A Japanese action comedy may appear to be a relatively easy sell, yet Kazuaki Seki's Office Royale [Jigoku no Hanazono] comes with a few extra hurdles. It's one of those films that is dowsed in local culture, while riffing on some other very particular niches and subgenres. Not knowing the background of a film like this may increase its weirdness factor, but it is decidedly more fun if you actually know what Seki is gunning for with Office Royale. Not that there's a big chance you'll be running into this haphazardly, but if you do, it's good to realize the film isn't quite as random as it seems.
The crime genre is an essential part of Japanese cinema, with many of its films incorporating Yakuza elements in some way or other. Amidst them, there's a strange (but not unpopular) niche that maps the Yakuza world and its hierarchies to Japanese high schools, with school gangs fighting among each other for territory dominance. Franchises like Crows Zero and High & Low, or more serious efforts like Blue Spring are its most popular representatives, but they're hardly mainstream. Office Royale takes the specific tropes of this niche and transports it to the office world, more specifically the world of the Japanese office lady.
The office lady (sometimes referred to as OL) is a concept of its own. These women are part of the workforce for a relatively short amount of time, mostly doing menial tasks around the office, before they become pregnant and quit to take care of their offspring. In Office Royale, they're mostly doing that too, but parallel to their boring jobs, some OLs have banded together into clans, fighting within and between companies for dominance of the professional district. It's a serious inception of in-jokes, but once all the parts fit together, it's a pretty cool concept for a bit of good old-fashioned fun.
Naoko is an office lady whose aspirations are anything but special. She wants to do a simple 9 to 5, find a boyfriend and live a nice, peaceful life. Several clans are fighting among each other in the company she works for, but she keeps out of trouble and hangs out with a few other timid girls. All that changes when Ran joins the roster. Ran is a typical comic book heroine. On her first day she beats all the lead girls and takes over reign of the company. Ran and Naoko become best friends, though Ran is smart enough to keep Naoko out of the clan business. That is, until things go sideways when one of the rival clans kidnap Naoko.
Visually Office Royale is pretty much on par with its peers. The camera work is geared at making everything and everyone look as badass as possible, costumes are elaborate, sets are detailed and everything is extremely colorful. Snappy editing, dynamic camera work and vivid colors really help to further sell the style. It doesn't quite reach the bar Shigeaki Kubo set with his High & Low films and there are a handful of moments where I wondered whether the budget simply wasn't there, but overall Seki nails the look, which is pretty essential for this type of film.
The soundtrack is not quite as noteworthy though. It's clear Seki did make the effort, several scenes do in part lean on the score, but the music itself isn't all that great. It's never actively annoying or getting in the way of anything, the music also fits the action pretty well, it's just that the effect isn't really there. In fact, the most interesting thing about the sound is probably the way Seki cuts between action and laid-back scenes, interrupting lively action tunes with soothing office noises for comedic effect. A smart way to salvage an otherwise mediocre soundtrack.
Performances are solid, sporting a cast that seems well aware of what's expected of them. Mei Nagano is fun as the demure and slightly boring Naoko, Alice Hirose is a confident heroine and Nanao is perfect playing the tough chick. Also props to Eiko Koike's performance, it's been a while since I've seen her in anything, and of course Ken'ichi Endô's appearance is something that always brings a smile to my face. None of them are going to win any prizes for their work here, still, bringing these stereotypical characters to life isn't all that easy, and there are no weak performances to be seen.
The best thing about Office Royale is that Seki really leans into the silliness. Not only is the narration very self-aware and is the plot well over-the-top, Seki also derives a lot of comedy from the contrast between the real and fictional worlds of the office ladies. Cutting back and forth between grand stand-offs and filler banter about boys and food is pretty hilarious and shows a strong awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of the material he's working with. This film isn't about depth, layered characters or intricate plots, instead it's about pure and unfiltered entertainment, and that's what Seki serves.
Office Royale is a film that speaks to a very particular audience. Fans of the Japanese high school brawlers are certain to have a lot of fun with it, for others it'll be a much bigger gamble. I'm firmly in the first camp and five minutes in I knew this was going to be a joy throughout. The premise is original, the visuals are bold and colorful and the performances are on point. Office Royale serves action and comedy in equal measures and does so with plenty of flair. It's probably not the easiest film to recommend, but if you want to submerge yourself in Japanese niche culture, it's a real blast.