I’m sure everyone enjoyed, on one level or another, Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer. It was the film that rightfully brought him to the world stage and, even though the picture was exceptionally augmented with CGI tricks, it fairly represented the brand of humour that had made him a star. Stephen went on to capitalise with the equally CGI driven Kung Fu Hustle, another success in the market but a film I did not enjoy anywhere near as much as his previous films, and CJ7, his most recent and rather limp effort. But what of Shaolin Soccer? Talk of a sequel was abound when the movie started making money overseas, but not another peep was piped until recently.
This year saw the release of a semi-sequel, though it came not from China but rather Japan. The film Shorin Shojo / Shaolin Girl was co-produced by Stephen Chow and had his blessing, but was otherwise carried out by a Japanese crew, including director Katsuyuki Motohiro, the man behind the Bayside Shakedown series. This was no lame duck pick, Katsuyuki Motohiro’s Bayside Shakedown 2 was the third most successful Japanese film of all time, the most successful non-cartoon film of all time and the biggest non-English earner of 2003 in the world.
Unfortunately, his attempt to follow Stephen Chow failed. Shaolin Girl is a mess. The sport aspect is dropped very quickly and was curiously chosen in the first place. Lacrosse? Why not volleyball, a game enjoyed by millions of school girls across the country? And with the sport aspect soon removed, what remains is star Kou Shibaski indulging in some straight faced and poorly done silly kung fu scenes that seemed to miss the point of the original film completely. I can hardly believe that Stephen Chow has watched this film, but I would pled with you not to. Please, do not waste your money on Shaolin Girl. However, if you’d like to see Kou Shibasaki in another recent silly comedy film, I have a much better suggestion.
To those who don’t recognise the name, Kou Shibasaki is quite a star in Japan. She broke through in her role as Mitsuko, the deadly sickle-wielding seductress in Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale. Just before that, she’d appeared in Tokyo Trash Baby by Ryuichi Hiroki, whose melancholic but fantastic It’s Only Talk was one of the best films of 2003, and who also made Vibrator and Girlfriend : Please Stop the World. Shibasaki has gone on from her art house beginnings to be a big star thanks to Battle Royale. She’s released singles, albums and starred in popular TV dramas and blockbuster movies like Dororo and the dreadful Japan Sinks. But her most important connection, in this case, is to a Mr. Kankuro Kudo.
Quite frankly, if you don’t know who Kankuro Kudo is, you don’t know that much about modern Japanese film. This is a name you want to burn into your memory. Kudo started out on the popular television drama Ikebukuro West Gate Park (or I.W.G.P) a gangsta themed street tough show that followed a bunch of unrealistic Tokyo gangs and their troubles. I was lucky enough to catch this show in repeat on a summer visit to Japan about six years ago, and even then it struck me as very interesting. Shortly after IWGP, Kudo wrote Go, a film featuring IWGP star Yosuke Kubozaka, that got great attention on the international circuit. It needn’t be street toughs though, Kudo has a large range, all entertaining, and last year he went in yet another direction with the film Maiko Haaaan!!!
Yes, the title has four a’s. Yes it also has three exclamation marks. Maiko Haaaan!!! is a simple movie about a man with simple wishes. The man character Onizuka, played by Sadao Abe, is obsessed with geisha and his life long ambition is to get one to play Strip Baseball with him. How that ties into his job at the noodle company, and how it impacts his girlfriend played by Kou Shibasaki, is part of the fun. In a weak decision, Shibaski is ‘uglied’ up, with stringy hair and bad clothes, so that we might pretend she isn’t beautiful. This is perhaps the weakest decision in the film, it’s never convincing that she isn’t beautiful and we know all these stories end in her being stunning toward the end. It would have been much funnier if Kudo had acknowledged that she was pretty, and Onizuka ignored her anyway because of his fetish.
Regardless of this small trip, Maiko Haaaan!!! is very funny. Nobody has any special powers, but in Kudo’s style, the ordinary soon transforms itself into a lavish spectacle, with musical numbers and costumes. For once, the English subtitle translation is actually very funny, perhaps even more so. A running joke that involves a catchphrase ( Mochiron so! / Of course / Naturally, yes) is made a bit funnier by making the translation a little cruder. While this is not Kankuro Kudo’s best work, for that you must watch Go and 69, it’s certainly very amusing and one of the better efforts in Japanese light comedy cinema since University of Laughs