Life means always having to say you’re sorry in Nobuo Mizuta’s goofy comedy.
Apology culture and the (now uncommonly used) dogeza gesture is something of a big part of Japanese life, practised by individuals, businesses and politicians alike. But whereas apologies in much of the west are basically just polite acknowledgements of wrongdoing, in Japan they mean a lot more. Stemming from their innate culture of respect, apologies vary in words, intonation and gestures depending on who’s doing it, and to whom. A corporation, for example, may apologise for a gaff to keep face, when an individual might excuse themselves just for someone doing them a favour. It’s a tradition that goes back as far as the country, and helps show humility and conserve honour.
Saying sorry in Japan is an art, and can be complicated. This is especially true in a world of media scrutiny, where everything you do during or even after the apology is analysed for any signs that you weren’t being genuine. And if you come from a country where apologising is seen more as a sign of weakness rather than humility, it would certainly be helpful if there was someone who could tell you exactly what to say, and how to act. Well, now there is, with The Apology King.
Sadao Abe plays Kurojima, the titular character who runs the first and only Apology Centre in Tokyo. He’s sought after by clients big and small for his expertise in the field of apologising. The movie is broken down in a number of cases, starting with Noriko (Mao Inoue), whose terrible driving has gotten her in trouble with yakuza. After Kurojima helps her, Noriko decides to stay on as his assistant, and the two of them deal with clients of all calibres, from two famous actors atoning on behalf of their son, to Noriko’s own father, and even the king of the fictional country.
The Apology Kingdoesn’t brand itself as satire, nor should it be considered one, but there are elements of it that run throughout. It’s inevitable, really, that a film that is all about Japan’s (almost overwhelming) polite culture will take a few shots at the customs. But these moments are sprinkled in sparingly and at varying degrees of seriousness. For example, there’s a touching scene where a supposed victim apologises back because he acknowledges everything was probably his fault, which highlights the idea that being in the spotlight might not necessarily mean the burden is upon you – something we see lots of here in the West, but even more so in Japan with idols and actors.
First and foremost, though, this is a comedy and is a very funny one at that (if a tad overlong). Nothing is taken too seriously, and the movie takes place in its own semi-reality, where everything is heightened just enough that it can get away with its hijinks. This means that the final case – which involves a really silly story about the fictional country of Mantan that grows ever offended by Japan’s increasing attempts at amends after accidentally breaking one of their (completely absurd) laws – never comes off as overly big or dumb. This is bolstered by excellent comedic timing behind the camera and in the editing studio, as well as the performances by a pretty talented cast.
Everyone in the film brings wonderful energy to their performances, and even the worst characters are enjoyable – this is most evident with Musaka Okada’s salesman Numata whose complete inability to not be creepy every time he apologises works really only because he’s naturally very charismatic. This is true of everyone, really, but most notable is the two leads whose contrasting personalities bounce very nicely off one another: Kurojima’s almost Doctor Who-esque giddy optimism meshes with Noriko’s jaded and sarcastic personality and the impression is one not unlike a bokeand tsukkomiperforming manzai. It’s refreshing to see a comedy where everyone is reacting positively to everyone else, using one performer’s delivery as a springboard for their own. The people in front of the camera are having fun, and it’s contagious – even if it does take a little getting used to at first.
It’s the little touches that I really liked here. Screenwriter Kankuro Kudo could have taken the easy path and made six completely different cases which happen irrespective of one another, but instead chooses to make things a little bit trickier by folding the narrative in on itself every so often. This results in jokes that don’t pay off for a long time, and smart callbacks to memorable events which didn’t need to be there, but help make the world feel real and interconnected. As to how Mantan and Japan ever got a trade deal going without accidentally going to war is beyond me. Where The Apology Kingsucceeds is how much fun it has doing everything without being disrespectful to the cultural norms of Japan. It feels fresh and fun in an era when so many comedies feel samey and repetitive. At least we can be certain that, basically, no one’s going to have to ogeza apologise for this film anytime soon.
Verdict: By firmly keeping its tongue in its cheek, The Apology King pokes fun at Japan and itself, and is all the more enjoyable for it.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Mask shenanigans: At least 2
Coincidences: Even more
Mantan: A country comprised of a palace and one dirt valley
Apologies: You’d think someone would have run them past the embassy first
Toppings: What’s he pouring on his food all the time?
Final five minutes: Just one line of dialogue, over and over
The Apology King (2013)
Also known as: 謝罪の王様
Director: Nobuo Mizuta
Writer: Kankuro Kudo
Sadao Abe – Kurojima
Mao Inoue – Noriko
Masaki Okada – Numata
Katsumi Takahashi – Nanbu
Yutaka Takenouchi – Minoa
Yoshiyoshi Arakawa – Wada
Gaku Hamada – Wakubaru
Matsu – Funaki
Nobuyuki Suzuki – Elite
Yasuko Matsuyuki – Ex-wife