Saturday, October 3, 2009

Team Batista no eikô (2008) and Japanese film comedy

Saw this the other night: Team Batista no eikô チーム・バチスタの栄光, official English title The Glorious Team Batista (although I think "The Batista Team's Glory" might capture it better). A 2008 Japanese film that combines the medical drama and the police procedural with a little comedy.

The title refers to a surgical team that specializes in the Batista procedure. Risky open-heart surgery, which makes the team the hospital's star jocks. Until patients start dying. Then the hospital has to investigate. They try to keep it hush-hush, assigning a lowly outpatient counselor to the task. But then a hotshot from the Ministry gets involved.

As a Japanese medical drama, it's pretty typical: by which I mean it looks quaint to someone whose med-melodrama sensibilities have been shaped by E.R. You know, the hospital is calm, underpopulated, unhurried, and spotless, and while everybody says they're overworked they never seem to be paged for anything. Then again, Japan has quasi-socialized medicine, and it's fucking awesome, so they can do what they want in their medical dramas and I won't complain.

Same goes for the criminal-investigation aspect: as far as I can tell, Japanese cinema boasts awesome criminals and boring cops. No grit. Again, it's a pre-Law & Order (actually a pre-Hill Street Blues) view of cop work. But again: then again, Japan has a very low crime rate and great public safety, so they can do what they want in their cop shows and I won't complain.

What I'm getting at is that as a medical drama, as a crime-and-investigation story, it wasn't all that riveting. As a comedy, on the other hand...

I have to say, I've developed a real affection for Japanese film comedies from the last couple of decades. The older I get the less I like the mean-spirited wiseass attitude of much American comedy. I can't stand Saturday Night Live, for example: all catch-phrases and smirks, with little genuine wit. There's some of that in Japan, too, of course; I see it a lot in modern manzai, which is one reason I've never warmed up to that venerable comic art form.

Japanese film comedy tends to be much more good-natured, much more dependent on wit and grace and timing than on attitude. Think Shall We Dance. Think anything by Itami Jûzô or my current favorite Mitani Kôki. This is like that.

The key is the guy who plays the Ministry investigator, Abe Hiroshi. I love Abe Hiroshi (Trick is his best work, I think). He's one of these guys who can stand there stock still onscreen and still reduce you to tears of laughter. He's just extraordinarily gifted, first of all physically (with his height and gauntness he's got that Ichabod Crane-Jeff Goldblum thing going), but also with his timing and delivery.

My favorite scene: his entrance. He shows up, in a suit, at a company softball game. Picks up a bat and inserts himself as a pinch-hitter. Just the way he stands there, the way he grips the bat, has you red in the face with laughter. And this is before he's really said anything. Then the pitcher throws a strike, he looks it in, the umpire calls it a strike, and he informs the ump that no, it was a ball. The umpire remembers who he's talking to, and calls it a ball. Sure, it's an elegantly written little satire on the lordliness of Japanese bureaucrats. But Abe plays it perfectly, too, exuding the perfect mix of arrogance and buffoonery.

Comedy that's not trying to laugh at you, but is willing to let you laugh at it. That's what it is.

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