Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette (映画 賭ケグルイ 絶体絶命ロシアンルーレット, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Closet revolutionary or compulsive gambler, Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe) continues to be a thorn in the side of the Student Council in the sequel to hit movie Kakegurui, itself a sequel to a two-series live action drama adapted from the manga by Homura Kawamoto. Set as the opening expositionary narration explains at school for the elite Hyakkaoh Academy where social hierarchy is determined by skill in gambling, Ultimate Russian Roulette (映画 賭ケグルイ 絶体絶命ロシアンルーレット, Eiga Kakegurui: Zettai Zetsumei Russian Roulette) sees the rattled Student Council making a counterproductive and potentially ruinous decision in bringing back a previously exiled player in the hope of permanently neutralising Yumeko. 

Makuro Shikigami (Ryusei Fujii) was suspended some years ago for his part in the “House Pets’ Curse” which led to most of the school being demoted to its lowest, near untouchable ranks. At Hyakkaoh Academy, students are required to pay a tithe to the Council and those who can’t pay end up as “House Pets”, humiliatingly treated as cats and dogs. Yumeko’s friend Meari (Aoi Morikawa) fears she may have fallen foul of the curse herself having hit a lengthy losing streak, but it’s not until Shikigami begins twisting the situation to his advantage that Yumeko is snared by his manipulative trap. 

Yumeko, meanwhile, is in the middle of a depressive episode largely down to her reluctance to take part in the school’s upcoming sports’ day. Just as in the previous film her long game was better cakes in the cafeteria, her end goal here is trying to get the event cancelled by whatever means possible. In any case, we also witness another dark side to the oppressive rule of the Student Council as a demoted Maeri finds herself in a literal chain gang forced into hard labour building the facilities for the sports festival in what seems to be a minor dig at preparations for the Olympics. Yumeko and Meari are, however, responsible gamblers in that they refuse to bet on other people’s safety or at least refuse to be complicit in games which are designed to inflict harm or cruelty on others. 

As Shikigami explains in his opening monologue, the skills needed for gambling are strategy, ability to read your opponents, and a killer instinct. This is something Yumeko knows well, she plays players not games and sees straight through Shikigami realising that his crazed psychopathy is an act to mask the meticulous quality of his external manipulations. Nevertheless she is also caught out by her unwillingness to put her friends in danger, willingly sacrificing herself instead. The Student Council too are seemingly caught off guard little realising that Shikigami presents just as much of a threat to their authority as Yumeko and is equally uncontrollable with far fewer principles. Still as Student Council President Kirari (Elaiza Ikeda) ominously reflects, “there must be chaos before order”. 

In any case, they find themselves awkward allies in facing off against Shikigami in the promised game of Russian roulette mediated through a card game but played for real. The Student Council leaves itself surprisingly vulnerable in a loophole which allows House Pets to challenge them directly overruling all of the other school regulations, while Shikigami too falls victim to his own arrogance never quite expecting to be challenged having achieved his primary goals of seizing control of the school via the Council. The only way to beat him is to play him at his own game, disrupting his self-serving plotting and tendency to cheat in an insult to the art of gambling while undermining his confidence in his own intellectual superiority. “Only a twisted mind could beat you” he says of Yumeko believing himself to be a twisted mind though as it turns out perhaps not quite twisted enough. 

Temporarily siding with authority in order to put a stop to Shikigami’s authoritarian potential, Yumeko does not so much challenge the system as work around it while protecting herself and her friends from Shikigami’s machinations. What she defends is in a sense gambling itself, rejecting Shikigami’s intention to subvert it to his own advantage. Maintaining the same absurdist, manga-esque aesthetic as the first film complete with cartoonish CGI pupil shrinking, slick onscreen graphics, and even this time a random musical number, Hanabusa significantly ups the ante with bomb threats and unexpected Satanism while leaving the door open for the next instalment with Yumeko’s final instruction to “Bring on the Madness”. 


Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

International trailer (English subtitles)

Jigoku-no-Hanazono: Office Royale (地獄の花園, Kazuaki Seki, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

The OL, or “office lady” occupies a peculiar place in Japanese pop culture if not the society itself. The evolution of the typing pool, the OL exists to one side of office life, treated as domestic staff in the corporate environment and in many ways expected to be invisible. As such, an OL performs stereotypically feminine tasks in the office such as keeping the place clean and their male bosses looked after in addition to handling often dull and pointless admin work. It goes without saying that in general being an OL is a young woman’s job with the expectation that most will either find a way to transition onto a more viable career track or simply leave the world of work behind to marry and become a regular housewife. 

It’s this image of the OL as the embodiment of bland geniality that is at the centre of Kazuaki Seki’s zany comedy Jigoku-no-Hanazono: Office Royale (地獄の花園, Jigoku no Hanazono), a repurposing of “yankee” high school delinquent manga for the world of the office lady scripted by comedian Bakarhythm. A devotee of yankee manga, 26-year-old OL Naoko (Mei Nagano) explains that even office ladies have their warring factions outlining the tripartite fault lines at play in even her small company where the head OLs from Sales, R&D, and Manufacturing constantly vie for hegemony through physical dominance. She however merely observes from the sidelines defiantly living her “ordinary” office lady life. That is until new hire Ran Hojo (Alice Hirose) arrives to upset the precarious workplace power balance. 

Naoko first catches sight of Ran after she challenges some of the OLs from her company as they harass a timid male employee in the street though they don’t become best friends until after Ran spots a salaryman trying to upskirt her at a bus stop and decides to teach him a lesson. Despite being a yankee, it seems that Ran is also trying to live a normal OL life, bonding with Naoko over their shared love of a TV drama, but is not exactly good at the job and regards fighting as her one and only skill. Perhaps speaking to an inner insecurity born of being a woman in a conformist and patriarchal society, each of the women struggle to see themselves as protagonists in their own lives rather than mere supporting players unwittingly both playing the role of the ditzy best friend to the competent hero. 

In one of her many meta quips commenting on the action and how it would play out if she were a character in a yankee manga, Naoko laments her status as the “comic book hero’s boring friend” which is extremely ironic seeing as she is certainly the heroine of this movie given that it’s her voiceover we’re hearing and her POV we generally adopt. Yet Seki sometimes undercuts her by shifting to a rival voiceover offered by Ran herself doubtful of her proper place in the narrative and eventually descending into an existential crisis after an unexpected setback shatters her sense of self. 

Nevertheless, even if as the de facto leader of her company’s OLs Ran advocates for equality insisting there are no bosses and no underlings only women standing together, Office Royale generally embraces rather than attacks societal sexism particularly in its somewhat unexpected conclusion which ends in ironic romance rather than female solidarity. Even so, it’s interesting that the OLs lose interest in delinquency once the hierarchy of fists has been fairly decided, acknowledging the superior skills of a better fighter and thereafter living peacefully rather than continuing the internecine determination to sit at the top of the pyramid which is the hallmark of the high school yankee manga. 

While the final arc strays into some potentially problematic territory with the uncomfortable humour of four male actors playing the top fighters of a rival gang of OLs from another company, Office Royale offers a series of surprisingly well choreographed fight scenes even if eventually descending into manga-esque cartoonish violence while much of the humour stems from Naoko’s adorably nerdy voiceover musing on what would happen next if this were a yankee manga. In the end, however, it’s less a tale of office lady infighting than of a pair of young women coming to a better understanding of themselves even if they do so through the potentially destructive medium of pugilism. 


Jigoku-no-Hanazono: Office Royale streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hello! Tapir (嗨!神獸, Kethsvin Chee, 2020) [Fantasia 2021]

“In this world, everything disappears eventually” according to the prophetic words of the absent father of young Keat in Kethsvin Chee’s charmingly retro children’s fantasy adventure Hello! Tapir (嗨!神獸, Hāi Shénshòu). At heart a tale of grief and a small child’s acceptance of death, Hello! Tapir is also one of gentle adventure as the hero and his two friends search for tapirs in the undergrowth but eventually discover an accommodation with loss in the knowledge that nothing’s ever really gone even if you can’t see it. 

Keat (Bai Run-yin) lives in a small fishing village with his fisherman father (Lee Lee-zen) and grandma (Lü Hsueh-feng) who sells seafood at the market. Captivated by his father’s improbabe tale of having encountered a tapir who eats people’s nightmares in the forest, Keat implores his dad to take him to see it too but Keat’s father Sheng is always too busy and often reneges on his promises. Ominous winds start to blow when news of a typhoon is broadcast over the radio while Keat is angry that no one woke him before his father left on the boat as he had asked them to do. Sure enough, not long after Keat discovers a commotion at the harbour and gathers there has been some kind of accident at sea. His father hasn’t come home and his grandma is frantic but he’s just a little boy and no one is telling him anything. 

Told from a child’s point of view, Chee’s melancholy tale perfectly captures the confusion and resentment of a small boy in the midst of crisis. Keat cannot conceive of the idea his father may never come home again, replying to his friend’s questions that he’ll be back maybe tomorrow or the day after that. After all, he was supposed to take him to see the tapir. Because he’s sure his dad’s coming back, he grows resentful towards his recently returned mother (Charlie Yeung Choi-Nei) who left the family some time previously and had been living in Taipei and his grandmother for taking his father’s place away by boxing up his clothes and preparing to sell the fishing boat which came back empty on its own for scrap. 

Meanwhile he attempts to secure his father’s legacy by searching for the tapir on his own, encountering a baby which later leads him into the forest and towards its giant parent sucking on golden nightmare orbs all the way. Tapirs are obviously not native to Taiwan and so their presence is as decidedly unexpected as their unusual appearance. You would’t expect to see one wandering through town unless it had recently escaped from a zoo, but they are perhaps Keat’s way of processing the loss of his father the adult tapir gently showing him what it was he most wanted but feared to know while comforting him with its reassuringly warm presence. 

On the cusp of adolescence, Keat finds himself squarely between two sets of overlapping worlds caught between the fantasy of nightmare-eating tapirs and the reality of his grief while also remaining firmly in the realms of childhood having innocent adventures with his two friends as they try all sorts of tricks to draw out the mystical creatures just as his mother deals with the difficulties of planning a funeral and making plans for the future without overburdening her son with impending change. Nobody tells Keat anything because he’s just a child and they think he won’t understand, but he understands that they’re not telling him and the knowledge further increases his sense of loneliness and alienation left entirely alone with his grief and anxiety. 

A beautifully drawn magical realist fable, Chee’s charmingly old fashioned kids fantasy adventure makes the most of its idyllic seaside setting replete with a warm and friendly atmosphere despite its concurrent tragedy. Keat is forced to face the reality of his loss, but does so while maintaining a sense of wonder for the natural world secure in the knowledge that all things disappear in the end, but it isn’t the end of the story and death is merely another part of life. Warm and empathetic, Hello! Tapir paints its coastal setting with an uncanny sense of magic coupled with a cosmological sense of security as its young hero begins to come to terms with his loss thanks to the gentleness of sleeping creatures. 


Hello! Tapir streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Caution, Hazardous Wife: The Movie (奥様は、取り扱い注意, Toya Sato, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Perhaps in some ways out of step with the times, the 2017 Nippon TV drama Caution, Hazardous Wife (奥様は、取り扱い注意, Okusama wa, Toriatsukai Chui), like the earlier Secret Agent Erika, saw top assassin Nami (Haruka Ayase) fake her own death in order to live a “normal” life as an “ordinary housewife” married to “boring salaryman” Yuki (Hidetoshi Nishijima). Nami could not however resist using her skills for good and bravely took on a local yakuza gang who’d been running a suburban prostitution ring through employing handsome gigolos to seduce emotionally neglected housewives and thereafter blackmailing them into sex work. The series ended on a cliffhanger in which, spoiler alert, Nami was confronted by her husband who turned out to be a Public Security Bureau officer originally tasked with monitoring her before genuinely falling in love.

This brief background recap is useful but not strictly necessary in approaching the series’ big screen incarnation, Caution, Hazardous Wife: The Movie, which ironically assumes the audience knows Nami’s secret backstory but also obfuscates it in picking up 18 months after the cliffhanger to find her now living as “Kumi” in a tranquil seaside town having apparently lost her memory. The town will not remain tranquil for long, however, as a mayoral race is about to bring tensions to the fore in the polarising issue of a prospective methane hydrate plant the authorities insist is necessary to revive the area’s moribund economy while others worry about industrial pollution and its effects on the local sea life. Unsurprisingly, the events will turn out to have a connection to Nami’s past while she struggles to regain her lost memories and preserve the peaceful, ordinary life with her husband which is all she’s ever really wanted. 

