Comic murder mystery “A Ghost of a Chance” draws on American tradition and samurai spirit to deliver a hilarious supernatural scenario with a legal angle. Nipponese writer-cum-director Koki Mitani (“Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald,” “Suite Dreams”) has used classic Hollywood cinema as a touchstone before, and here tips his hat to Frank Capra in particular, in a way that will have special appeal for older auds. Bowing immediately after its Tokyo fest preem, pic has scared up a boffo $6.5 million in its first week, and looks likely to haunt fests favoring commercial fare, but offshore distribution prospects look more spectral.
From the colorful, dynamic graphics of the opening credits to the “Some Like It Hot”-style end title, pic exudes love for the expansive, sometimes sprawling Hollywood comedies of the 1950s and ’60s. After the opening credits, a glamorous-looking couple (Koji Yamamoto and Yuko Takeuchi) is caught in an incriminating rendezvous by an equally gorgeous second woman (also played by Takeuchi), but the interloper dies in the ensuing catfight. After this Preston Sturges-style intro, the focus shifts to well-meaning but clumsy lawyer Emi Hosho (tube thesp Eri Fukatsu, fabulous in a Diane Keaton sort of way). Although desperate to emulate her late, celebrated legal-eagle father, Emi is a courtroom flop. Her boss (Hiroshi Abe) offers her a last-chance case, defending a man charged with killing his wife.
The accused is not the opening’s slick lothario, but mild-mannered Goro Yabe (Kan). Yabe’s alibi is that he was detained by a samurai’s ghost while preparing to commit suicide at a hotel. Concluding that only an honest man could come up with such a ridiculous excuse, Emi travels to the haunted inn and makes contact with the ghost, Rokubei Sarahina (Toshiyuki Nishida, delivering a larger-than-life perf of Zero Mostel proportions). Hailing from the 16th century, Sarahina is wary of the law since he was beheaded for treason. Nevertheless, Emi manages to appeal to the samurai’s sense of justice and persuades him to come to Tokyo to testify on the accused’s behalf.
En route to Tokyo, Emi learns that her key witness is visible only to a small percentage of the population. Challenged by a scientifically minded prosecutor (Kiichi Nakai), Emi has to make a case for her witness’s very existence before Japan’s most unusual trial can begin. Fortunately for her, the assigned judge (Takashi Kobayashi) is eager for novelty, having grown bored with courtroom tedium.
It’s a testament to Mitani’s writing ability that he manages to spin such an odd premise into such sturdy entertainment. Even in translation, the witty dialogue bounces along like a Howard Hawks steeplechase, and while Mitani’s script sometimes takes the long route just for the sake of a joke, it provides the strong structure that comedy requires. As with Billy Wilder or Capra, writing is Mitani’s clear strength, but his near-invisible helming is subtle and smooth.
That said, the script’s biggest drawback is the eventual disappearance of Nishida’s ghostly samurai while other afterlife visitors come to the fore; if the yarn had established earlier that Sarahina’s existence was not anomalous, the character’s absence would be felt less sharply. Fortunately, Fumiyo Kohinata makes up for Nishida’s temporary absence with his hypnotic turn as the hereafter’s malevolent emissary, clad in a striking white feather suit.
Tech credits are polished, befitting a major studio production. Pic’s initial English title, still visible in the opening graphics, was “Once in a Blue Moon,” which is also the title of the theme song.