Mitani gets last laugh with ‘Suite Dreams’

Japanese cinema

Everyone knows Japanese moviegoers don’t care for comedies — they get plenty of laughs for free on the tube and don’t feel like paying for them in the theater. Everyone also knows Japanese like the security of seeing familiar stories and characters on the screen — thus nearly every mainstream film here is based on a hit property from another medium, be it a novel, comic or game.

And now everybody knows that all the above is untrue, at least when it comes to “Suite Dreams,” Koki Mitani’s comedy based on his original script about frantic preparations for New Year’s Eve at a luxury hotel. Twelve days after its Jan. 14 release, the film recorded its 1.5 millionth admission, a start on par with that achieved by “Crying Out for Love in the Center of the World,” the weepy romantic drama that went on to gross ¥8.5 billion ($74 million) in 2004. “Suite Dreams” may not reach this dizzying height — distributor Toho is aiming for a gross of $43.5 million — but it is definitely the biggest B.O. smash of Mitani’s three films as a scriptwriter-director.

The reason for this success, Mitani says, is simple: “The audience has become used to enjoying my style of comedy. I’m now reaping what I’ve sowed.” Over a two-decade career, Mitani has written scripts for plays, TV dramas, his own films (“Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald,” “Our House”) and films directed by others (“The Gentle 12,” “The University of Laughs”) that delight in snappy dialogue, brisk exposition and clockwork plots with an air of adult sophistication.

In the process he has taken much inspiration from the giants of old Hollywood — Billy Wilder is a special favorite. “Suite Dreams” owes much to the 1933 MGM classic “Grand Hotel,” from its setting to its multiple storylines, though Mitani insists he was “attracted more by the ‘Grand Hotel’-type of story than by ‘Grand Hotel’ itself … It’s something I wanted to try as scriptwriter at least once.”

In filming “Suite Dreams,” however, Mitani didn’t have the luxury of a lengthy prep time — “We rehearsed (scenes) in the morning and shot them in the afternoon,” he commented — which makes the film’s intricate, flawless staging and camerawork all the more remarkable. Connecting all the various plot threads is the hotel deputy manager played by Koji Yakusho, the film’s biggest international name for his turns in “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Shall We Dance?” “I knew that Yakusho could do anything — that’s why I asked him to play this master-of-ceremonies role in the film,” Mitani said.

“Suite Dreams” is obvious remake material — deliberately so. “I’m always thinking about a remake when I write a film script,” Mitani comments. And Mitani would frankly be interested helming the Hollywood version himself. “I’d like to see the American audience’s reaction,” he says. Also, he feels that Hollywood would better appreciate a scriptwriter who actually comes up with his own ideas: “In Japan no one understands the difference between original screenplays and adaptations … Unfortunately, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

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