The transition from stage director to film director is no mean feat; the two mediums are so similar in ideal and yet so very different in actualization that many well-intentioned theatrical stalwarts have sadly fallen at the immense hurdle that separates the two.
One man who has succeeded with aplomb, however, is Japanese director Koki Mitani. Almost unheard of in the West, Mitani is a household name in Japan, having gathered an alumni of some of Japan’s finest actors to become what has been affectionately known at The Mitani Family, a family which features in almost every one of his films, garnering new members with each new reunion.
Embracing the theatrical in his film craft, Mitani has become famous for his grand sets, ensemble casts and for his highly complex and choreographed single shot takes, some of which seem to verge on the impossible, lasting often for several minutes and travelling through numerous different sets in one long cut-less take. His films, though often bordering on the absurd, are both touching and hilarious, always rooting themselves in the hearts of Mitani`s intricately illustrated characters.
Making his initial leap to the big screen in 1997 with Welcome Back Mr McDonald, Mitani has steadily released a new film every few years since, each to critical acclaim. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at his impressive back-catalogue.
Welcome Back Mr McDonald (Rajio no Jikan) – 1997
After a sweet old housewife wins a writing competition for a local radio station, the actors decide to take it upon themselves to adapt the script to their own liking, causing absolute chaos at the station.
Winning a plethora of international awards, Mitani`s debut feature film is a hilarious look into the inner workings of a radio station, showcasing Mitani`s skill for multi-character perspective, and finding humour in the very simplest of things.
All About Our House (Minna no ie) – 2001
The touching tale of a young man trying to build his dream house whilst all around him, his interfering family also attempt to make their mark on the new home is probably Mitani`s most intimate film. An exposition of intra-familial relationships, Mitani takes a hilarious and touching look at the inner workings of a hauntingly typical family, giving every audience member something to relate to, whether it`s the madness of our own family, or that bizarrely bittersweet feeling of having to fight against those you love to get what you need.
The Wow-Choten Hotel (Uchoten Hoteru) – 2006
Set in a fictional five-star hotel, Mitani`s first major commercial success follows the exploits of the Wow-Choten Hotel`s under-paid, over-worked staff as they deal with the daily intake and outtake of bizarre and needy guests. Featuring some outstanding performances by a rogue`s gallery of Japan`s finest actors, along with some breathtaking scenery and some of Mitani`s finest camera work. The single shot taking us from outside the hotel, into the lobby and through the building`s inner workings simply has to be seen to be believed.
The Magic Hour – 2008
Mitani`s serenade to the art of cinema is a darkly funny tale of maffiosa and failed actors. A wannabe action star is tricked by a group of minor gangsters into believing that he is taking part in a new movie, whilst actually being used to terrify the mob bosses to whom they owe money. Utterly absurd, and yet hilarious and somehow beautiful, The Magic Hour remains one of Mitani`s finest film to date, and a great starting point for the uninitiated to introduce themselves to his work.
A Ghost of a Chance (Sutekina Kanashibari) – 2011
In a total departure from his usual work, Mitani ventures into the realms of the supernatural in this bizarre legal comedy about a murder case whose only witness is the disgruntled ghost of a samurai who can only be seen by the prosecution lawyer. With an outstanding performance by the always watchable Mitani staple Toshiyuki Nishida as the cantankerous spirit, though perhaps not his best film, A Ghost of a Chance nonetheless stands out as one of the best Japanese comedies of the last few years.
The Kiyosu Conference (Kiyosu Kaigi) – 2013
In his latest film, Mitani once again tests out new ground in a fictionalized version of the true historical events that led to the formation of Japan`s first true government. Though not his most innovative film, it`s still a delightful showcase of the talents of the Mitani family, and manages to retell events of Japanese history with a much lighter and enjoyable tone than most directors would attempt. Bright, bold and fun (if somewhat liberal with actual history), The Kiyosu Conference is a must for fans of Asian history and cinema fans alike.
Though yet to get the notice he deserves in the West, Mitani is probably the greatest director to have come out of Japan in the last few decades, and perhaps his new film Galaxy Kaido, a science fiction romp, might finally make international audiences take note. Until then, do yourself a favour, get on eBay and order yourself a couple of Japan’s most magical films of the 21st Century. You’ll thank me later.