An Outlaw (ならず者, Teruo Ishii, 1964)

Outside of Japan, “king of cult” Teruo Ishii is most closely associated with a particular brand of transgressive ero-guro exploitation films such as Horrors of Malformed Men, yet his career was much more eclectic than many might assume. Starring Ken Takakura with whom Ishii was developing a professional relationship which would eventually lead to the hugely successful Abashiri Prison series, 1964’s An Outlaw (ならず者, Narazumono) is one of a string of noir thrillers from the earlier part of Ishii’s career this one taking place mainly in Hong Kong and Macao. 

China-based Japanese hitman Nanjo (Ken Takakura) runs into trouble after he offs a man he assumed to be “the biggest thug in the underworld” but actually turns out to have been a law enforcement official working against a people trafficking ring. To make matters worse when Nanjo returns to his hotel where he was supposed to get his pay off, he discovers the body of a young woman in his bed who is later identified as the official’s daughter. Understandably annoyed, Nanjo starts trying to track down the people who hired him to figure out what’s going but is accidentally dragged into underworld intrigue after being mistaken for a drug deal middle-man owing to the yellow flower he’s wearing on his lapel. 

Like any good noir hero and especially one played by Takakura, Nanjo is basically a good guy with a strong sense of justice and an acute moral compass. He doesn’t like having been manipulated into killing someone who wasn’t in the game nor does he approve of those who make their living by exploiting women such as arch villain Mao (Toru Abe) whom he discovers to have been running a nefarious international trafficking ring getting Japanese women hooked on drugs, shipping them to Hong Kong and Macao, and working them to death before abandoning them once they’ve served their purpose. Then again, he also has a strange problem with women who like to lie in bed in the middle of the day which seems slightly puritanical for a man who kills for a living yet you’d have to admit no one could call him lazy. 

Not much of Nanjo’s past is revealed save that he was born in prison to a woman who stabbed her former partner because he left her for another woman while she was pregnant with his child, raising her son to be anything but dishonest especially with women. In any case, he appears to have been based in China and Hong Kong for some time, claiming that he came down from Xiamen for the job and speaking fairly fluent Cantonese and Mandarin though in another strange coincidence many of the people he meets turn out to be Japanese. In this there’s a slightly ironic inversion of the normal patterning of post-war crime films which sees Japan exporting crime to China the big mcguffin revolving around a tin of drugs Nanjo was given by mistake intended for the local market while the secondary target becomes Mao’s people trafficking operation bringing sex workers who’ve gotten into his bad books to Hong Kong or to be used for the pleasure of wealthy men. Despite his apparent disapproval, Nanjo reveals he was given part payment for the job in the form of a girl who he could use for his “convenience” though it seems unlikely that he did so.

On the other hand, the secondary villain, the Japanese-speaking Minran (Yoko Mihara), is painted as something of a femme fatale playing off Nanjo and her boss while trying to get her hands on the drugs to split the proceeds with her Cantonese-speaking lover who accidentally kills a young girl Nanjo had befriended in Hong Kong. The girl’s death is in part Nanjo’s responsibility in that he placed her in danger without warning or an understanding of what he was asking her to do, yet he later proves no better when he kills the landlady of the hotel who had watched as she died and then blackmailed Minran for financial gain. Aside from the girl and her Japanese friend Aki (Yoko Minamida) who is dying of consumption after being worked to death as one of Mao’s trafficked women, and a detective with whom Nanjo later forms an unexpected alliance, Nanjo is the representative of humanist morality despite his morally compromised existence reminding Mao that his mistake was in thinking that there is nothing money could not buy in rejecting his efforts to pay him off. 

Shot largely on location in Hong Kong and Macao, Ishii adds to the noirish tone with frequent voice over and a melancholy jazz score while making full use of the atmospheric environment with its deserted alleyways and cobbled streets not to mention the naturally canted angles of the Victoria Peak funicular, while there is a fair amount of lowkey sleaze more typical of his later career along with a bizarre scene in which Nanjo sucks out blood from the mouth of a woman suffering a pulmonary haemorrhage. First and foremost a fatalistic noir thriller in which the hero, unfairly damned by a corrupt society, is unable to outrun his past transgressions, An Outlaw nevertheless suggests that true nobility is to be found only in those existing outside of its borders.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。~おかえりお母さん~, Naoko Nobutomo, 2022)

Naoko Nobutomo’s documentary feature debut I Go Gaga, My Dear proved an unexpected hit on its 2018 release striking a chord with many middle-aged and younger people facing similar issues to the director while preoccupied about how best to care for their ageing relatives. Her 2022 followup I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。~おかえりお母さん~, Bokemasukara Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu -Okaeri Okasan-) once again follows her parents though this time witnessing her mother’s gradual decline and eventual hospitalisation along with her equally ageing father left alone at home. 

Nobutomo does retread some of the same ground reusing footage from the previous documentary to fill in gaps in her mother’s story giving a brief overview of life and marriage before the first signs of the Alzheimer’s with which she would later be diagnosed would appear. It is however also rawer, including several scenes of Fumiko in extreme distress calling out for a knife in order to end her life in a moment of frightening lucidity or walking around the house asking “what’s wrong with me?” 