Though some might find it somewhat conservative that what Nami wants is to become a conventional housewife, what she’s looking for is the stability of the “normal” life she’s never known. As such, she may not actually want to regain her memories, preferring to go on living as Kumi who has perfected the housewife skills which so eluded Nami including becoming a top cook, for as long as possible. Yuki, meanwhile, now living as high school teacher Yuji, feels something similar having been ordered to “deal with” his wife if she remembers who she is but refuses to become a PSB asset. 

Upping production values from the TV drama, Sato keeps Nami in the dark for as long as possible though her sense of social responsibility remains just as strong as she bravely intervenes when coming across a gang of teens taunting a boy with homophobic slurs for having a pink coin curse, later becoming concerned on witnessing the leader of the opposition to the plant being attacked by thugs in an attempt to intimidate him out of his decision to stand as a rival candidate to the incumbent mayor. Nevertheless, he allows space for plenty of dramatic action scenes including flashbacks to Nami’s career as an international assassin while the final set piece also throws in some bickering marital comedy before turning unexpectedly dark.  

Regaining her memories, Nami’s inner conflict is in her complicated relationship with Yuki wondering if he ever really loved the “real” her or if he perhaps preferred Kumi the docile Stepford wife, which is ironically the cover identity she’d longed to construct. Conflicted and suspecting his wife may have remembered who she really is, Yuki tells her to forget about the past but also that his feelings won’t change and she should be free to be herself but as Nami later realises the past won’t let her go and the peaceful life she’d dreamed of might be harder to preserve than she’d previously thought even as she commits herself to embracing the life she has now because her relationship with Yuki is the most important thing to her despite her lingering doubt. 

Touching on a few hot button issues from industrial pollution and environmental concerns to economic decline and rural depopulation, Sato nevertheless returns to the outlandish absurdity of the TV drama as Nami finds herself facing off against Russian gangsters while exposing a plot by shady conglomerates to exploit a small-town desire for better access to jobs and infrastructure, along with judicial corruption and electoral interference. Nevertheless, the hometown spirit eventually wins out even if Nami finds herself on the run once again though having gained a little more emotional clarity. 


Caution, Hazardous Wife: The Movie streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. The original TV series is also available to stream with English subtitles (along with those in several other languages) in many territories via Viki.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Midnight (미드나이트, Kwon Oh-seung, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Turns out, if you want to get away with murder in South Korea all you need to do is remain polite, put on a regular business suit, and carry a fancy briefcase. Three women find themselves pursued by the walking embodiment of destructive patriarchy in Kwon Oh-seung’s extraordinarily tense serial killer thriller Midnight (미드나이트) in which a creepy night stalker exploits male privilege and societal prejudice while relentlessly pursuing his prey through the darkened streets of Seoul. 

Our heroine, Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-joo), is a deaf woman working as a customer service representative for the “Care for You” call centre catering to callers who require sign language assistance. The company, however, is not especially caring and makes little effort to include Kyung-mi in office life, leaving her feeling left out and excluded. She attempts to bring this up with her boss when some of the other women complain about being forced to attend an after hours drinking party to entertain clients, but is greeted only with grudging acceptance. At the dinner, meanwhile, the boorish male guests make lewd comments about her appearance assuming she can’t hear them, though she can of course lipread and returns in kind by insulting them in sign language. To get over her sense of discomfort she dreams of travelling to Jeju island for a relaxing beach holiday with her mother (Gil Hae-yeon) who is also deaf. 

Across town, meanwhile, 20-something So-jung (Kim Hye-yoon) is arguing with her security guard brother Jung-tak (Park Hoon) about her outfit for an upcoming blind date. Jung-talk sets a 9pm curfew he later increases to 10 which seems at best over protective, though as it turns out he’s right to worry as not long after 10pm when So-jung is almost home she’s nabbed by vicious serial killer Do-sik (Wi Ha-joon), stabbed, and left in an alley where she manages to attract the attention of a passing Kyung-mi by throwing her white stilettos into the road. In her effort to help, Kyung-mi unwittingly becomes a target for the crazed axe murderer who continues to pursue her despite having ascertained that she cannot identify him. 

Do-sik manages to get away with his crimes by adopting the non-threatening persona of a mild-mannered office worker, swapping his medical mask, baseball cap and hoodie for a regulation issue grey suit and carrying a leather briefcase which turns out to be full of knives and other murdery equipment though of course no one is going to look inside. Ironically he tells Kyung-mi that he’s looking for his sister, trying to earn her trust by convincing her to show him where she last saw So-jung, a ruse which both echoes Jung-tak’s parallel search and his later claim that Kyung-mi is his younger sister apparently in a state of mental distress. He even goes with Kyung-mi and her mother to the police station where gets into a fight with Jung-tak who’s figured out he has his sister only for the police to mistakenly taser the angry man in a shell suit, sending the nice man in a suit on his way with a series of friendly bows and apologies. 

Kyung-mi and her mother meanwhile are rendered doubly vulnerable because of their deafness, unable to hear danger approaching while equally unable to communicate with impatient police officers and passersby even if they are able to silently communicate with each other in ways others can’t understand. Kyung-mi repeatedly hits a panic button on a lamppost that activates the streetlight and contacts local police, but there are no cameras, she can’t hear them and they have no idea why she isn’t speaking. Making a break for it, she ends up in downtown Seoul but to the bystanders who surround her she’s a crazy lady with a knife rather than a young woman pursued by a predatory man. Unable to explain the situation, she is even handed back to Dong-sik who claimed to be her brother by a trio of smug soldiers who find her hiding behind some bins and assume they’re helping by returning a mentally disturbed woman to her responsible adult. 

Yet big brothers make poor protectors. Jung-tak had been so concerned about his sister’s outfit, worryingly overprotective in obsessing over unreturned messages, but in the end it didn’t matter Dong-sik picked her for convenience’s sake. Even the first woman we see Dong-sik snatch was left to walk home in the dark by unchivalrous male colleagues who stole her taxi, chatting to her boyfriend about fried chicken but ultimately paying the price for (wisely) refusing to get into Dong-sik’s van. Dong-sik is only able to get away with his crimes by assuming his male privilege, playing the part of the respectable executive and caring big brother while the police, the ultimate authority figures, defer to him refusing to take Kyung-mi’s claims seriously in an echo of the baseline misogyny displayed by her clients at work. 

The only way to make them listen, she discovers, is in a public act of self harm that ironically exposes Dong-sik for what he really is. Taking place in near real time, Kwon’s extraordinarily tense cat and mouse game finds Kyung-mi desperately trying to escape the midnight city pursued by patriarchal violence and finding little support in an ableist society as she desperately tries not only to save herself but the other women similarly trapped in a labyrinth of seemingly inescapable threat. 


Midnight streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Sadness (哭悲, Robert Jabbaz, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

“You’re just like me, violent and depraved” a crazed aggressor sneers, almost victorious in his defeat in having goaded his target into bashing his head in with a fire extinguisher. A defiantly depraved tale, Robert Jabbaz’ zombie-adjacent horror The Sadness (哭悲, Kū Bēi) as the title implies suggests that the propensity for violence and cruelty lurks within us all merely waiting for some kind of trigger, in this case a deadly virus, to set it free. 

The film opens, however, with tranquility as young couple Jim (Berant Zhu Ting-Dian) and Kat (Regina) cuddle in bed before Kat’s alarm goes off. The mood begins to sour when Jim reveals they’ll have to cancel their upcoming holiday because he’s been offered work on a film and that is apparently something that’s been thin on the ground. As he turns on the TV, a pundit and a scientist argue about the “Alvin virus” which many people apparently believe is only a cold, though those people are obviously quite wrong (sound familiar?). The virologist continues to explain that the danger is the virus contains similar genetic material to rabies and he fears it may soon mutate into something seriously worrying. In any case, he finds it suspicious the virus has fetched up on the eve of an election and hints at the dubious immorality of politicising a public health crisis. Jim first encounters the afflicted on spotting an elderly person in a bloodstained nightgown who later turns up at his local cafe to bite several members of the clientele who then turn on him seemingly consumed by a violent and irrational rage.

