(1961- ) Japanese author, dramatist and film-maker, prominent both as a playwright in Japanese theatre, and as the director or screenwriter of films based on his stage plays. In his early acting career, he performed under the stage-name Sōtarō Ichihashi.
Much of Mitani's work displays a scenarist's fascination with the power of text to shape worlds. In his non-sf play Warai no Daigaku ["University of Laughs"] (1994 radio, staged 1996 trans as The Last Laugh 2007), the initially unwelcome attentions of a censor in World War Two eventually and counter-intuitively improve a playwright's script. Mitani explored such issues further with his film Rajio no Jikan ["The Radio Time"] (1997; vt Welcome Back, Mr McDonald), based on his 1993 play of the same name, in which a single word, changed in a live broadcast of a radio play, forces the cast and crew to frantically improvise and rewrite on the fly. The original performance, conceived as a mundane romance, spirals out of control to encompass Aliens and UFOs in a prolonged homage to Radio as a theatre of the mind. This, along with many of his other scripts, displays a love of foreign film, particularly the work of Billy Wilder – Mitani's eager and accomplished ability to integrate foreign references and comedic modes into Japanese culture and entertainment might be compared on some level to the hard-boiled pastiches of Haruki Murakami. In this vein, he is also credited as the Japanese adaptor of several plays by well-known writers, including Anton Chekhov and Neil Simon, as well as the author of TV puppet serials based on Sherlock Holmes and the Three Musketeers (see Alexandre Dumas). In the 1990s, he wrote a column with Makoto Wada for the film magazine Kinema Junpō, discussing foreign films and narrative techniques in incisive detail, collected as Sore wa Mata Betsu no Hanashi ["But That's Another Story"] (1997).
Mitani often dwells on the performance of self in everyday life, and the degree to which Perception is fungible and subjective. The protagonist of Kioku ni Gozaimasen ["I Have No Recollection"] (2019; vt Hit Me Anywhere One More Time) wakes up in hospital with severe Amnesia, only to be informed that he is the Prime Minister of Japan. The comedy derives from his own reactions to policies and projects that he has supposedly approved, and from the inevitable farce that breaks out around the visit of the US President, from whom the Prime Minister's condition must be kept secret. Similar issues underlie the plot of The Magic Hour (2008), the protagonist of which believes himself to be playing an assassin in an avant-garde gangster movie, unaware that he is among real criminals, who have been told that he is a renowned hitman by a scheming colleague.
More direct engagements with genre themes include Suteki no Kamishibari ["Wonderful Sleep Paralysis"] (2011; vt A Ghost of a Chance; vt Once in a Blue Moon) in which the ghost of a samurai, ready to admit that he controlled the actions of a modern-day murder suspect, is told that his testimony is inadmissible in court, and must find alternate ways to save the accused. Ironically, however, Mitani's most overtly sf piece, Galaxy Kaidō (2015; trans as Galaxy Turnpike) is more concerned with mundane matters. Set in the year 2265, in a dilapidated burger bar somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn, it allegorizes Earthbound issues of smalltown ennui and relationship dramedy on a galactic scale (compare Douglas Adams). Mitani himself conceived of the film as a setting derived from the beliefs of 1950s American sitcoms of what the future would look like, in a similar manner to the Golden Age of SF as imagined in "The Gernsback Continuum" (in Universe 11, anth 1981, ed Terry Carr) by William Gibson. Mitani's conception of the film's inspirations was also structural: he imagined it as if it were a single episode in a long-running and episodically interchangeable situation comedy.
Mitani is a huge presence in contemporary Japanese media, albeit one whose dedication to the immediacies of stage work can often confine him to the shadows. A fervent believer in tailoring scripts to the personalities of specific actors, he is known to rewrite dialogue to reflect changes in casting, and is resistant to performances of his work in which he is not directly involved, drastically reducing the long tail of his scripts in repertory or student performances. This, in turn, skews much of his media footprint to those works that are adapted for more enduring and viewable media, leaving much of his theatre or radio output unknown, unseen or unheard abroad. [JonC]
born Setagaya, Tokyo, Japan: 8 July 1961
works (highly selected)
- Sore wa Mata Betsu no Hanashi ["But That's Another Story"] (Tokyo: Bungei Shunjū, 1997) [nonfiction: coll: with Makoto Wada: binding unknown/]
- Kore mo Mata Betsu no Hanashi ["And This is Yet Another Story"] (Tokyo: Kinema Junpō-sha, 1999) [nonfiction: coll: with Makoto Wada: binding unknown/]