The couple had hoped to stay in their home taking care of each other but as Fumiko’s condition declines that becomes increasingly impossible until she finally suffers a stroke and is hospitalised. Naoko frequently talks to her father Yoshinori about returning home to help him care for her but her offer is always refused. They tell her not to worry about them and to do the things she wants to do while she can but Naoko continues to worry. Explaining that her parents had married at a late age by the standards of the time and never expected to have any children, she recounts that she was raised in an extremely loving home and that sense of love and devotion is still very much evident between the elderly couple who continue to love and care for each other deeply. 

But then Yoshinori is also ageing, approaching his 100th birthday, and taking care of his wife takes an obvious physical toll. After Fumiko is hospitalised, he walks for an hour everyday to visit her while even carrying the shopping home from the local store is far from easy. Meanwhile he too undergoes physical therapy hoping to build up his strength for when Fumiko eventually returns home. Though in generally good health, at times he too struggles suffering a nasty fall during heavy rain on his way home from the dentist and later hospitalised with a hernia. His daily visits to Fumiko seem to keep him going, but even these come to an end during the COVID-19 pandemic during which hospital visits are restricted leaving Fumiko, bedridden having suffered a second stroke, all alone with nothing to do. 

The presence of COVD-19 is also reflected in the funeral, an incredibly small affair populated by people wearing masks. Fumiko’s condition caused her to worry about her quality of life while a poignant visit to her home reduces her to tears before she’s transferred to hospital for longterm care. In her voice over Naoko explains that she’s been spending more time in Kure with her father, but evidently does not wish to intrude on his independence as far as she can help it while he becomes an accidental local celebrity given the documentary’s success. Fumiko too had been looking forward to seeing it, a treasured pamphlet lying next to her bed, but was ultimately unable to because of her ill health. 

Like its predecessor, I Go Gaga: Welcome Home, Mom tells a heartwarming study of an elderly couple doing their best to care for each other though later turns in a poignant direction as Naoko and her father begin to process the possibility that Fumiko will not return home something very painful for Yoshinori who is evidently suffering himself extremely worried about the thought of losing his wife. Yet life in a sense goes on, Yoshinori edging his way to his 100th birthday and pledging to live until 120 before heading to a diner for the hamburger steak he’d been craving. He even gets an award from the local mayor in celebration of his centenary. Ending on a poignant note, Nobutomo switches back to older footage of happier days in which her parents go about their ordinary lives filled with precious memories never to return. 


I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mr. Suzuki: A Man In God’s Country (鈴木さん, Omoi Sasaki, 2020)

God is dead, or maybe not in Omoi Sasaki’s deadpan satire of the ills of contemporary Japan, Mr. Suzuki : A Man in God’s Country (鈴木さん, Suzuki-san). Set in a seemingly isolated fascist state, the film lays bear the intergenerational conflict of the ageing society along with the lonely resentment of those in middle-age caught between two stools in a society which seems only to cater for the young and the old while the powers that be, determined to build a “wholly beautiful city”, go to great lengths to cure the falling birthrate. 

It’s this that 44-year-old unmarried care home attendant Yoshiko (Asako Ito) fears especially when randomly informed one day that if she remains without a husband her citizenship will be cancelled and she’ll have to leave the city unless she elects to become a member of the military which is currently exempt. Her friend Ayako chooses to do just this, no longer able to bear the pressure of being unattached, but Yoshiko is unwilling to surrender her way of life on the whim of some government official. She is constantly bombarded with invitations to the “Beautiful Matchmaking” event but is later rejected because it is only for the “young” only to be reprieved by the mayor who tells her to come back in more suitable attire while declaring that God will not abandon those who make the effort. 

This almost forced insistence on national service as mediated through childbirth and the creation of “beautiful families” as an expression of one’s loyalty to “God”, the nation’s mysterious leader who has not been seen in 20 years, is of course disturbing even as other voices echo the words of real life politicians suggesting that those who have not born children are “defective adults” who must serve their country in other ways such as in the military. With God apparently in poor health the government reads out all his statements on his behalf, issuing commands in his name while distributing his image throughout the land as the locals continue to believe blindly in his existence. 

A crunch point comes for Yoshiko when she discovers a dishevelled middle-aged man taking shelter in the “Utopia” care home where she works. Rather than turn him in she decides to let him stay and later abruptly proposes a paper marriage so that she’ll avoid losing her citizenship. Though “Suzuki-sensei” (Norihiko Tsukuda) proves a hit with the ladies once they discover his musical talents, his outsider status later becomes a problem when the government use the pretext of a soldier’s death to claim they’ve started a war and are on the look out for “enemy spies” though they are also as it turns out looking for the absent God whose identity we can guess. Sights of the old ladies running defence drills with broom handles uncomfortably recall those of peasants training with bamboo spears during the war as does one old lady’s reluctance to take part having been led to blame herself for her brother’s wartime death while gossip that spies loot and poison wells is reminiscent of the pogrom against Koreans in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. A gang of thuggish youths with a penchant for happy slapping the homeless insisting that they “do not deserve to live in God’s beautiful country” instantly become spy hunting vigilantes, while rewards are offered for informants reporting anyone whose face they do not recognise. 

