The Japanese word otaku has been backported into English, where it has the relatively innocuous meaning “Japanese pop culture fan”. In Japanese, however, the word carries far nastier baggage — it’s nerd multiplied by geek and then raised to the power of loser. It’s used to describe people with fixations so narrow and exclusive, what they keep out is far more important than what they let in.
Onizuka, the hero (if that’s the right word) of Maiko haaaan!!!, is a geisha otaku. He loves geisha — loves their outfits, their dainty mannerisms, their hair, their elevated shoes, and their sheer inaccessibility. The latter mostly because he’s a low-level salary-schlub in a corporation nowhere near Kyoto, so he has to be content with taking pictures, keeping a fan website and dreaming his mad little dreams about someday playing strip baseball with a whole coterie of coiffed cuties. He loves geisha, it would seem, as a way to have something in his life that he can point to and say, “I love this, you hear me? LOVE IT!”
Maiko haaaan!!! (the title translates to something like Oh, Geisha!!!) itself is every bit as crazed as its hero. I objectively know it has its flaws, but I still found its manic energy endearing. The movie’s attitude towards its material is so cheerfully through-the-roof and heedless of modesty in storytelling, it’s hard not to get swept along. It takes a kind of goony genius to sustain something like this for even a few minutes at a time, and while they don’t quite pull it off (the movie runs out of steam more than once) they still make most of it into infectious, loony fun.
Onizuka works for an instant-noodle company (which is, I guess, as much a piece of “modern” Japan as geisha are of “classical” Japan) and longs for the day when he can finally do more than just watch geisha from a distance. Small wonder when Onizuka’s given the chance to transfer to his company’s Kyoto office — city of geisha! — he practically throws himself off a roof with joy. Never mind that it’s effectively a demotion: the instant-noodle company he works for has their toppings-manufacturing plant there, mostly as a way for the president of the company to stay close to the geisha houses he likes to frequent. He also discovers they don’t take first-timers without a referral, and his boss isn’t about to grant one unless he proves he’s worth it.
This inspires Onizuka to not only get the lead out, but most of the other heavy metals as well. He slaves, he brainstorms, he cracks the whip over his co-workers, and lo and behold he’s created a new kind of do-it-yourself instant-noodle product that’s a smash hit. But once he’s in the geisha house as a regular customer, Onizuka discovers he has competition of a sort: Naito (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a professional ballplayer, part-time drunk and full-time jackass who sneeringly covets one of the geisha Onizuka’s been fixated on. Rivalry ensues, in which Onizuka refashions himself into a pro ballplayer as well, the better to put one over his opponent. And then there’s the matter of Onizuka’s former girlfriend (Kou Shibasaki), who’s gotten it into her head to become a geisha as well, the better to win Onizuka back. (Her character’s another example of the Un-Ugly Duckling, someone whom we can tell the makeup department had to go to great lengths to make her look frowsy in the first act.)
The movie’s energy level is beyond belief, but not unprecedented. I’ve seen other Japanese comedies that not only pulled out all the stops but drilled a few more for good measure: Fall Guy, or Geroppa!. Maiko haaaan!!! shares more than a few of their attributes: they’re all about people fixated on doing something better than anyone else (or breaking out of one mold and creating a new one), and they all feature stupefying out-of-nowhere musical numbers. Here, the filmmakers drop a lavish song-and-dance routine on us when Onizuka realizes to his sorrow that he’s not gonna get into a geisha house without a sponsor.
... while his former girlfriend starts discovering her own capacity
to make herself over in more ways than one.
But while nothing exceeds like excess, less is also more. The movie’s way too long, for one; a good editor could probably have sweated twenty to thirty minutes out of the film without losing anything of importance. There’s also the matter of Onizuka himself — or maybe better to say the actor, Sadao Abe. He’s so manic and amped-out in every single scene, so unrestrained in his excess, that you’ll either marvel at his uninhibited zeal or by the twenty-minute mark you’ll feel like it’s not comedy anymore but pathology. And then there’s most of the second half of the film, where more serious elements creep into the mix — and while they’re not show-stoppers by themselves, they only make that much more of a case for a shorter movie overall.
What works best in the movie are the aggregations of little moments — the way Onizuka grows a hermitlike beard and mustache while working on his soup concoction, or his shy little speech near the end where he admits strip baseball actually isn’t all that interesting by itself. And his crazy zeal to outdo everyone he meets actually brings to mind another movie from Japan that isn’t quite as frenzied as this one but every bit as endearing, maybe even more so: Secret Garden. That film was about a woman whose single-minded obsession with recovering a briefcase full of money causes her to become a better person without ever realizing it. See that one first, and then come back here if you don’t mind something of the same story but with the volume turned up to 11.