REVIEW: The Uchoten Hotel (2006)

On New Year’s Eve inside a luxury Tokyo hotel, a maid (Takako Matsu) gets confused for an industrialist’s lover, an honoured deer specialist has an unexpected encounter with his actual lover, that lover targets a disgraced senator-in-hiding, a manager (Koji Yakusho) runs into his wife at the worst possible moment, an aspiring musician decides to quit his day job, and a rampaging duck with a penchant for biting ears is on the loose.

I cannot speak for anybody else, but when I think of farce I tend to think of English comedy. It is such a well-suited culture for farce: a stiff, class-conscious and mannered exaggeration of English society is the perfect backdrop for a cavalcade of embarrassing and compromising events. There is a general pre-occupation with sex that runs simultaneously with a similar obsession for dignity, calm and maintaining civility at all times. That formalised style of society is what makes farce work so well in Japanese culture as well. Probably the most famous and beloved Japanese movie farce is Yuzo Kawashina’s A Sun-Tribe Myth of the Bakumatsu Era (1957), but a similar funny example comes via Koki Mitani’s 2006 comedy The Uchoten Hotel. With it’s all-star cast it was guaranteed a high profile release in Japan, and went on to score 11 Japanese Academy Award nominations (sadly winning none of them).

The film draws a lot of inspiration from Edmund Goulding’s 1932 drama Grand Hotel, to the point of echoing its set design, building a famous ensemble cast, and even naming the Japanese hotel’s wings and suites after the cast of the older film. Mitani has weaved multiple narratives through this setting, involving both hotel staff and guests, and a lot of the joy in the film is seeing each of these separate storylines begin to inter-weave and bump into one another.

The film’s nominal star is Koji Yakusho, best known to non-Japanese audiences for his leading role in Masayuki Suo’s international hit Shall We Dance? (1996). He plays hotel functions manager Heikichi Shindo. He works very much as the centre of the narrative wheel, since each storyline requires his intervention at one point or another. He plays his role perfectly, struggling to maintain a sense of dignified calm no matter how far the evening spirals out of control.

The real surprise among the cast is Takako Matsu. She made an enormous impression in the unsettling thriller Confessions (2010). It turns out she has as refined a gift for comedy – and particularly comic timing – as she does for bleak drama. She plays Hana, a hotel maid who gets caught trying on a guest’s jewelry while cleaning. The man who catches her was expecting to find his father’s elusive mistress and mistakes Hana for her; and so the farce continues.

Technically the film follows a rather formal route, with Mitani generally restricting himself to one shot per scene. It gives the film an aesthetic that is somewhat like a play. It is also a clever move: it puts the focus on the cast to make the comedy work, and it works wonderfully.

The Uchoten Hotel is a light and charming comedy. It is perhaps a little overlong, but it remains sweet enough throughout to leave the viewer in a slightly forgiving mood. It is wonderfully presented, and beautifully played. I watched it with a perpetual smile on my face.

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