The offer presents Yoshiko with a dilemma. Rather than marry him, she could decide to turn Suzuki in and get guaranteed citizenship along with a pension but would it really be worth the price of living with his betrayal? Mr. Suzuki’s true identity will come as no surprise, though his sojourn among the believers exposes the shakiness of the regime when he is mobbed by a militia of angry townspeople out for blood hellbent on rooting out a “spy”, ironically arranged in the form of a cross as they occupy a T-section surrounded by fields. Shuffling between the disturbing and the merely strange, Omoi Sasaki’s deadpan, absurdist drama has its share of poignancy in the frustrated connection between outcasts Yoshiko and Suzuki while satirising the surreal authoritarianism of the world all around them with its mandated hair cuts and bizarre portrait of its absent leader which must be bowed to on all occasions but perhaps does not stray so far from the contemporary realities in all of its discomforting talk of beautifying the nation through the sacred act of childbirth. 


Mr. Suzuki: A Man In God’s Country streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Horror of the Wolf (狼の紋章, Masashi Matsumoto, 1973)

“All I wanted was to live a quiet life alone” a teenage werewolf laments unfairly forced into a human world which has no real place for him while he can find no accommodation with its innate cruelty. Adapted from the manga by Kazumasa Hirai & Hisashi Sakaguchi, Horror of the Wolf (狼の紋章, Okami no Monsho) is part high school delinquent movie and part psychedelic werewolf exploitation film in which the hero finds himself drawn into a weird supernatural battle with a crazed nationalist while falling for his beautiful high school teacher who perhaps uncomfortably reminds him of his late mother. 

Akira Inugami (Taro Shigaki) spent the early years of his life in Alaska playing with the local wolves until his anthropologist parents were murdered “due to suspicions of spy activity”. After spending some time raised by the wolves, Akira was then taken in by his fantastically wealthy aunt, the CEO of the top chain of Japanese restaurants in the US where he was schooled until returning to Japan. As the film opens, he’s attacked by a gang of thugs, refusing to fight back and later stabbed but cooly removing the knife from his stomach as if it were only an inconvenience to him. Witnessing this strange event, school teacher Miss Aoshika (Yoko Ichiji) promptly faints, only to receive a shock the next day when the man she thought she saw murdered the night before shows up as a mysterious transfer student at her elite academy. 

Hinting at an underlying theme of class conflict and institutional corruption, the school doesn’t really want to take Akira because he’s a troublemaker who’s always getting into fights, though this claim seems to conflict with his ongoing refusal to engage with physical violence, but is reluctant to dismiss him because his aunt is so very wealthy. The same goes for his rival, Haguro (Yusaku Matsuda), whose father is a yakuza boss. Haguro is the leader of the school’s delinquent thugs, a distinctly cool presence who wanders around brandishing a katana which he is frequently seen unsheathing with the Japanese flag in the background while his family crest appears to feature an eagle reminiscent of those seen in Nazi Germany.

Nationalism aside, the film has an ongoing preoccupation with animal imagery not only with Akira’s wolfishness but Aoshika whose name literally means “blue deer” often appearing in front of a wooden deer ornament while Akira’s apartment seems to be kitted out with AstroTurf or at least a vibrant green carpet with the appearance of grass as well as occasionally shifting into an idyllic dreamscape where he can frolic cheerfully in the wild. When Aoshika comes looking for him, he tells her that he’s simply wearing a wolf mask and refuses to take it off, urging her to leave him in peace because “women are so lacking in delicacy and so overbearing it drives me nuts”. 

Akira is not alone in his apparent misogyny, Aoshika is violently raped on three separate occasions the first being by her own students which the headmaster brushes off as a rather frequent occurrence giving rise to the question of why she continues to work at the school, where she is apparently the only female member of staff, if she continually faces such traumatic violence. Her final assault meanwhile comes at the hands of Haguro who seems to be performing some kind of bizarre ritual while preparing to face off against Akira who saved her from a previous attack by street punks while in his werewolf guise.  

Aside from his brooding intensity, there are few clues to Akira’s true identity other than his ability to heal in rapid time following injury and skilful athleticism in dodging attacks. Repeatedly referred to as a “lone wolf”, partly an insult based on his name (which literally means “dog god” and is used to describe those possessed by the spirit of a dog), Akira adopts a pacifist stance towards his aggressors refusing to fight back later telling Haguro that they’re simply not worth the bother yet his refusal to fight is mistaken for a philosophical position that eventually makes him a figurehead for a gang of leftist teens trying to halt the culture of violence in the school in what seems to be an ironic swipe at the student protests even if also setting up a challenge to Haguro’s crypto-fascist authoritarian thuggery. 