Kat meanwhile experiences something similar as a madman with a knife rips through the carriage of the MTR in which she is currently sitting. Yet, as we discover, the violence and sadism is not entirely indiscriminate but informed by the underlying “sadness”, resentment, and anxieties of the infected person. Kat’s day had got off to a bad start when the middle-aged creep (Wang Tzu-Chiang) sitting next to her kept trying to chat her up only to go off a rant about the entitlement of pretty women when he’s only trying to be friendly after she threatens to call the police because he’s ignored all of her polite hints and requests to be left alone. Crazed, the train creep continues to stalk her determined to get his revenge. His rage and violence is fuelled by the pre-existing condition of his misogyny. 

The fact that Kat appears to be otherwise immune to the virus may suggest that she is a fairly well-adjusted person with no underlying sadnesses or personal resentments, yet she is apparently still capable of great violence when presented with the right trigger(s), in this case being existential terror. The infected meanwhile profess themselves in a state of ecstasy as they indulge their darkest desires. Jabbaz’ gore-fuelled odyssey is in truth a little too depraved, the sickening scenes of sadistic violence accompanied by copious amounts of blood not to mention scattered innards and severed limbs. “This is my kiss, I’m kissing you to death” a woman preens while holding a circular bone saw seconds after revealing that she always had trouble making friends but is beginning to feel as if she’s finally found her crowd. 

A minor irony is that this pandemic anxiety is expressing itself in Taiwan which up until recently at least had done a stellar job of suppressing COVID-19 largely thanks to the opposite of the impulses on display here. Yet there is also something of obvious satire in certain people’s refusal to listen to the science even as the president’s head literally explodes live on TV, while Jim picks up a brochure for reasonably priced apartments only to be told that the pandemic has also “depressed” the property market. His next-door neighbour, Mr. Lin thinks Alvin is a conspiracy theory designed to create economic instability those in the know can profit from later. He seems to have a nasty cold, but refuses to go to the doctor because it seems like a lot of bother when they’re just going to tell you to stay at home and rest. Mr. Lin’s theories are in part vindicated by another scientist who also thinks the government has been ruled by political concerns, too afraid of the economic consequences of a lockdown to contemplate ordering one even while knowing not to do so endangers public health. “Everything must be politics. There’s no room for truth” he laments, though as it turns out he isn’t free of his own darkness either. 

Not for the faint of heart, Jabbaz’s absurdist satire is a depraved journey through every kind of human degradation imaginable darkly suggesting that sadistic violence is never as far from the surface in the ordinary person, or indeed in ourselves, as we’d like to believe. “It feels like I’ve finally found a purpose in life” a member of the infected dreamily explains, embracing his life of ultra violence apparently freed of the burdens of contemporary civility. 


The Sadness screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Remain In Twilight (くれなずめ, Daigo Matsui, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

“So what? We just live on.” remarks a bereaved young man learning to let go of his grief in Daigo Matsui’s melancholy ensemble drama Remain in Twilight (くれなずめ, Kurenazume). Matsui sets the scene at a wedding which is also in some ways a funeral during which the ghost at the feast will eventually be laid to rest but his study in loss is also a reflection of its eternal arrest as a group of high school friends learn to accept a sense of absence where their friend used to stand while processing the various ways their lives have and will continue to diverge where as his obviously will not. 

As the film opens a group of six men is surveying a wedding hall where they intend to recreate a dance they first performed at a high school culture festival. The wedding co-ordinator comes out to confirm that everything is in order and seating has been arranged for the five of them only to be reminded that actually they are six. Factory worker Nej (Rikki Metsugi) wants to hang out longer, but most of the other guys have other commitments from work to family but at a rambunctious karaoke session the next day during which they regress to their high school selves it becomes clear that one of their number, Yoshio (Ryo Narita), passed away five years previously but is quite literally there in spirit. 

In addition to Yoshio’s absence, it’s clear that the group has become distant since their high school days the wedding reunion highlighting the class differences between them with some going on to regular salaryman jobs, others working in fringe theatre, and Nej at the factory the uniform of which he is ubiquitously wearing at every occasion other than the wedding during which the guys’ black suits are identical to those they wore for the funeral save the substitution of a jauntier bow tie. The previously nicknamed “Sauce” is now Mr. Sogawa (Kenta Hamano) and a married father of one. They aren’t 17 anymore. 

