Judge! (2014) Movie Review

Judge! (2014) Movie PosterJapanese commercials, known around the world for their colourful eccentricity and frequent lack of sense, are a natural fit for a comedy, and few directors are better qualified for the job than Nagai Akira, himself a former award winning CM helmer. Making his debut with “Judge!”, Nagai (who also scripted “10 Promises to My Dog”) goes behind the scenes of the advertising industry, following Tsumabuki Satoshi (an actor whose star is very much on the rise after roles in “Tokyo Family”, “Villain”, “Smuggler” and more) as a bumbling ad exec pushed into travelling to the US to take part in judging an international competition. Filled with slapstick, visual gags and cultural misunderstandings, the film has another top upcoming star in actress Kitakawa Keigo (“Roommate”, “The After-Dinner Mysteries”) in the female lead role, and a fun supporting cast that includes Suzuki Kyoka (“The Kiyosu Conference”), Toyokawa Etsushi (“Twentieth Century Boys”), Lili Franky, (“Like Father, Like Son”), and Arakawa Yoshiyoshi (“Fine, Totally Fine”).

Tsumabuki Satoshi plays ad worker Ota Kiichiro, whose career runs into trouble after his boss Otaki Ichiro (Toyokawa Etsushi) blames the failure of a disastrous dancing fox noodle commercial on him. To make amends, Kiichiro is forced to take his place at an international advertising competition in California, where he’s tasked with serving as a judge and making sure that a shabby commercial by the son of a rich investor wins, with his job and future on the line. Armed only with a few lines of English and odd pieces of advice from basement dwelling company veteran Kagami (Lili Franky), Kiichiro heads to the US with reluctant co-worker Hikari (Kitagawa Keiko), posing as husband and wife. It doesn’t take him long to realise that he’s got his work cut out for him, with a ruthless chairman presiding over the competition and bribery and corruption being rife

It’s clear from the start that Nagai Akira and screenwriter Yoshimitsu Sawamoto (also an advertising veteran, having worked on campaigns for Toyota and SoftBank) really know their subject matter, and “Judge!” is at least partly based on their own experiences, packing in lots of anecdotes and amusing details. The industry is spoofed mercilessly throughout, pretty much everyone involved being egotistical, self-obsessed or backstabbing to one degree or another, and most of the adverts being (possibly) exaggerated and suitably bizarre – Nagai certainly gets a great deal of comic mileage out of wacky ad clips. Though it does occasionally flirt with satire, the film is based more around broad humour and slapstick, following the usual comedy of errors structure, protagonist Kiichiro getting into all sorts of mishaps before eventually coming good.

Socially awkward situations, gay jokes (which western viewers might find a little non-PC) and daft stereotypes are very much the order of the day, and the film manages a few rude and crude touches without falling into offensiveness. This all works well, and the film is light hearted and playful throughout, with a mix of the kind of wackiness Japanese comedies are known for and Hollywood-style humour – the film is one of the few to come close to nailing the east/west culture clash theme.

It helps that the western acting, though not fantastic, is of a much higher standard than usual, James C. Burns and Australian comedian Chad Mullane both on reasonably convincing form in fairly prominent roles, and this helps avoid the usual bad performance distractions, as well as helping Nagai to make some spot-on observations on western ideas about Japan and Asians in general. Tsumabuki Satoshi is great in the lead, showing himself to be a versatile and talented actor, who’s just as at home in comedy as drama, putting in a charismatic turn that makes Kiichiro easy to root for while laughing at. Kitakawa Keigo is also effective and appealing, and the two have good chemistry together, with plenty of sparky bantering, and Toyokawa Etsushi, Lili Franky and Arakawa Yoshiyoshi all do well in oddball comic role, each managing to steal their fair share of scenes.

Though it’s nothing too ambitious or intelligent, “Judge!” is a very likeable piece of popcorn fun, Nagai Akira doing a great job of mining his own experiences for comic effect. Boosted by leads Tsumabuki Satoshi and Kitakawa Keigo, and by Yoshimitsu Sawamoto’s nicely balanced script, the film has more than enough funny moments to sustain its premise, and makes for a brisk hour and forty five minutes of amiable entertainment.

Akira Nagai (director) / Yoshimitsu Sawamoto (screenplay)
CAST: Satoshi Tsumabuki … Kiichiro Ota
Keiko Kitagawa … Hikari Ota
Etsushi Toyokawa … Ichiro Otaki
Kyôka Suzuki … Haruka Kizawa
Rirî Furankî … Kagami

Buy Judge! on DVD or Blu-ray