A curiously avant-garde affair, Masashi Matsumoto’s teen wolf drama features striking composition with frequent use of solarisation and an almost mythical opening sequence detailing the hero’s origin story amid the snows of Alaska, along with incongruous practical effects such as the furry wolf mask Akira often wears in his apartment in his half-transformed state. It is also somewhat lurid, unnecessarily revelling in the sexualised violence directed at the heroine with three lengthy rape scenes of varying intensity. Even so in its undeniable strangeness and eventual pathos for those who cannot survive in “a cruel world made by humans” Horror of the Wolf reserves its sympathy for the outsiders unwilling to submit to a world of human cruelty.


Backlight (逆光, Ren Sudo, 2021)

©2021 『逆光』 FILM
©2021 『逆光』 FILM

An aloof young man brings a friend back from college but struggles to convey to him his true feelings in the Onomichi of the 1970s in actor Ren Sudo’s directorial debut, Backlight (逆光, Gyakko). This may partly be because he himself is uncomfortable in his childhood home while the object of his affection seemingly takes to it though as someone else later hints perhaps in the end he is only toying with him as a pleasant summer diversion that will eventually draw to a close. 

Sudo opens the film with a series of black and white slides of Onomichi in the 70s accompanied by a cheerful voiceover in opposition to the film’s subsequent gloominess describing the area for tourists and in particular its cable car. Finally the slides give way to clumsy shots of Yoshioka (Haya Nakazaki), university friend of Akira (Ren Sudo), and a copy of Yukio Mishima’s College of Unchasteness. Akira has invited Yoshioka to stay with him at his family home in Onomichi for a week over the summer, but it’s fairly odd behaviour to invite someone somewhere and then spend the whole time telling them how awful it is and that you can’t wait to leave. 

Evidently the son of wealthy parents who for whatever reason are not around, Akira is a fairly unsympathetic figure who seems to have been harbouring resentment towards Onomichi ever since his family moved to the area from Tokyo when he as a child. He views it as dull and backward and seems to have only contempt for those who live there such as childhood friend Fumie (Eriko Tomiyama) whom he blanks in the street as like the cable cars of the opening he passes her in the company of Yoshioka. Realising he is back, she arrives at his home to return some books he’d lent her but even on encountering her there Akira treats Fumie disdainfully and is quite embarrassingly rude in front of his new friend explaining that he lent the books so that a simple country girl like her wouldn’t fall behind the times while contemptuously assuming that she won’t actually have read them. 

These misogynistic attitudes seem prevalent in the local community which is in any case unusually obsessed with Mishima. Another local intellectual describes College of Unchasteness, which Akira has not actually read, as “silly prose for women” a phrase Akira later echoes, while making a cynical comment as to its content suggesting that a woman’s ultimate pleasure lies in being murdered by a man she may have been manipulating. Unable to voice their desires directly there may be a degree of manipulation going on, Akira silently courting Yoshioka who may indeed be toying with him in the way that he may have been toying with Fumie who has since come to know of his sexuality. In any case he seems to be uncertain of Yoshioka’s receptiveness, crassly suggesting Fumie invite another girl, Miko (Akira Kikoshi), who seems strange and otherworldly, with the rationale that it would be a problem if she were too pretty and by implication insulting Fumie too in the process. Miko meanwhile is evidently upset by the lewd conversation while later prompted to leave the party after a political debate breaks out about nuclear arms. Perhaps it’s not surprising for a party that seems to be populated by Mishima devotees but even if their support for re-armament is a facet of their anti-Americanism it is curiously at odds with the times again upsetting Miko whose mother is a survivor of the atomic bomb having lost all her family. 

Even so the closing scenes turn back to Mishima and doomed romance in a description of love as a political act in which love that does not transgress, is not considered shameful or taboo, is not really love at all. Akira may have found the courage to overcome his fear of rejection, but it seems has not been altogether successful in love. Playing with the light, the brightness of the beaches, murkiness of the room occupied by Yoshioka, and that of the fire ominously reflected on Akira’s face, Sudo adds a note of wistful nostalgia expressed in the song sung by Miko that perhaps presents this “heartbreaking” summer with a sentimentality it does not quite appear to have even as Akira seems to come to an accommodation with himself, Fumie, and Onomichi amid the confusing summer heat. 


Backlight streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2021 『逆光』 FILM

Target (標的, Shinji Nishijima, 2021)

In the early 1980s, the well respected left-leaning national newspaper the Asahi Shimbun ran a series of articles based on accounts by author Seiji Yoshida of his involvement in wartime atrocities which brought the “comfort woman” issue into the mainstream consciousness for the first time. Unfortunately, however, Yoshida’s reputation was tarnished when it was revealed that much of his “autobiographical” writing had been heavily embellished or simply made up. The discrediting of Yoshida’s testimony handed an easy win to the resurgent right that allowed them to cast doubt on Japan’s history of wartime sex slavery.

