The likelihood is that you’ve probably been forced into situations at work where you don’t feel completely confident or even capable of the task you’ve been assigned. If you’re very unlucky, these situations sometimes arise because your boss has made a mistake and needs someone to carry the can while they’re busy boosting their profile on a more impressive project. This is the kind of difficult situation lowly advertising office boy Kiichiro has gotten himself into, which sees him fly halfway across the world to try and rig an industry competition in favour of his company's sub-par effort despite being widely regarded as the agency's least hopeful talent and totally unable to understand the competition’s official language - English.
Kiichiro was recently part of a team working on a new television commercial for a brand of instant ‘kitsune' udon noodles - this famous noodle dish is so called because it contains fried tofu which is said to be a favourite of ‘kitsune’ foxes in Japanese folklore. Accordingly, Kiichiro is forced into a fox suit to do an ecstatic dance to really sell how delicious these noodles are. Unfortunately, the clients aren’t really taken with the concept and would rather the ‘fox’ was a bit more cat-like. Kiichiro’s boss is far too busy for people interfering with his artistic vision so leaves it to Kiichiro to fix things, but the only solution he can come up with is to write "This is a cat!" across the middle of the screen and replace parts of the jingle with "nyaa, nyaa" cat noises. His boss is also far too busy to attend an industry show he’s supposed to be judging at in Santa Monica and - seeing as Kiichiro has a similar name - he decides to dispatch him in his place, charged with the mission of making sure the company's ad for Japanese fish sausages wins the top prize. Unbeknownst to Kiichiro, if he fails in this frankly impossible mission he’ll be immediately fired and his dream of working in the advertising industry will be over for good.
Judge comes from the 'everything turned up to eleven' Japanese farce school of comedy. It’s chock full of wacky stereotypes, misunderstandings and the central idea that anything that can go wrong will, but will eventually somehow work out in our hero’s favour. The set-up ensures plenty of hilarious moments, what with its stock of colleagues who don’t get on posing as husband and wife, a hero who learns English from a book designed for the gourmet traveller and a whole host of stereotypical ‘foreigners’, each bringing a bit of cosmopolitan humour to the table. It is undoubtedly very funny and mostly manages to avoid the pitfalls of its winking, over-the-top comedy style. There is however a strain of slightly uncomfortable non-PC humour concerning two gay delegates which feels badly misjudged and quite disappointing. A cultural difference perhaps and though it is in no way malicious, UK audiences in particular may find this old-fashioned piece of comedy less forgivable than those of other countries.
Though in large parts a commentary on the advertising world and a satire of industry awards in general, Judge manages to be genuinely funny even if the audience has no prior involvement in any of these areas. Though it obviously has a message - that even in something as ‘commercial’ as advertising the art ought to win though, and when push comes to shove you should vote with your heart and not your head - it’s the comedy that takes centre stage and rightly so. It’s also not afraid to turn the camera around a little and start exploiting the western stereotypes about Japan, with the lead character suddenly making a speech where he dramatically declares himself an ‘otaku’ and hands out a bunch of Lum and Haruhi Suzumiya t-shirts. The performances are strong across the board, from Satoshi Tsumabuki’s nervous yet pure at heart hero and his gambling obsessed colleague Keiko Kitagawa, to notable cameos from Lily Franky who provides some hilarious advice about how to control an award's jury and YoshiYoshi Arakawa as a Japanese Brazilian fellow ad-exec. Unusually for this kind of film, the English speaking actors are all pretty convincing too and free from the under-rehearsed or even dragged in off the street quality that can often plague non-Asian actors in Asian films.
There’s no point trying to pretend Judge is anything other than a glossy mainstream comedy, but it does what it sets out to do really well. It has plenty of hilarious moments and even a few instantly quotable lines, though it might also make you want to go out and buy some fish sausage which could be a downside depending on your point of view. Undoubtedly though it has its heart in the right place, and fans of quirky Japanese comedies won’t find much to argue about when it comes to awarding Judge a top prize.
Judge! was screened at the Prince Charles Cinema on 1st June 2014 as the closing film of the 2014 Terracotta Far East Film Festival.