Japanese cinema’s first screwball comedy, “Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald” is a total, joyous delight. A fast-paced, inventively scripted ensembler set during the chaotic live broadcast of a radio play, film builds into an engrossing portrait of human foibles that’s bighearted toward its characters while also pulling the rug from under the stolid feet of Japanese society. Mix of yocks and genuinely heart-tugging moments could build an offshore career among upscale auds with a distrib that’s prepared to give it the right wacky push. A major hit with auds at its Berlin Forum screenings, pic also has rosy remake potential.
Writer-director Koki Mitani, who originally penned the work for his (now disbanded) alternative theater troupe Tokyo Sunshine Boys, has admitted he wanted to make a distinctly un-Japanese movie, modeled on American comedies in characterization, pacing and even use of music. In fact, he’s made a thoroughly Japanese movie — but one that’s gently subversive toward the country’s social codes and completely off the scale in its rigorous pursuit of the inevitable. On a technical level alone, it’s a remarkably assured picture, beautifully lensed and cut, and with a score by Takayuki Hattori that’s a constant, attentive partner in the action.
Almost totally set in the corridors and studio of a Tokyo radio station, pic begins close to midnight with the end of the rehearsal of a play, “A Woman of Fate,” due to air within a matter of minutes. A trashy weepy written by housewife Miyako (Kyoka Suzuki), it’s the winning entry in a competition run by the station — or more accurately, the only entry, in a gag designed by the producer to fill airtime cheaply. Miyako is deferential and nervous, the young director, Kudo (Toshiaki Karasawa), is calm and professional, and the producer, Ushijima (Masahiko Nishimura), is already stressed out. Then, almost on a whim, the temperamental lead actress, Nokko (Keiko Toda), decides she wants to change the name of her character from Ritsuko to Mary Jane.
Like a contained version of chaos theory, this sets off a train of events that reaches ludicrous proportions even before the program goes on air. The pompous lead actor says he wants a foreign name too, the producer decides to switch the action from a pachinko parlor to New York, and Nokko, upping the thespian ante even further, demands that Mary Jane be a careerist lawyer rather than a fisherman’s wife. Seconds before the broadcast, the production team discovers the sound library is locked up for the night, forcing them to get an old security guard, who used to be an effects wiz, to improvise on air.
As the night wears on and pages are torn from the script during commercial breaks, Miyako’s humble meller turns into a major disaster movie featuring a breaking dam and lost spaceships. If that’s not enough, the worm finally turns: During one break, author Miyako freaks out, trashes the sound console and locks herself in the studio.
The surprise of “Mr. McDonald” is that what starts out as a one-joke movie manages to go the distance, as Mitani comes up with ever-inventive ideas and situations to keep the central premise fresh. Part of this is due to the fact that the film pursues every collapsing domino with a logic that, despite the mounting chaos, is extremely rigorous; equally, the film’s other strength is its well-drawn characters, each of whom, by pic’s end, has emerged as a sympathetic individual. In a very Asian way that fits the ensemble tone of the movie, group effort finally triumphs — exhilaratingly — over individual needs.
Playing by the cast, even down to smaller roles like Miyako’s husband, the old security guard and a truck driver (veteran Ken Watanabe) listening in on the broadcast, is on the money and pitched just the right side of caricature. There’s also a beautiful dying fall to the film that wraps things up in satisfying, rather than hysterical, fashion. Mitani has sensibly made no attempt to widen the film far beyond its studio setting, instead relying on nifty cutting and character groupings to maintain interest.
Pic’s Japanese title translates as “Radio Time.” Meaning of the English one becomes clear as the story progresses.