Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (1997)
Nicholas Driscoll
April 10, 2007
Note: review may contain spoilers

Koki Mitani's comedies are hit or miss with me. Each film I have seen (I have only seen three now) has had ample amusement, but if I can judge from them, his messages for his films tend to become unwieldy and the resultant experience feels unbalanced. Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald, while dealing with wildly different subject matter from All About Our House (2001) and Suite Dreams (2006), nevertheless comes across as surprisingly familiar—and not in a good way.

A radio station has recently offered a competition—whoever can write the best radio drama will have his or her script produced by professional actors for broadcast on the air. Housewife Miyako (Kyoka Suzuki, who was the love interest in 2004's Zebraman and had a bit part in Godzilla vs. Biollante from 1989) was the only entrant, and so her weepy melodrama about a bored woman who has an affair with a fisherman wins by default. She is very excited about her windfall, but when drama queen star Nokko (the versatile Keiko Toda, who has had parts in everything from Vampire Hunter D from 1985 to Kiki's Delivery Service in 1989) demands that her character be a lawyer named Mary Jane, and her caustic co-star Jo Hamamura (seasoned actor Toshiyuki Hosokawa, hilarious here) then changes his character to a pilot on-air, her dreams of seeing anything even mildly resembling her work come to life disappears in a sea of wild, breakneck compromise and live improvisation.

The story of Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald has a lot of potential for hilarity, and sometimes it's capitalized perfectly—the scene that justifies the title, which I won't spoil here, is knee-slapping hilarious, and there were a few times I actually busted up in front of the screen. Unfortunately, that hilarity is occasionally subdued and weakened by Mitani's insistence on waving his "creative integrity vs. practical necessity/asinine authority" flag. In all three movies I have seen of his, films that span almost a decade, this has been his one major theme. I understand that he probably has to struggle with creative compromise all the time. I also understand that, as he becomes more popular, his creative visions have probably become more purely his own—so he's likely celebrating that and trying to encourage others who have similar problems. However, the way he presents those issues here, I feel, weakens the plot, although not cripplingly.

The characters don't help much either. Miyako, as written in the script, isn't a very deep character. As portrayed by Suzuki, she has some fun quirks, but mostly she is just a two-dimensional, obsequious housewife. Worse, she's probably the deepest character in the film. Spoiled actress Nokko and her easily-chafed co-star Hamamura are really fun, but their characterization only reaches as far as their tempers. Toshiaki Karasawa, who also played "the maestro" in Mitani's All About Our House (2001), plays the emotionally subdued director of the radio drama, Kudo. He becomes quite important late in the story, and is basically the voice of reason and truth—which means he gets to make snarky comments occasionally while really not doing much of anything. A number of minor characters, like the former sound-effects-expert security man and the kook who rewrites Miyako's script on the fly, are quite fun but don't make a huge impression either. Watch for Ken Watanabe, though, in a bit part as an emotional truck driver.

The music is bewildering. Over and over again I felt like I had heard the tunes before—out of a Godzilla movie. The themes often sound like militaristic or heroic cues from other films, and when I learned that the music was done by Takayuki Hattori, whose Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999) movie soundtrack I own, I felt as if he was trying to work up to that film a few years early. I felt it matched so poorly with the action so often that I started to wonder if it was my own problem (perhaps some lingering case of addled brain due to my bout with influenza), but my impression is what it is--apply salt and serve with an open mind.

To round out the disappointment, the subtitles were some of the weakest I have seen in a modern movie, and were often a challenge to read because they matched the on-screen colors of the background too closely. I also felt that they were more shoddily done than usual, skipping over several entire lines or simply neglecting to translate minor utterances between characters. Note, however, that I viewed the Japanese release, which probably had less care given to the English subtitles than the American release did.

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald is not a bad movie. In fact, it is probably Mitani's most popular work and was even released in America. There is good reason for that. The concept behind the film is quite delightful. Indeed, when it works, it works wonderfully—the moments of shining comic genius in this film, when they come, reach higher on the laugh-o-meter than anything I saw in All About Our House or Suite Dreams. However, those moments are not frequent, and the weaknesses are more so, in my opinion. Feel free to welcome this comedy into your home; just don't go out and break the bank on it.