Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
With its dry, diabolical humor and scathing social commentary, University of Laughs is a lesson on how to fight the system, one mirthful chuckle at a time.
University of Laughs is director Hoshi Mamoru’s first feature film, although he is not new to directing, having helmed a television series and directed the “Chess” segment of Tales of the Unusual (2000). His maiden feature, University of Laughs, produced by Fuji Television Network, Inc., is an outstanding look at the world of censorship of the media in Japan during the Pacific War, as presented through two characters, portrayed energetically by Yakusho Koji and Inagaki Goro. The film received its North American premiere in June at the New York Asian Film Festival 2005, although theatrical distribution, however minimal, does not look like it is in the offing. A loss for American audiences. In the meantime, interested audiences should read Kyoko Hirano’s 1992 publication of ground-breaking research on censorship in Japan, Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Under the American Occupation, 1945-1952, that serves as a historical backdrop to University of Laughs, as if Mitani Koki, the film’s screenwriter and original author of the play on which the film is based, formed his characters and situations from portions of Hirano’s research findings.
It is uncanny that I delayed the reading of Hirano’s Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo until after having watched University of Laughs; I cannot think of a more fitting pair of companion texts since the film is a literal microcosmic representation of what the first chapter in Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo details, albeit in a fully serious tone. Despite the fact that the film’s narrative is confined to one room and to two characters -- the chief censor, Sakisaka (Yakusho), and the comic playwright, Tsubaki (Inagaki) -- what each character represents is filled with historical weight, drama and tension, the exterior details of which Hirano’s book provides. The brilliance of the film stems from Hoshi’s ability to provoke such comedic strains from such otherwise serious and sad circumstances for Japan that Mitani’s original hit play of the same title, first staged in 1996, begs to be performed again to see what changes were made, if any, when transferred to the screen.
The film begins with the opening credits and a musical montage of about five to six minutes, showing Sakisaka wielding his power as part of the government censoring body, rejecting or approving scripts based on their suspicious content, interspersed with images of a laughing audience in the University of Laughs theatre where Tsubaki works. Their meeting is set up like two lone gunmen approaching each other in the middle of an abandoned dirt road for a shootout. And indeed, it is a shootout, only with words, as they exchange opinions and ideas in a span of seven days, not once venturing beyond the path between the government headquarters and the University of Laughs theatre and holing themselves up in the Interrogation room as if waiting for Godot. In fact, the seriocomic exchange between the actors makes one think of Vladimir and Estragon of the Beckett play, especially when one sees Yakusho run laps around the room like a slapstick comedian, portraying a very stuffy cop in the play within the film.
The microcosm of the film’s narrative is parallel to the macrocosm of Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo, the latter tracing briefly the development of media censorship in Japan up to the establishment of Eiga-ho (Film Law) in 1939 and effective beginning October 1st, 1939. Spelling out some of the “preventive measures” and regulations implemented by the Film Law of 1939 would elaborate on the historical details surrounding the poignant meeting between Sakisaka and Tsubaki. For instance, in 1939 the Film Law prohibited scenes that “…might profane the dignity of the royal family or undermine that of the empire,” that “might disturb good decorum and/or otherwise threaten the national morality,” or “undermine the proper use of the Japanese language,” measures that Sakisaka implements with a heavy hand. Moreover, the Naimu-sho (Ministry of Internal Affairs) issued regulations in 1940, several of which ruled that “Comedians and vaudeville satirists will be restricted if they overdo their comedy,” “Slice-of-life films, films describing happiness ... treating the lives of the rich, scenes of women smoking, drinking in cafes, etc., the use of foreign words, and films dealing with sexual frivolity are all prohibited.” And finally, “Scripts will be censored before production and will be rewritten until they fully satisfy the Censorship office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.” These measures and regulations form the very premise of Sakisaka and Tsubaki’s conflict in the neutral-hued Interrogation room, and eventually of their mutual respect and admiration by film’s end. Despite the emphasis on film as the main target for nationalistic and propagandistic purposes and rules, the world of theatre was also subjected to censorship, perhaps to a lesser degree. Still, the film shows clearly that even a theatrical troupe whose main product is “lowbrow" fare experienced the tight control of the Film Law, the error precisely being the escapism of its productions, as Sakisaka would declare.
Hirano writes in Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo, “They [Japanese spectators] had been prepared by nationalistic education and media propaganda to work hard and to sacrifice for the sake of their nation in a time of crisis” (my italics), which reads very much like Sakisaka’s lines in the film. Sakisaka personifies this viewpoint and serves as the loudspeaker for the militarist ideology that came with the Showa Restoration in 1926, curtailing the progressive liberalism of the Taisho Era (1912-1926). But in the midst of this, Hoshi and writer Mitani succeed in transforming a simple yet highly charged statement into a source of laughter -- it is unfortunate that the play on Japanese words such as kuni (“country”) and niku (steak/meat) gets lost in translation, although the choice of “sake” and “steak” gets the comic effect across. Yakusho’s and Inagaki’s superb individual and collective performances make sure that the comic effects reach the audience.
When Sakisaka and Tsubaki meet for perhaps the last time, the highly meticulous degree -- and seemingly arbitrary one -- to which censors put pressure on artists to adapt to the nationalist regime that Sakisaka has demonstrated makes his words, “Do not get killed,” to Tsubaki (when the latter shows his draft card) all the more dramatic, culminating in his order to “Come back safe” as a direct protest of the militarist government’s emphasis on sacrificing oneself for the country when Sakisaka yells it in the corridor. Sakisaka’s intense feeling of what could be lost if Tsubaki were to die on the battlefield recalls all too well the director Yamanaka Sadao, who was sent to the newly conquered puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria) where he died at the age of 28 in 1938. Sakisaka’s outburst as protest to what the government was then strictly disseminating obliterates the ideology that he himself had been espousing since his post as a censor on anti-Japanese thought in Manchuria, an act that could have him killed, Tsubaki points out.
The absence of historical details that relay the gravity and violence of the wartime situation in which Sakisaka and Tsubaki find themselves do not reflect negatively on the film’s part. Hirano’s Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo merely enriches what is already on the screen and vice versa. Hirano, in fact, concentrates on the American occupation of Japan from 1945-1952 and the censorship body that replaced the Film Law and enforced an American brand of prohibition and regulations. But her descriptions of the Japanese and Allied censor boards, respectively, present them as one and the same, determined to instill an ideology through media although the ways in which they operated were different. So even at war’s end, censorship continued for most of the media operating in Japan, from radio, press, theatre, literature to film. The American occupation went so far as to have two separate boards, one for “civilian censorship” (Civil Information and Education) and another for “military censorship” (Civil Censorship Detachment). In one of the examples of a rewrite for a scene, Hirano writes that it is “a fine example of Japanese filmmakers’ ability to view the American censors’ suggestions as challenges to be overcome, to the betterment of the final product,” which could be about University of Laughs itself -- an education in collaboration: between Sakisaka/Yakusho and Tsubaki/Inagaki; Hoshi and Mitani; theatre and film; film and history.
Maybe Hoshi’s next project should be about the American censoring board, SCAP (Supreme Commander, Allied Production).
Visit the film's official website (in Japanese) at:
Date Posted: 9/8/2005