Jason Julier returns with his weekly column on East Asian cinema. This week, Jason takes a look at  Fine, Totally Fine, from Japan’s  Yosuke Fujita.

For this instalment of Eastern Premise my aim was to pick out a UK DVD release that most likely isn’t currently on the shelf of your local stockist. With the recent riots and warehouse fire many small labels have had to reorganise and rebuild their catalogue. Third Window Films is no different and its 2009 release of Zen Zen Daijobu (Fine, Totally Fine) was overlooked first time around; it deserves a second chance. More than ever before, these labels need your support.

Japanese comedies generally do not travel well as humour is often native to its country of origin. British, American, French tastes to name but three are distinctive to their own markets with noticeable differences across the spectrum. In comparison Japanese humour is more restrained and subtle than Western tastes. From my own experience, Japanese comedy tends to deal with the social order and the daily routine of Japanese life; observations that may be alien to many Western onlookers. However in Fine, totally fine we have an experience that highlights aspects we can all identify with and enjoy. The added bonus is that Fine, totally fine is much more than just a comedy.

The premise is as madcap as you’d expect from a piece of Japanese independent cinema and may dissuade many perusing the store racks from taking the plunge.  The central focal point is a second hand bookstore run solely by an aging father who seems all adrift in the sea of life; his gardener son (Teruo) is nearing thirty and like his childhood friend (Hisanobu) is starting to feel the expectation of responsibility. Despite the generation gap, father and son have much in common as both lack direction and motivation for the daily struggle, trapped within their limited realm of existence.

An individual comments during the film that ‘life is more fun when you’re an idiot’ and this sums up Teruo’s approach to life perfectly. In the UK, Teruo would have been the class joker; armed with stink bombs, fart cushions and a passion for mischief. The problem for Teruo is that everyone has moved on and he remains in a state of flux with only his talents for a ruse offering any inspiration. This is partially due to the lack of a figurehead in his life. The only external pressure comes from a relative who will finance his dream of opening a haunted house attraction once he has shown some drive and determination. In comparison Hisanobu is fortunate enough to have a position of responsibility and is appreciated by his hospital cleaning staff. He is perceived as ‘Mr Nice Guy’, going so far as to visit one of his workers at their home to fix an aging VHS machine. Nothing is too much for Hisanobu and his staff are determined to find him a suitable partner. Armed with what must be generations of patience even Hisanobu cannot take Teruo’s antics forever.   

A key ingredient in the film is love and this comes in the form of Akari; an attractive but socially inept young female. We are first introduced to her observing a homeless woman from a distance and using this as an inspiration for her artistic talent. In retrospect this is Akari looking at what she is destined to become if her life remains on its current course. Unemployed, alone and cut off from society she is in danger of losing her small studio flat and falling into the same black hole as the homeless woman. She is in many respects similar to Sho from Memories of Matsuko, on the precipice of that fateful decision that will dictate the rest of her life.

She is cut a break by Hisanobu after applying for a job as a cleaner, despite a disastrous interview performance; after all ‘Mr Nice Guy’ thrives on helping needy souls. His decision opens up an avenue for a series of hospital accidents and questioning from managerial colleagues about his selection. Faced with the inevitable facts he refuses to give up on Akari and finds himself falling in love with this strange female. This comes as a relief even to an overlooked female co-worker who had begun to question his sexuality – he’s just too nice to dislike even in the face of rejection!

All of these ingredients are handled with care and attention from director, Yosuke Fujita, in his debut feature film.  An inventive script helps alongside some inspired casting with all of the leads well chosen, but it’s the role of Teruo played by YosiYosi Arakawa that is the most memorable. He balances the role of a fool with a childlike innocence in his dealings with daily life remarkably. At just under two hours long Fine, totally fine is longer than most ‘comedies’ because it has much more to say. This isn’t just a comedic piece of entertainment; it in fact says more out us all than you’d envisage. Like the best independent ‘comedies’ there’s far more here than slapstick or cheap gags, becoming a genuinely heart-warming and enchanting journey that leaves you wanting to know what the characters do next.

The Third Window Films DVD release includes interviews with both of the male leads about what attracted them to the project. The usual selection of Third Window trailers rounds off a modest package with the DVD transfer showing no flaws. Hope Lies’ own Rob Girvan recently highlighted the DVD market and the growing quality of direct-to-video releases; don’t forget the great work being done by labels such as Third Window Films in bringing us Asian movies beyond mere J-horror and kung-fu.