Nevertheless, the guys can’t let go of the memory of Yoshio who remains among them as if he were still alive. Triggered by a seemingly trivial act such as eating a biscuit or hearing a particular turn of phrase each of the men is called back into the past towards a private memory of Yoshio some directly related to the performance at the cultural festival which seems to have marked their lives and others from later. They collectively meditate on the last time they saw each other, reliving the event, trying to prevent Yoshio from leaving but of course failing. Actor Akashi (Ryuya Wakaba) regrets not picking up his phone, little knowing it would be the last time he would see his friend because you can’t get away from the fact every time might be the last you just can’t know. 

“You’re only dead when it’s convenient” Yoshio’s high school crush Mikie (Atsuko Maeda) barks, seemingly unperturbed to see him in the flesh but also angry and resentful asking him to finally cancel his social media accounts so she won’t keep getting birthday reminders or see something about him popup on her feed, remember, and be sad. But softening she shows him a picture of her daughter, signalling that she’s moved on while he obviously cannot though he wishes her only happiness glad perhaps to have shared something he lacked the courage to confess while alive. 

So corporeal does Yoshio seem to be that he even receives a goodie bag from the wedding, again signalling his absence as the guys find themselves literally carrying extra baggage which they eventually decide to try burying leading to a rather surreal incident which confronts them directly with Yoshio’s liminal status and survival in their hearts. Travelling to the other side they begin to learn to let him go, poignantly once again considering calling a taxi though this time for five. Adapting stage play, Matsui’s sweeping handheld camera shifts effortlessly from one time period to another and finally into another realm with a giddy ethereality as the men, now approaching middle-age, meditate on the sense of loss in grieving teenage friendship along with its unlived future. It’s less the ghost than those who are left behind who must finally learn to “move on”, rewriting the past as they see fit in order to walk into a freer future. 


Remain In Twilight streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (漁港の肉子ちゃん, Ayumu Watanabe, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Most children begin to find their parents embarrassing as they approach adolescence, but the problem seems to be particularly acute for young Kikuko. Adapted from the (quite wonderful) novel by Kanako Nishi, Ayumu Watanabe’s Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (漁港の肉子ちゃん, Gyokou no Nikuko-chan) finds its young heroine struggling to define herself in world of constant anxieties while coming to accept that “ordinary is best” after all and even if her mother is “imperfect” it hardly matters, she loves her all the same. 

As Kikuko (Cocomi) outlines in her opening monologue, she’s recently moved to a small Northern port town with her larger than life mother, Nikuko (Shinobu Otake), after weaving a trail of romantic disappointment over half of Japan. In fact and somewhat unusually, mother and daughter share the same first name (if written with different characters), which is why the sometimes exasperated Kikuko has taken to referring to her mother as “Nikuko”, “Niku” meaning meat in reference to her weight. Though the film Kikuko is less caustic than her counterpart from the novel, there is a good deal of fat shaming in her sometimes contemptuous dismissal of her mother, also often regarding her as stupid both in terms of her intellectual ability, she’s obsessed with kanji puns but often makes spelling mistakes, and in her tendency to be duped by a string of no good men who generally take advantage of her kind heart. 

Being young as she is, Kikuko hasn’t yet learned to appreciate the importance of a kind heart, a lesson she’s about to learn as she finds herself in the middle of a burgeoning conflict between her classmates some of whom feel “left out” in never being picked by the popular girls when they peel off to play basketball at lunch time. When her friend Maria (Izumi Ishii) stages a rebellion, Kikuko doesn’t quite know what to do. After all, what Maria’s doing is only a different kind of bullying, but as she says it isn’t nice to feel left out and even if her solution may be wrongheaded perhaps Kikuko should have looked more deeply at why her friend felt that way rather than rather cruelly assuming she was doing it for attention and deserved everything she got. Bonding with a near silent boy, Ninomiya (Natsuki Hanae), who finds himself compelled to pull faces when no one’s looking, shows her the error of her ways in that she never thought herself to be such a “mean and nasty” person. 