In 1991, the truth became much harder to deny when former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun came forward to tell her story publicly. Asahi Shimbun journalist Takashi Uemura wrote an article based on a taped recording of her testimony shortly before her own press conference but soon found himself the prime target for nationalist trolls who harassed not only the Asahi Shimbun but Uemura himself along with members of his family. In 2014 more than 20 years since the article was published, they once again swarmed when it was revealed that Uemura had accepted a part-time teaching position at woman’s university which was later rescinded because of the continued “bashing” both he and the institution received which included several death threats. 

Shinji Nishijima’s sometimes unfocussed documentary Target (標的, Hyoteki) is concerned less with the comfort woman issue itself than the scandal’s place in an ongoing culture war which has been quietly intensifying since the late 90s with the foundation of ultra-nationalist lobby group Nippon Kaigi in 1997 which is coincidentally the year that Kim Hak-sun passed away without seeing justice. Many other papers had run similar articles based on Kim’s taped testimony using the same terminology which reflects that used by Kim, yet only the Asahi Shimbun and Uemura himself were singled out as “traitors” to Japan and in the view of some more extreme commenters deserving of the death penalty. The article was branded a “fabrication” which is a serious accusation to make of a journalist at a major newspaper though in actuality the charges that are levelled at him concern only potential “inaccuracies” in his writing regarding use of terminology and the omission that Kim had trained as a kisaeng (the Korean equivalent of the geisha) which was revealed during her press conference but not included in the taped testimony while the journalist who later attacks Uemura relies on the same tired arguments insisting that there was no forced recruitment and the women at the comfort stations were established sex workers employed locally or trafficked by family members and middlemen. 

The argument put forward by the documentary suggests that Uemura was a convenient target because his wife was Korean and his mother-in-law was the head of the Association for the Pacific War Victims though the true target was the Asahi Shimbun which had long been a bugbear for nationalists because of its liberal democratic outlook. Part way through the documentary, Uemura visits the grave of a journalist who was murdered after penning an expose of police mistreatment of the Korean community in Osaka who had begun resisting fingerprinting on the grounds that it was discriminatory. The implication is that this is a campaign to silence the press and one which has proved increasingly effective with outlets largely choosing to self censor unwilling to upset the government and lose their access by addressing topics that might be thought taboo such as Japan’s wartime past. Meanwhile under the Abe administration there was a concerted campaign to revise school history textbooks to erase the concept of comfort women altogether along with other mentions of wartime atrocity. 

Suing the journalist who branded him a “fabricator” for defamation Uemura explains that his aim is not so much to vindicate himself and the story but challenge encroachments on free speech in an increasingly authoritarian society. Though the courts agree he has been “defamed” they find no “illegality” while upholding the conservative view that denies the existence of comfort women. As it later transpires the journalist who had attacked him in the press had previously written a similar article herself and had largely based her current views on those of a prominent conservative university professor without bothering to interview either Uemura or any of the surviving Korean comfort women in person ironically including several “inaccuracies” in her own writing owing to some fairly shoddy journalism and lack of familiarity with the source material. In any case, as someone puts it the most important thing is to record an accurate version of the truth so that nothing like this happens again while halting the erosion of democratic freedoms through creeping authoritarianism.


Target streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Samurai Kids (水の旅人-侍KIDS-, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1993)

“I’ve always believed that dreams and fantasies have infinite power” an eccentric teacher explains though it might as well be a mission statement for the films of Nobuhiko Obayashi. 1993’s family adventure movie Samurai Kids (水の旅人-侍KIDS-, Mizu no Tabibito: Samurai Kids) draws inspiration from the classic Japanese folktale Issun Boshi about a pint sized warrior who floats off to the city in a bowl, but is at heart a gentle coming-of-age tale as little boy grows in self-confidence and vows to protect Japan’s beautiful natural environment from human mismanagement. 

As his mother (Jun Fubuki) describes him, Satoru (Ryou Yoshida) is a little different and slow to make friends. The confusion he feels is reflected in the persistent fast cutting that adds a note of tension to the otherwise pleasant family home. Like many small boys he is obsessed with collecting mini treasures for his collection along with frogs and insects which is how he comes across a mysterious creature knocked off a log floating in the river by a flying baseball from the game his sister Chizuko (Ayumi Ito) is playing across the way. To his surprise, the bundle of rags Satoru picks up turns out to be a tiny old man in samurai clothes complete with sword who gives his name as Suminoe no Sukunahiko. Sukunahiko (Tsutomu Yamazaki) as he explains had been on his way to the sea where he plans to “evaporate”. The river only flows in one direction after all and you can’t turn back time, everyone dies eventually. 

Having lost his grandfather a couple of years previously (a photo cameo from Ishiro Honda of Godzilla fame), loss is something Satoru hasn’t quite processed though he understands that Sukunahiko has his own path to follow even if he’ll miss him when he’s gone. Nevertheless, he feels a responsibility to look after him so he can recover sufficiently to make his journey to the sea. Through his strange friendship with the tiny old man, Satoru begins to learn more of and draw closer to the natural world. When Sukunahiko’s kimono is pinched by a cheeky crow for some reason continually hanging round Satoru’s home, Sukunahiko is forced to fight him and ends up cutting off his beak but later carves the bird a new prosthetic replacement because no to do so would have been “impolite”. 

