Review: KUHIO TAISA (Daihachi Yoshida)

Hong Kong was long the home turf of conman cinema, but now Japan finally has a certified hustler of its own. His name is Sergeant Kuhio, a jet pilot fighting for world peace, trying to do justice to his royal bloodline. Kuhio Taisa is another one of Yoshida's dark yet quirky comedies, throwing you off-guard and mixing awkward, strange and dramatic moments into an unusual mix that leaves you with a feeling of having witnessed something unique.

Kuhio Taisa was the only Daihachi Yoshida (Permanent Nobara, Funuke, Show Me Some Love You Losers) film I still needed to see, now that I have I can say without any doubt that he's one of the best directors working in the current Japanese comedy scene. While his sense of humor can be cornered as typically Japanese, he brings some very unique elements to his films that distinguish him from other directors.

From the get-go it's obvious that something is not quite right with Sergeant Kuhio. While he acts dignified and serious, he is little more than a lowlife conman, cheating women out of their hard-earned money. When he claims to leave for secret missions in Iraq, he just goes on to the next woman and tries to woo her with similar stories of epic grandeur, adding lie upon lie to plunder the women's cash reserves.

Things go bad when Kuhio is found out by one of the girl's brothers. A hustler himself, he decides to milk Kuhio for money, starting an unstoppable spiral of deceit that will eventually lead to Kuhio's demise. Even though this all sounds quite serious and dramatic, trust Yoshida to turn it into a rather light-hearted and genuinely funny tale about a unique individual who just happens to be a deranged criminal.

On a visual level Kuhio Taisa is pretty decent, but not overly impressive. There are a few shots that jump out (mostly near the end of the film), but while the camera work and framing is pleasant and proper it feels as if it doesn't completely fulfill its potential. Maybe it's because Yoshida feels more at ease in rural settings, as the scenes outside definitely outshine the ones inside.

The soundtrack is quite quirky and light-hearted, but also fail to truly impress. Actually, you might be forgiven to think there wasn't even a soundtrack present during most of the scenes. While the music is actually rather lively and fun, it is banished to the background and kept there mostly as filler. The most characteristic element of the entire audio track is Masato Sakai's voice and accent, which says all there is to say about the soundtrack really.

The acting is top notch though. Masato Sakai gives a great performance as Kuhio and carries the film with extravagant flair. His character is the center point of Kuhio Taisa and crucial in making the comedy work. Sakai makes sure his character remains likable and mysterious while he's ripping off innocent woman. And even though there's some kind of justification for his actions at the end of the film, Sakai doesn't really need it to make people feel for his character. The secondary roles are properly filled in too, though they are clearly just tagging along.

Kuhio Taisa is another one of those films that balances comedy and drama in a rather odd and novel way. While the events in the film are clearly no laughing matter, there is a constant light-hearted tone that clashes heavily with what you see on screen, but still knows to seduce you into laughing. Yoshida is king of this peculiar comedy genre and deserves a couple of follow-up films to broaden his oeuvre.

While a tad long, Kuhio Taisa is a great film that has little or no trouble keeping your attention. Sakai does a great job portraying Kuhio as a weird, devious but ultimately likable character. While there are a few scenes that are quite dramatic, they are quickly followed by some darker and off-key comedy moments. It's not Yoshida's best film (you're better off watching Funuke first), but fans should take the time to seek out Kuhio Taisa. Success guaranteed.

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