a full modern orchestra with a phalanx of chanting Buddhist monks.
Only a filmmaker as masterfully audacious as Itami could blend kitsch, high art, slapstick and Zen existentialism without letting his elements spin out of control. His wickedly saturnine treatment (imagine Fellini collaborating with Sirk and Ozu) plays with the conventions of tragedy without sacrificing the characters’ essential dignity, and he doesn’t oversell the coincidences between his parallel story strands.
Yonezo Maeda’s lensing is deliriously colorful, and highly animated — to a campy mambo beat — when not stock-still for meditative effect. “Dance” also boasts a near-death experience with giddy special f/x that even Spielberg would envy.
Along with the obvious meaning, title refers to ’50s pop song “Save the Last Dance for Me,” which is repeatedly sung (in Japanese) in the glossy film-within-a-film.
Original title is an antique colloquialism for “big sickness,” but pic played in Seattle under the title “The Seriously Ill”; its subsequent name change was postponed to avoid conflict with Colin Nutley’s same-named effort, also in fest.