Meanwhile a visit to his father’s hometown brings home the realities of contemporary Japan in learning that the area is soon to be sunk as a giant reservoir to prevent the flooding of other nearby villages. On a school trip, Satoru is quick to take issue with some of his classmates who throw their rubbish out of the bus windows as they pass a dam, reminding them they’re being disrespectful to the town that once existed beneath the water. The climax occurs when the children are camping further up the mountain near what Satoru assumes must be Sukunahiko’s “hometown” at the source of the river. It just so happens that the trip coincides with a fading local festival dedicated to the river god which might account for why it’s raining so much. “It’s celebratory rain” an old man explains, “but when people try to control the water it causes problems like this” implying that the water is “rebelling” against humanity’s attempts to channel it. When he and his sister’s frenemy Miyuki are trapped by rockfall, Satoru has to learn to trust the healing properties of water so that he can repay her kindness in protecting him before eventually helping Sukunahiko return to source in the company of his eccentric yokai-obsessed teacher (Tomoyo Harada) and newly sympathetic sister. 

Adapted from a story by Masumi Suetani who also penned the screenplay, Samurai Kids is perfectly suited to Obayashi’s key concerns lamenting that the adults often forget the promises to nature they made while young, Satoru calling out that he’ll protect the rivers and waters of Japan with a warrior spirit like Sukunahiko’s while the Jo Hisaishi score is also reminiscent of the similarly themed movies of Studio Ghibli. Chizuko’s parallel dilemma may be less well explored leaving it unclear whether her tomboyishness is born of discontent over her looks or a part of her essential personality struggling for acceptance in a conformist and heavily gendered society but does at least allow her to find common ground with friend/rival Miyuki who is struggling with something similar stressing the importance of friendship and mutual understanding among the children. It may be the case that the special effects have entered the realms of being classic rather than merely dated but hold up surprisingly well almost 30 years later possessed of their own strange charm yet syncing perfectly with the world around them. A quietly magical tale of loyal yet laidback family cats, parental nostalgia for simpler times, and unexpected friendships between solitary boys and ancient water gods, Samurai Kids is a surprisingly poignant children’s adventure with an important message in its fierce love of a disappearing natural beauty. 


Short clip (no dialogue)

A Madder Red (茜色に焼かれる, Yuya Ishii, 2021)

©︎2021 "A Madder Red" Film Partners

A single mother and her son face the myriad injustices of the modern society with dignity and grace in Yuya Ishii’s quietly seething pandemic-era social drama, A Madder Red (茜色に焼かれる, Akaneiro ni Yakareru). The heroine is constantly asked why she isn’t angrier, those around her confused by her stoical attitude and tendency to simply sigh and say “let’s get through this” rather than railing against the persistent unfairness that defines her life but then she doesn’t have a lot of time for being angry nor would it particularly help her situation or bring about change. All she can do is persevere in the hope that it won’t always be this way, her run of bad luck will end, and she will eventually be permitted to rest. 

Ishii opens the film with a 3D model simulation of a traffic accident in which a cyclist is killed by an out of control car on a zebra crossing in an otherwise tranquil residential area. Ryoko’s (Machiko Ono) husband Yoichi (Joe Odagiri) is sent flying and ends up squished like a bug on the windscreen of a vehicle travelling in the other direction. The driver, an elderly man later revealed to have been living with Alzheimer’s, mistook the accelerator for the brake but as he had been a prominent local official the matter was swept under the carpet and he faced no consequences. What people can’t seem to understand is why Ryoko chose to attend the old man’s funeral when he eventually died. It seems attend was all she did, but the man’s son had security throw her out and his lawyer accuse her of “harassment” while expressing anger and resentment that her presence tarnished his father’s lavish ceremony when he had been such a good a man. Her presence perhaps annoys him because he knows on some level he’s in the wrong, while her strength and dignity shame him knowing that they should have just apologised. The lawyer implies she’s being unfair targeting the family who were not themselves responsible for the accident, except that in a sense they were because they failed to protect the old man by continuing to allow him to drive by himself. 

Ryoko refused the compensation money for this reason, that they tried to settle it with cash as if her husband’s life had no meaning. She lives in subsidised government housing, but doesn’t claim any benefits supporting herself after she was forced to close her cafe through a part-time job in a supermarket floristry department and after hours sex work. “Break a rule, break your life” she teaches her 13-year-old son Junpei (Iori Wada) yet constantly falls foul of rules written or otherwise while doing nothing wrong in the eyes of those who rant about benefit scroungers and routinely belittle those without means. She’s taken to task by her manager for taking home flowers that were due to be thrown out and for taking a phone call outside the store after clocking off, but when they fire her on a pretext to hire the daughter of a prominent client who can’t find a part-time job because of the pandemic, they refuse to honour the two month notice clause in her contract. Similarly when bullies from Junpei’s school set fire to some books left outside their apartment, they are the ones who have to move for violating the rule about causing a disturbance to the other residents. 

