Viz Media // 2007 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // June 27th, 2008
Geisha girls gone wild!
A transfer to the Kyoto branch is career suicide for employees of the Suzuya Ramen Co., but for nerdy Onizuka (Sadao Abe) it is a dream come true. After all, Kyoto is where the geisha girls roam the streets, and for Onizuka, nothing in life matters more than to be in their presence. He is a man obsessed with maiko girls (apprentice geisha, the ones with the white faces), maintains a website and photo journal of all the girls he has taken pictures of. Now he will finally be able to live out his dream: actually muster up the courage to go into a geisha house in Kyoto!
Alas, it is not that easy for poor Onizuka. He brutally dumps his existing girlfriend Fujiko (Kou Shibasaki) for not being a native Kyoto girl (the suburbs do not count, it seems) and moving to Kyoto, he tries in vain to gain admittance to a club, but is repeatedly turned away. A strictly ritualized and formal culture with stringent rules and admittance policies, the oafish Onizuka is immediately identified as a "first timer" and unceremoniously turned away from every reputable house. Newcomers must carefully nurture a relationship with a geisha house through the goodwill and reference of an existing member -- of which Onizuka knows none.
As a perpetual outsider staring longingly in, Onizuka mourns his misfortune. His greatest goal in life is to play "yakuken" with a maiko, which roughly translates as "strip rock-paper-scissors". Meanwhile, his dejected and scorned girlfriend comes up with her own plan to win back her man: become the object of his obsession.
A comedy of errors with a geisha twist, Maiko Haaaan!!! pretty much summarizes exactly what Japanese comedies are all about: spontaneous musical numbers, bodily fluid jokes, Three Stooges-style slapstick comedy, sexual innuendo, and plots that are completely disconnected from reality in surreal abstract tradition. Unfortunately for Western audiences, much of Japanese comedy is rooted in cultural gags, which are lost upon all but the worldliest of viewers -- we're simply not the target audience here. We don't understand the finer points of the intimate and ritualistic art form that is geisha, or Japanese pop culture, or heck, even Japanese geography. Sure, most of us can find Japan on a map on a good day, but some jokes pivot around audiences being aware that Gion is a neighborhood in Kyoto famous for its geisha culture. See what I'm saying? Sure, Maiko Haaaan!!! is funny without this sort of understanding, but probably only half as funny as it should be.
Still, even as half a joke, the film is charming enough in its own goofy sort of way. Much of the humor is verbal and translated well through the subtitles. Even when you're not exactly sure what you're seeing, chuckling and guffawing ensue, simply because this style of comedy is so unrestrained. It literally just does whatever it wants. Call it magic realism, call it homage to French New Wave, or call it @#$% crazy, but essentially whatever the characters imagine happens. If there is a joke, or a pun, or a sexual innuendo to be had, but the context makes no sense, then context be damned. You have to admire that kind of dedication to comedy at the sheer loss of plot and realism. One particularly brilliant sequence involves Onizuka in an bulletin board "flame war" with another computer user, and his hateful messages of derisiveness type up in giant floating marquee banners, like the title sequence in Panic Room, and hurl across the sky like missiles to strike down his opponent. For anyone who's ever trolled a forum on the internet with fury in their fingertips, you'll laugh. Then again, I hear some of us actually go outside now and again.
Written by Kankurô Kudô (Ping Pong, Zebraman) a hot comedian/musician/writer/actor/director/radio DJ in Japan these days, the story in Maiko Haaaan!!! takes off line a rocket, careens through the comedic skies and lands somewhere between a romantic comedy and a Japanese game show. Its skewed humor is unique to say the least, but oddly comforting to those familiar with his other works (precious few of which have made it to these shores, unfortunately). Poor Onizuka is obsessed beyond reason with maiko girls and scorns his near-perfect girlfriend, so she takes it upon herself to enroll in geisha lessons. Surprise surprise: Onizuka falls rapturously in love with the newest maiko girl, who bears a striking resemblance to someone he can't quite put his finger on...It all makes for a cute and charming tale, one that gets gradually warmer and more heartfelt as the story progresses into insanity. Onizuka starts off as a creepy nerd, but by the end, matures into a surprisingly sympathetic character, one you find yourself unexpectedly rooting for.
Unfortunately, Viz Video sent us over a non-finalized version of the product; in fact, it barely qualified as product at all. We're talking watermarks, no menus, no extras, burned-on subtitles, ratty VHS-esque letterboxed transfer, PCM audio, burned onto a DVD-R with an inkjet label. As such, we can't really give you a sense of what the retail version will be like in terms of its actual presentation...a shame indeed.
The final verdict will have to be deferred on account of us not actually having a copy of the retail product, but based on the merits of the film alone, Maiko Haaaan!!! is as sweet as it is zany. Its denouement goes on a bit longer than it should, but all told, it balances out against the inherent tomfoolery of the first and second acts. Fans of Japanese comedies should be satisfied, as well as those looking for a hefty dose of irreverence in their romantic comedies.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Viz Media
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated