Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald – Japanese screwball comedy at its best

Japanese films are not well known around the world for screwball comedy. Global audiences have typically been exposed to their award winning samurai films, anime, yakuza films and contemporary dramas. There are of course, dramas with elements of comedy, such as Juzo Itami’s The Funeral (1984), Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dansu? (1996), Takashi Yamazaki’s Always Sunset on 3rd Street (2005) and Sang-il Lee’s Hula Girls (2006) – all these having won the Best Film Award of the Japanese Academy. I myself had come across just a couple of examples of outright Japanese comedies – Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) and Masayuki Suo’s brilliant Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (1992) – the latter winning Best Film. Both of these are hilarious and are the sort of movies I watch again and again, along with other guilty pleasures like Four Weddings and a Funeral or My Cousin Vinny.

So, I was thrilled to stumble across the 1997 comedy Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (Rajio No Jikan), which won awards for Best Screenplay for writer-director Koki Mitani, besides being nominated for all the other big categories, such as Best Film, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Actor, Actress, etc.

Koki Mitani was the resident playwright for the Japanese theatrical group Tokyo Sunshine Boys (named after the Neil Simon play). This group specialized in sitcom-style plays; they adapted the play Twelve Angry Men into a comedy 12 Gentle Japanese, to achieve one of their early successes. This play demonstrated Mitani’s skill in finding the funny side of a group of people working to a deadline while stuck together in an enclosed space. The same formula creates the farcical and highly entertaining situations seen in Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald.

The film begins with a superb 5 minute long continuous shot, which simultaneously introduces most of the characters as well as the setting for the majority of the film – the sound studio of a radio station. As a publicity stunt, the station is going to broadcast a late night radio play live from the studio (as opposed to the usual practice of recording and editing them in advance). The play is an old-fashioned romance written by a first-time writer, a housewife whose script was selected from a competition (it soon transpires that hers was the only entry!).

The characters in the movie represent the full deck of personality types one would expect to see in such a setting – the oily producer Ushijimi who needs to get the play out at all costs, the diva actress Nokko whose star is on the wane and wants to stamp her authority over her fellow actors, her overbearing manager, the hapless housewife who gets her first exposure to the cut-throat world of entertainment, her overly protective and insecure husband, the handsome and principled program director Kudo, the staff writer Bucky who is brought in to polish the script, the upright and idealistic announcer, the actors playing the heroine’s husband and lover respectively and a couple of other studio sound technicians.

The situation starts to spiral out of control when the actress insists that her character is changed from a simple Japanese housewife to a New York-based high-powered lawyer. The lead male actor, not to be outdone, decides that his character should be a pilot rather than a fisherman! The poor housewife accepts the initial changes gracefully (though reluctantly), but is soon appalled as the initial modifications set off a chain reaction of other changes to the setting, plot points and potentially, even the ending.

Further complications arise when the producer discovers that the sound effects library has been locked up for the night and they have no sound effects to support a story which by now features machine guns, a bursting dam and even a rocketship. He enlists the help of an aged security guard who once used to provide man-made sound effects before the days of pre-recorded digitally produced sounds.

I was reminded of Robert Altman’s last film The Prairie Home Companion which takes place almost in real time during the live broadcast of a variety show. In both cases producers, directors, actors and sound effects men have to improvise will on air; while the characters in Prairie do so with a high degree of sangfroid, the situations in Mr. McDonald are set up on purpose to create over-the-top chaos.

The film is also a mild satire of Japanese post-war society’s obsession with the trappings of the West and its rigid social and corporate hierarchy. There is a scene in which the writer locks herself in the sound studio (during an extended commercial break) to protest against the wholesale slaughter of her screenplay, with the rest of the cast stand clustered together outside the plate glass window while the producer tries to reason with her; I am sure this scene must have struck a chord with scriptwriters around the world who have seen their beloved creations reconstructed beyond recognition by studio executives and powerful movie stars.

Ultimately, after several twists and turns, the play (and its distraught writer) gets its happy ending. This is yet another film that is likely to end up in my rapidly expanding list of my favorite all-time films (which I first published as a Top 35 listing and then expanded to 40; currently, my offline update has 50 and counting!)

A bit of trivia: Japanese box office superstar Ken Watanabe appears in a small role as a truck driver who happens to tune into the station and is completely swept up by the story, presumably mirroring the reactions of other listeners nationwide. This is an in-film joke as Watanabe had played an almost identical character (down to the cigarette pack rolled into his T-shirt sleeve) in Tampopo 12 years earlier.

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