Given all of this no one can understand why Ryoko isn’t seething mad. She still pays for her father-in-law’s nursing home and even child support for a girl she’s never met fathered by Yoichi with another woman. Struggling herself, the child’s mother later turns to a sleazy friend of Yoichi’s, Ryu (Tateto Serizawa), to petition Ryoko to increase the child support but like her also worries that it “doesn’t seem right” to further burden a woman who is also struggling to raise a child alone just like herself while Ryu, as he had unsuccessfully with Ryoko, attempts to extort sexual favours in return for his assistance. Ryoko does these things when she doesn’t strictly have to and many people wouldn’t less out of pride or stubbornness than because it’s the right thing to do and if she can satisfy herself that she’s done right by others even if they’ve not done right by her then she maintains her dignity and their scorn can’t harm her. 

Even so, sick of being treated like a bug Ryoko’s rage eventually begins to boil over her subdued outfits giving way to a fiery red as her hopes of escape are once again dashed on realising a potential romantic suitor only ever viewed as a plaything. Everyone is always telling Ryoko’s that she’s “strange”, “weird”, “crazy”, in her passive resistance living by her own rules while constantly betrayed by those of others which they only enforce when it suits them. Ishii flags up all of her various expenses on the screen making it clear just how much it costs for Ryoko to be this poor while she seemingly grins and bears it. Then again as the film’s only title card tells us Ryoko is a good actress, and perhaps she has to be to get by in this indifferent society filled hidden suffering and an almost sadistic lust for self-preservation. “Mom, it’s all too much” Junpei sighs as he comes to an appreciation of his mother’s fortitude and her desire to simply “get through this” as they ride a mamachari towards a glowing technicolour sunset which ironically enough refuses to end trapping in them in this space of grief and unfairness but carrying with it a far off hope perhaps cruel in its elusiveness.


A Madder Red streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©︎2021 “A Madder Red” Film Partners

YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ (遊撃 -「多十郎殉愛記」外伝-,Tatsuya Matsubara, 2021)

At the age of 83 and not having made a narrative film in over 20 years, Sadao Nakajima decided to step back into the director’s chair in 2019 with a classic chambara in Love’s Twisting Path, an old-fashioned samurai drama taking place in the turbulent years of the Bakumatsu at the end of the Edo era. More than just a behind the scenes documentary, Tatsuya Matsubara’s YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ (遊撃 -「多十郎殉愛記」外伝-, Yu-Geki -Tajuro Junai-ki Gaiden-) explores the film’s production but also reflects on the director’s long career and the changing trends of the Japanese film industry. 

Changing times do seem to be Nakajima’s primary motivation, wanting to pay tribute to Toei’s Kyoto studios once home to its mainline of period pieces produced for the big and small screens. These days, however, such productions are few and far between. Of course, Japan continues to produce historical dramas in large numbers but they tend to be just that with swordplay a secondary concern. Nakajima had wanted to resurrect this dying sector of the industry in part because he felt sorry for the specialist performers who can no longer support themselves with samurai movies alone.

Paradoxically this becomes a secondary problem for the production team as the pool of actors with training in stage combat becomes ever smaller, Nakajima forced to hire early career trainees while star Kengo Kora puts in overtime vigorously training to master the sword skills needed to seem convincing as a jidaigeki lead. Along with the decline of classic chambara, itself perhaps an expression of studio system as it existed before the 1970s, goes all the skills that accompany it from swordsmen to costumiers and makeup artists who know how to work on period features giving rise to the worry that the expert techniques honed over lifetimes will eventually be lost. 

Aside from the problems securing their creative team, Nakajima also runs into funding difficulties with backers unwilling to invest given the director’s age and poor health worrying that he may not be able to complete the project. Ironically this places further pressure on the production as Nakajima is forced to shorten the script and shooting time packing in as much as humanly possible per day. A young production assistant is beginning to feel bad about having to explain to him that so many things just aren’t possible while he too grows frustrated wandering around the mountains looking for a particular temple he remembers from his time at the studio but unable to remember exactly where it was or how to find it. Meanwhile he’s ably assisted by his former pupils including Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Mukoku, Antenna, Sketches of Kaitan City) who acts as his AD along with Nobuhiro Yamashita (Linda Linda Linda, Over the Fence, Hard Core) who also visits the set

It’s the presence of these pupils that Nakajima eventually hints makes his life worth living others suggesting that so many people wanting to learn from him gives him a sense of purpose and validation. Love’s Twisting Path was intended to be his final film, but asked if he’d have an idea for any more he likens himself to an elderly Musashi Miyamoto, the legendary swordsman, who became withered with age but faced a constant stream of young challengers each excited to fight him while he too saw it as a way to prove to the world that he still existed. 

