A decidedly nasty comedy, and a welcome surprise from heavy-weight Japanese helmer Masaki Kobayashi, with laughs guaranteed to stick in your throat. At its opening, as the ultra-WideScreen frame follows an elegant woman window-shopping on a fashionable street, accompanied only by a jazzy soundtrack, we might be following Audrey Hepburn in a Blake Edwards or Stanley Donen pic to a Henry Mancini theme. But the image is b&w, the woman is Keiko Kishi and the music is by Tôru Takemitsu. A flashback reveals Kishi as the former private secretary of a dying business tycoon who’s trying to put his life in order and quickly piece his will together. The trophy wife who’s turned chilly? She’ll get the required one-third. But what of the three missing children he fathered & abandoned? Are they worthy of a share? And can they be found in time? The rest of the film is a study of greed, brief alliances and corruption, a dark fable landing someplace between Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE and a tv game-show like SURVIVOR. Told in flashback from the winner’s P.O.V., the twists and backstabbing, by relatives, office aides, lawyers & investigators, are as entertaining as they are alarming. Even our lovely victor shows her true colors by the end. Not a pretty sight; though grimly hilarious in its mordant way. Kobayashi is, perhaps, not quite the fellow for this sort of thing, not exactly light on his feet. (Hey! Where’s Donen & Edwards when you need ‘em?) To his credit, he refuses to finesse some of the uglier elements of the scams, and with such a beautifully structured script, it’s as satisfying as a champion chess match. And with a cast of champs that includes Tatsuya Nakadai who’d just completed the monumental HUMAN CONDITION/’59 for Kobayashi and now shows up in a supporting role as a handsome, weak-willed worm. This little known film is a gem.
DOUBLE-BILL: Sounds a bit goofy, but Stanley Kramer’s largely laugh-free IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD/’63 makes a nice greed-driven comparison in its coarse American way. Or you can groan thru Joe Mankiewicz’s failed update of VOLPONE, THE HONEY POT/’67. Wait, wait, a better bet is Mankiewicz’s greed-fueled Western THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN/’70.