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University of Laughs
Notes on Filmmakers & Cast Comedy in Wartime STORY
(c)2004 Fuji Television Network/Toho/Parco
Notes on Filmmakers & Cast

Koji YAKUSHO is one of Japan's most recognized actors both at home and abroad. His big break came in the 1996 ballroom dance comedy gShall We Dance?h (a role reprised by Richard Gere alongside Jennifer Lopez in Miramax's remake due for an August US release) He then achieved wide recognition for the 1997 Cannes Palme d'Or winner gThe Eelh. His lead role in gEurekah in 2001 also contributed to that film's win of the FIPRESCI and ecumenical jury prizes at Cannes in 2000. This summer he's scheduled to appear in Rob Marshall's adaptation of the best-selling novel, gMemoirs of A Geishah.
gUniversity of Laughsh marks Yakusho's first return to comedy since gShall We Dance?h and the claustrophobic tension of the interrogation room is an ideal proving ground for his prodigious talent.

Koki MITANI is Japan's most popular playwright and has also achieved renown as a director of both theater and film. His comedic writing is prevalent throughout Japan's worlds of theater, film and TV. His first foray into movies, gWelcome Back, Mr. McDonaldh which he directed and wrote, swept the Japanese film awards and went on to win the Don Quixote prize at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival.

Director Mamoru HOSHI achieved note for helming a number of massively popular TV dramas. With a unique visual style perfect for the demands of this story, his film debut has been eagerly awaited. Mitani, having worked with him on a TV project back in the mid 90's thought this the perfect opportunity to do so again.

Comedy in Wartime

This story is set in Tokyo in the troubled days of 1940. Japan has embarked upon a course of war with China, signed the tripartite alliance with Italy and Germany and is moving towards the wider conflagration of World War II.

Amid this gathering storm, a comedy playwright is pitted against an all-powerful state censor. This story follows the battle of wills that develops between these two passionate and committed characters over the course of seven days.

I n creating this story, Koki MITANI drew upon the real life character of Sakae KIKUYA, a playwright who wrote for Japan's most popular wartime comedian, gEnokenh, (Kenichi ENOMOTO). After battling police censorship to preserve the people's right to laughter, he was eventually drafted and died in battle at the age of 35. His scripts are still considered masterpieces of comic writing and Mitani regards him as a profound inspiration.

This project came out of a desire to pay homage to this ggod-likeh figure and look at the importance of laughter in human affairs.

This current project is one of his best-known theatrical works. When first performed in 1996 it took Japanese theater by storm and won unanimous critical support. Since it was such a tightly-worked theatrical piece, there were those who thought it impossible to adapt for the screen. However after a rewrite that added various layers and changed the ending, Mitani professed gthis is perhaps my best work and I found that I could achieve things I couldn't on stageh.

 

STORY

It is 1940 and Tokyo is a city prepared for war. Freedom of thoughts is under siege and government controls on the entertainment industry grow more severe by the day.

Behind the closed doors of an interrogation room in the Metropolitan Police Department, two men are lining up for a showdown.

One is Hajime TSUBAKI (Goro INAGAKI) resident playwright of the theatrical group gUniversity of Laughsh, the other is Police Censor, Mutsuo SAKISAKA.

According to Sakisaka, Tsubaki's latest script is gbeyond the pale of acceptableh; not only is it set in a foreign land with foreign characters gin utter disregardh of the times, but the censor is hostile towards the whole notion of comedy for its own sake.

He is determined to shut down the play and as he makes increasingly unreasonable demands for changes, Tsubaki fells the pressure of persecution.

However, such is his desperation to secure the coveted stamp of approval, that the playwright responds to each charge while refusing to relinquish the script's humor. In his view, it's precisely because war is imminent that the regular people need to be able to laugh. Needless to say this attitude is guaranteed to provoke the censor in exactly the wrong way.

However a strange force is at work. As Tsubaki attempts to field the demands of his rival, a man who has never made a joke in his life, ironically the scripts grows more and more interesting.

Tsubaki is intrigued by this development. Sakisaka, after his initial fury wears off, is somewhat perplexed and embarrassed before finally giving in to delight at the creative process.

Before they know it, they are collaborating in the writing of the script.

One evening Sakisaka even stops by Tsubaki's theater on his way home from work; an extraordinary step for a man with a total antipathy to any form of theater.

He is tremendously moved by the sight of the audience's delight but shocked to find out that Tsubaki is despised by one and all. It seems that Tsubaki's theatrical colleagues, knowing nothing of Sakisaka's harsh demands nor of Tsubaki's deft manouvering around them, think he has yielded to every comment and now regard him as a traitor and tool of the authorities. For this, they have beaten him up. For the first time, Sakisaka realizes how tough things have been for Tsubaki.

The next day in the interrogation room, the two men finish the script and Sakisaka gives it the all-important official stamp of approval.

Overcome with relief and caught up in the spirit of friendship, Tsubaki begins to confess his innermost thoughts to Sakisaka. He starts to criticize the government. gWhy are they trying to rob the people of their enjoyment?h He admits to relishing his resistance against the power-that-be. However for Sakisaka, a public representative of those same gpowerh, Tsubaki has now crossed the line. He does a complete about-face and issues an angry challenge to the playwrightc

gRewrite your comedy with no laughs whatsoeverh

The following dayc

Tsubaki has rewritten his script in accordance with Sakisaka's demand.

It's a completely different piececa masterpiece of the comic art. Of course there's absolutely no way that it will receive official sanction. When asked to explain himself, Tsubaki pulls a letter out of his jacket. His draft card arrived the previous evening.

Due to report for military duty the following day, Tsubaki poured his heart, body and soul into the rewrite.

Sakisaka sits looking at him in amazement. How on earth will he be able to reconcile his sense of duty, his feelings of guilt and the profound affection he has for his new-found friend?

 

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