Despite the tremendous effort put into its production, Love’s Twisting Path did not do as well as Nakajima had hoped at the box office leading him to blame himself wondering if he was too focussed on his own interests and understandably deflated having invested so much into the project hoping to kickstart a revival of classic jidaigeki that would revitalise the old Toei lot. Then again this feeling of not quite having lived up to his aspirations might contribute to a sense of wanting to try again with another film if only it had not been for the advent of the global pandemic. Journeying through his career history, Matsubara finds Nakajima a contrary figure, rebellious and frustrated even then in the barriers erected between himself and his art ,the films he wanted to make shot down by studio execs while he tries his best to inject a characteristic sense of reality into a series of programme pictures, contemporary yakuza films, action dramas, and finally chambara which he claims never to have liked in the first place. In the end it’s all about love, Nakajima’s son insists seeing something of his father’s romanticism in his films but also his deep love of cinema and of the riches to be found in the artistic legacy of the Kyoto studios. 


YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (春江水暖, Gu Xiaogang, 2019)

“The family should be peaceful and united” according to an exasperated aunt but then again “family is a pain”. Gu Xiaogang’s stunning debut feature Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (春江水暖, chūn jiāngshuǐ nuǎn) takes it name from a famous classical painting and unfurls a tale of familial strife born of intergenerational tension which is also a tension in the earth between new and old as this “traditional Chinese landscape” as someone describes it pointing at another painting is gradually eroded by a destructive modernity. 

This ambivalence is clear in the opening scene which takes place in the family restaurant where they are currently celebrating the 70th birthday of the family’s matriarch. What first seems atmospheric, even romantic as someone describes it, in the candlelit space is revealed to be simply a power cut and a symptom of the imperfect modernity visiting itself on the town. In any case, grandma later collapses in the process of handing a red envelope to her grandson and is taken to hospital where it is revealed that she has suffered a stroke which has accelerated the course of her dementia. The question then becomes who will accept the responsibility of caring for her with each of her four sons secretly hoping that someone else will volunteer. 

Grandma is in many ways the film’s moral authority, at one point quite literally adrift in the modern society. She no longer recognises her daughter-in-law Fengjuan (Wang Fengjuan) and avoids taking her medication believing that she’s being poisoned but pines for her youngest son whom she says spends the most time with her and is the most obedient but in fact appears the least interested of all the brothers. When he finally visits her to show off the fiancée everyone told him he had to get to put her mind at ease before it’s too late all she can do is stare at the moon. On the other hand, she is the one firmly on the side of the young, telling her granddaughter Guxi (Peng Luqi) to marry a man she chooses for herself rather than be swayed by the wishes of her parents and wind up miserable as she herself seems to have been. 

Guxi is in a relationship with local teacher Jiang (Zhuang Yi) who might otherwise be thought a catch in that he has a good job and stable income as well as access to a preferential mortgage programme for those in his profession, but Fengjuan envisions more insisting Guxi marry the son of an influential businessman in part to ease her own financial worries. As Guxi suggests, her mother’s idea of happiness is different from her own. Having suffered privation in their youth the older generation prioritise material comfort but in their old age may become lonely or resentful in the emptiness of their familial relationships. Yet to defy her parents’ wishes is emotionally difficult, her eventual decision to choose Jiang over them a minor revolution.

Meanwhile the lives of each of the brothers is overshadowed by debt both financial and moral in the continual horse trading of family life. Third brother Youjin (Sun Zhangjian) is a petty gambler in trouble with loansharks who eventually trash oldest brother Youfu’s (Qian Youfa) restaurant trying to get him to pay up, while second brother Youhong (Sun Zhangwei) and his wife are owed money from various parties but eventually come into some by making themselves homeless agreeing to sell their home to developers intending to cash buy a fancy apartment for their factory worker son and the bride which has been picked out for him. “We lived here for 30 years. It was demolished in three days” Youhong’s wife laments as the city is demolished and rebuilt all around them in preparation for the 2022 Asian Games. The promised new transport connections ironically emphasise how much they will add to the town by making it quicker and easier to go somewhere else but there is a genuine sense of poignancy in Gu’s slow panning motion through a derelict apartment across to the shiny new one about to be completed behind it. 

In one of the soon-to-be dismantled buildings, the youngest brother recovers a suitcase with a love letter inside it dated April 1989, a relic from another China though telling the same old story of young love thwarted by parental authority. Closest to her grandmother and third uncle Youjin who eventually reclaims her from the old person’s home where the other brothers had decided to send her while caring for his 19-year-old son with Down’s Syndrome, Guxi brands her family selfish and laments that they can’t get past all of these arcane rules and petty power games to love and support each other as a family should ironically taking grandma’s advice in refusing to perpetuate the cycle of resentment by marrying a man she doesn’t love just to please them. Gu films this unfolding tale with a series of breathtaking tracking shots along the river as if running one’s eyes over a scroll painting while giving in to the oneiric quality of the rolling mists that hang over this changing landscape. Apparently the first volume of a trilogy of films set along the Fuchun river, Gu’s minimalist epic is a poignant evocation of a hometown memory both transient and eternal.


Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)