I watched this because I remembered it as being popular. In fact it was a big hit. I didn't go to the cinema much when I lived in Japan, but I knew about this one. Koki Mitani has a knack of making star-studded comedies that draw wide audiences and end up among the year's top-grossing domestic movies.
Admittedly a certain person I know wasn't interested in this movie because she's seen Mitani on TV and thinks he's a dick, but personally I enjoyed it and I'll be hunting down more of his films.
The lazy and misleading simile would be to liken this film to Fawlty Towers. They're both comedies set in hotels, but that's about as far as it goes. There's some embarrassment comedy here, but it's gentler and sweeter than anything you'll ever get with Basil Fawlty. I liked these people. They all seemed real. The weirdos and oddballs don't feel like one-note caricatures, but actual people with foibles. The hotel staff are honest, conscientious and very good at their jobs. There's no idiot plotting. Admittedly people will get themselves in trouble through silly deceptions, but you'll understand why they did it and you'll be rooting for them throughout despite everything.
An important factor, I think, is that Mitani's roots are in theatre. He's a playwright and most of his movies started out as stage plays before he adapted them for the cinema. That explains the unusual breadth and length of this film, which has a surprisingly big cast and a nice long running time to let you get to know them. It doesn't feel as if you're seeing a snapshot of life at the hotel, but instead everything that happens there that night. Mitani even directs in a manner that reflects his background, doing entire scenes in a single shot. Instead of cutting, he moves the camera around. Personally I liked this a lot, partly because it's done deftly enough that you probably won't notice unless you're looking for it and partly because it makes everything feel more organic. It helps the actors find their rhythm and it makes a change from impatient editors who keep breaking up a perfectly good take with pointless cuts. (This is just as true of British TV as it is of Hollywood directors like Bay and Bruckheimer, by the way.)
So what's the plot? It's a bit like Grand Hotel (1932), which Mitani references by making his eponymous hotel themed after it. You'll also see comparisons with Hollywood's 1940s screwball comedies. The basic premise is that the Uchoten Hotel is preparing for their New Year's celebrations. The management thus have to organise the decorations, the entertainers and the awkward guests, including a dodgy politician who's got himself embroiled in a scandal and has journalists trying to get at him. There's a violent duck. There's a bellboy who plays the guitar. There's a businessman who's just won Man Of The Year from his trade association and can't afford to be seen with the airheaded bimbo of a prostitute who keeps sneaking into the hotel because it's cold outside. Not only is he secretly one of her clients, but she's got an image of him doing a dodgy dance on her mobile phone because she thinks it's funny. I count at least major seven plotlines like these, which of course interweave and complicate each other throughout the movie.
Meanwhile the cast is star-studded, although the most recognisable one to a British audience is Toshiyuki Nishida, who played Pigsy in the Japanese TV series Monkey. Most extraordinary for me though was the actress known as You, aka. Ehara Yukiko. Unbelievable. She sounded like Daffy Duck when I saw her in Still Walking and she's the same here too! She's the aural equivalent of a paraplegic. I've no complaints with her as an actress, but not only is she here allowed to talk, but she even sings! Yes, I realise she began her career as a singer. My brain can't process the information. Here she finishes the film by massacring "If They Could See Me Now", in which she not only has the vocal quality of a chainsaw but she's clearly delivering the lyrics phonetically and has not the slightest command of English. I couldn't understand what she was singing, despite knowing the song! It's a lovely scene, though.
I was talking about the acting, though. It's interesting to see such a rich cast, in the sense that just about anyone with dialogue is capable of making an vivid impression and creating a character in no time at all. I liked them a lot and there's only one character in one scene who lets their energy tip over into cartoonishness. That politician's personal aide needed to be taken out and beaten with sticks, although only where it didn't show so that they could shoot the scene again. Apart from that moment though, I liked everyone.
There's a wrinkle in the tone. You'll finish the film thinking it was sweet family entertainment... but after I'd thought about it for a while, I couldn't decide if Mitani was being subversive or disturbing. I think it's a bit of both. Firstly, a big part of the film's charm is that he's happy to undercut the sentimental moments and thus make his genuinely uplifting scenes feel more earned. There's a little bit of acid here. Two characters here consider suicide, for instance. Furthermore if you look at the themes, you'll see that almost all the big stories are about people getting into trouble through deception and not being themselves. That's fair enough, but Mitani seems to be deliberately avoiding taking this theme to comfortable conclusions. The people who yearn to sing and are apparently being vindicated in this either sound like Daffy Duck or are ignoring professional advice to quit because they're not good enough. Marital infidelity goes unpunished. The younger mistress might have been a cynical gold-digger all along, although that's not clear-cut.
Worst though was the crooked politician. His dilemma is either (a) to expose corruption and bribery among his fellow politicians, or (b) to take the blame for the crimes himself. Of course this is Japan, so the more important consideration is that the latter option would keep his name clean with the people who matter and at some later date let him revive his political career. He flirts with both options, but the theme of "be true to yourself" causes him eventually to go with... eugh. And this is supposed to be a happy ending! In fairness Mitani makes it seem almost heartwarming while you're actually watching it, but even he can't stop you thinking about it afterwards.
That's not a small quirk. However that said, I really enjoyed the film and I'd happily show it to anyone, from kiddies to grandparents. Sometimes long films can be a bit of a slog, but this one's length feels right. It's confident and snappy in how it juggles its characters and plot threads. If you're looking for it on DVD, by the way, possible English titles are Suite Dreams or (shudder) The Wow-Choten Hotel. In fairness the latter could be described as nearly a translation of the original, since "uchoten" (long o) means "ecstasy", but it's still a horror that makes my teeth itch.
I must watch more Mitani films, starting with The Magic Hour (2008). It's got Haruka Ayase in it...