After watching this film for only a few minutes I wondered to myself if it was going to stand as a rare stinker from the Japan Foundation Film Tour. Soon after I wondered how on earth was I going to classify it and explain why it didn’t work. Fortunately it got better and eventually began to work for me. By the end I was enjoying it, even if I failed to spot actors I should have recognised. This is actually a mainstream family comedy which is structurally quite familiar in the UK, though its comic targets are mainly recognisable as Japanese, including the whole institution of ‘death’.
The central characters are the Nobata family. Father is a research chemist who has established a successful company but in the process has alienated his daughter Nanase and lost his wife to a mysterious disease. A series of flashbacks establish an unconventional family life with pressure put on Namase to become a research scientist like her father. She, of course, will rebel – in this case by refusing to join the family firm when she leaves university and attempting instead to become a music star, fronting a ‘death metal’ band. Meanwhile, the Nobata family pharma company is being eyed up by a large corporate rival, Watson Pharma, who have placed a mole in Nobata’s senior management. A plot is hatched involving a new drug that will render Nobata Kei (the father) temporarily dead for just two days during which time Watson’s CEO has a plan to take control of Nobata.
Nobata Kei (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi), worried about his daughter, has assigned a young man to follow her and report back. This character, known mainly by his nickname ‘Ghost’ because he is able to fade into any background and render himself virtually invisible will be key to development of the plot. He will be able to foil the plot with help from Nanase and finally another overlooked employee also known mainly by his nickname ‘Gramps’. Nobata Pharma’s money-making drug is an anti-ageing concoction known as ‘Romeo’ and the new drug which induces temporary death is given the name ‘Juliet’. The ‘temporary death’ plotline offers a range of gags some of which involve Kore-reda Hirokazu favourite Lily Franky who plays the ‘Sanzu River boatman’ – the Buddhist Japanese figure who ferries the dead to the equivalent of Hades. Nanase is played by Hirose Suzu who I should have recognised from the Kore-eda films Our Little Sister and The Third Murder.
Not Quite Dead Yet is written by Sawamoto Yoshimitsu and directed by Hamasaki Shinji, as his debut feature after a successful career in advertising films in which he won several awards. Shot in ‘Scope, like all the other features in my Japan Foundation selection, by Kondoh Tetsuya the film looks good. I think my early concerns were that the scenes may not fit together. Early flashback scenes attempt to show the pressure on Nanase coming from her father’s determination to get her interested in science. These vignettes are clever, perhaps too clever next to the ‘death metal’ music scenes featuring Nanase in the present – in performance and with her fans. The music is credited to Hyadain. I don’t know anything about the composer or about ‘death metal’ but I had some expectations and the relatively tuneful mainstream rock music that was presented didn’t seem to fit at all. I think the film began to make sense as a recognisable comic form with the introduction of the ‘Ghost’ (Yoshizawa Ryô). This actor seems very experienced with 65 credits aged just 26. His appearance and the growing realisation that he and Nanase will together fight for her father and the company presents a familiar universal comedy form – the beautiful and privileged young woman and the physically slight and bumbling young man, who is actually very bright – as is she – facing a more powerful enemy. I can think of countless examples of similar plotlines from around the world.
I’ve seen some sneery reviews about poor SFX in the film but I liked these, with the ‘temporarily dead’ father as ghost figure materialising and trying to communicate and mother seemingly trapped in a glass case in the family shrine. The film is much shorter than the others in the Foundation Tour at around 90 minutes and rattles along nicely as the best comedies do. It’s good to have a change of mood and in the end I enjoyed the chases and the finale in what turned out to be a well-written comedy with good performances. Perhaps a little more romcom might have topped it off?