Old-fashioned in the best sense and dotted with surreal humor, Japanese costume comedy “Three for the Road” is a pleasant throwback to the “Road” movies that starred Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Though too gentle to make big waves internationally, helmer Hideyuki Hirayama’s crowd-pleaser about an over-the-hill courtesan taking it on the lam with two goofy gents is a natural for fests and specialized broadcasters. Toplining pop idol-turned popular actress Kyoko Koizumi, pic seems likely to meet with a warm reception from mature auds on midsize domestic release Nov. 10.
Yarn set in early 19th-century Edo (modern-day Tokyo) announces its light-hearted intentions with text stating that there are tales from this period in which “not everyone ran around with samurai swords.” Sharpest implement seen here is the pastry maker’s scalpel wielded by Yaji (Kanzaburo Nakamura), an illiterate widower secretly in love with 40ish courtesan Okino (Kyoko Koizumi).
Past her prime and desperate to buy her way out of bondage, tough cookie Okino has commissioned Yaji to create replicas of her little finger which, according to custom, will fetch a high price from a rich client in return for exclusive visiting rights. With 47 fake digits on the market and results not forthcoming, Okino convinces Yaji to help her escape — on the cooked-up premise of returning home to visit her sick father.
Duo becomes a trio when ham actor Kita (respected kabuki thesp Akira Emoto) gatecrashes Okino’s quarters during a very funny attempt to hang himself. An old friend of Yaji’s who’s in disgrace after botching his role in the classic play “Forty-Seven Ronin,” the boozy oldster figures a road trip is what he needs to cure the blues.
With Okino’s bosses in pursuit, the threesome hotfoots it into the countryside for a series of winningly unpredictable misadventures. Anchored by Okino’s growing affection for the kind-hearted Yaji and slowly released details of the emotional baggage everyone is carrying, narrative deftly darts between narrow escapes at rowdy roadside inns and detours into pure fantasy.
Best of these kooky embellishments is a raccoon that’s being eyed for dinner before morphing into a feral kid (Takato Sasano). Cheeky shape-shifter scores big laughs when he changes into a die and helps his new pals pick up much-needed cash in a gambling game.
Pic is helmed with a breezy touch encouraging auds to linger on its many charms and forgive minor lapses into silliness. A framing story centered on a mysterious sea creature with magical powers is awkwardly integrated before paying off with a bang in the film’s slapstick finale.
Clean and classical compositions by lenser Kozo Shibasaki have a warm glow and are matched by Goro Yakuzawa’s gentle score. Rest of technical work is first class.