A Ghost of a Chance

November 26, 2011
Film Still, A Ghost of a Chance
Film Still, A Ghost of a Chance

With some films box office success owes as much to timing as to the intrinsic qualities of actors, directors or cinematographers. I don’t mean genre pictures made for the Christmas market, but those rare films that capture the spirit of the times. Frank Capra’s movies did this in the 1930s and 40s, with their parables of the ordinary, decent man who stands up to wealth and power.

I mention Frank Capra because he is used as a touchstone in A Ghost of a Chance, the opening night presentation at the 15th Japanese Film Festival. With a record thirty films showing this year, the JFF ranks only behind the French, German and Italian Film Festivals. It has already run its course in Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Brisbane and Canberra. This is its final weekend in Sydney, before the season concludes in Melbourne, from 29 November – 6 December.

One of the features of the 15th JFF is its willingness to confront this year of disaster. A film called The Town’s Children by Tsuyoshi Inoue, looks back on the Kobe Earthquake of 1995, which cost the lives of 6,434 people. This is a tragic theme, and it was no surprise when Masafumi Konomi, the director of the Festival, admitted that ticket sales for the film were slow. He hoped the quality of the movie and the importance of the subject would attract a sympathetic audience.

Another film, Yamakoshi: The Recovery of a Tiny Japanese Village, is a documentary about a small community that has rebuilt itself following the great Chuetsu Earthquake which struck Niigata Prefecture in October 2004.

Although the story is hopeful and inspiring it is predictable that such films will prove less popular than features such as Oba, the Last Samurai, starring current Japanese hearthrob, Yutaka Takenouchi, who was a guest at the Sydney season; and Arietty, the latest animated release from Studio Ghibli, which has already secured Australian distribution.

I’m in no position to give detailed recommendations because the sheer quantity of films makes it is difficult to attend many sessions. For more detailed information, session times and short reviews, one should consult the festival website: http://15th.japanesefilmfestival.net.

According to Konomi, the opener, A Ghost of a Chance, has been astonishingly popular in Japan, grossing AUD $30 million in its first two weeks. This is partly a testimony to the reputation of director, Koki Mitani, who is known as Japan’s ‘King of Comedy’, but more importantly, this screwball entertainment is every bit as timely as the two serious films about the earthquakes in Kobe and Niigata.

Whatever one may imagine about the Japanese sense of humour, there is no doubt that an audience in Tokyo finds the same joy in a movie that is comical and uplifting as the Australian viewers that flocked to Red Dog.

A Ghost of a Chance fits this description because it is a story that makes light of death, and gives a vote of confidence to a user-friendly afterlife. To a nation so wracked by tragedy it is the kind of film for which everyone has been waiting.

The story concerns a shambolic, unlikely lawyer, Emi, played by Eri Fukatsu, who must defend a man accused of murdering his wife. When she interviews the defendant, his unlikely alibi is that he spent all night at a remote inn in the countryside with a phantom samurai perched on his chest.

Gathering evidence, Emi visits the inn, and encounters the ghost, a 481-year-old warrior, Rokubei (Toshiyuki Nishida), who agrees to appear in court if a monument is erected to his deeds and good character. From the time of his death he has struggled under the ignominy of a false accusation of treason that resulted in his execution.

This provides numerous opportunities for comedy, as Emi tries to find out why some people see Rokubei while he remains invisible and inaudible to the majority. This also creates extraordinary difficulties with court procedure, and results in a media blitz that irritates the Higher Powers. A senior bureaucrat arrives from the afterlife with orders to bring Rokubei back into the fold. He can only be pacified by videos of Frank Capra films, which are apparently hard to find in Heaven.

All the members of the court are suitably off-beat, from the cheerful judge, to the prosecutor whose ruthless demeanour conceals a passionate regard for the truth. Emi herself spends the entire film in a state of semi-hysteria that manages to be strangely endearing.

Frank Capra is the key, because this is a film about hope and justice – where benevolent spirits declare their solidarity with the ordinary man. In its own fashion, A Ghost of a Chance taps into the Japanese psyche with the same accuracy that the first Godzilla film of 1954 played on the traumas generated by the atomic holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The difference is that Godzilla, king of monsters, was a moral avenger who could only be defeated by noble, innocent and selfless beings. Rokubei, the 481-year-old phantom, is a comforting figure who makes us feel that everything is going to be OK – in the next world, if not in this one.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, November 19, 2011

Japan. Not Rated, 132 minutes.

15th Japanese Film festival, Sydney: 17-27 November, Melbourne: 29 November – 6 December