It’s this lack of emotional intelligence that causes her to feel embarrassed by her mother who is, it has to be said, something of walking cliché of a stereotypical working class Osaka woman, loud, brash, and nattering away in her Southern dialect. Mother and daughter couldn’t be more different, tomboyish Kikuko stick thin and a serious bookworm, while the bubbly Nikuko is childishly impulsive and openhearted. Kikuko sometimes feels as if she’s the parent and is embarrassed by Nikuko’s larger than life qualities in a culture that prefers women to remain quiet and take up as little space as possible. Not to mention the fact they live on a boat. About to enter adolescence she’s also sick of being constantly on the move and is becoming paranoid that Nikuko is about to start another relationship with a terrible man meaning they’ll have to move again. 

Yet Nikuko hardly minds Kikuko’s contempt of her and despite having lived a hard life remains compassionate and understanding, seeing the best in everyone and always finding the small moments of joy life has to offer. She is also infinitely in tune with her daughter, half thinking she can hear it too when Kikuko “hears” various creatures and even a shrine “talking” to her as she wanders about the town exercising her rather overactive imagination. A series of climactic events culminating in a medical emergency in which she figures a few things out forces Kikuko to wrestle with herself and stop judging her fiercely non-judgemental mum to realise that she loves her after all even if she can’t resist being a little unkind in expressing it. A gentle coming-of-age tale set in a delightfully old-fashioned and beautifully animated fishing village, Fortune Favors Lady Kikuko is chock-full of heart (not to mention expertly translated kanji puns) as its somewhat resentful heroine begins to find safe harbour and finally steps into herself with a spirit of acceptance and understanding. 


Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Revengers (東京リベンジャーズ, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

“You don’t deserve to change my life” the hero of Tsutomu Hanabusa’s adaptation of Ken Wakui’s manga Tokyo Revengers (東京リベンジャーズ) eventually affirms in finally facing his fears while trying to change destiny not least his own. In contrast to its original meaning in English, the wasei eigo “Revenge” usually means not payback but “rematch” or at least a second chance to prove oneself or make up for a past mistake. Through his time travel shenanigans, this is perhaps what young Takemichi (Takumi Kitamura) is attempting to do in revisiting the events which he feels ruined his life and left him a useless coward too cowed to offer much resistance to his continual degradation. 

Now 27, Takemichi lives in a rundown, untidy apartment and works part-time in a bookstore where his boss inappropriately mocks for him for still being a virgin, the kind of guy who peaked in high school and can’t move on from adolescent bravado. He might have a point in a sense in that Takemichi is indeed arrested but hearing on the news one day that his first love Hinata (Mio Imada) has been killed in a car accident supposedly caused by the Tokyo Manji gang alongside her brother Naoto (Yosuke Sugino), he finds himself thinking back to his school days. It’s at this point that someone shoves him off a train platform and, facing certain death, he suddenly finds himself in the body of his 17-year-old, bleach blond delinquent self. Takemichi assumes it’s a near death flashback, but later wakes up back in the present and realises that his actions in the past have consequences in the future. 

Quite clearly taking its cues from classic high school delinquent manga in which moody high school boys vie for the top spot through relentless violence, Tokyo Revengers nevertheless undercuts the genre’s macho posturing in firstly having Takemichi broken by his first defeat and then allowing him to reclaim his space as a hero through his determination to care for and protect others even if his final victory is in facing the man he held responsible for shattering his sense of self. Sent back into the past to prevent the Tokyo Manji Gang from ever forming, Takemichi refuses the obvious early solution but remains conflicted in realising that at its inception “Toman” saw itself as a compassionate force for good, a far cry from the nihilistic violence it now brings to the city. Rather than more violence, he finds a solution in its reverse, safeguarding relationships and preventing heartbreak in order to ensure no one else’s soul is corrupted by grief or loneliness. 

Takemichi feels himself powerless but is valued by his friends for his determination to protect others no matter the cost to himself, as he unwittingly proves through his time travel adventures attempting to save himself as much as Hinata by restoring his sense of self apparently shattered by his subjugation at the hands of a rival gang back back in high school. At 27 he’s a meek and broken man, forever apologising for his existence and living an unfulfilling life always running away from challenge or difficulty. Given an improbable second chance, he begins to find the courage to do it all differently with the benefit of hindsight and the stability of age, finally facing his teenage trauma as a fully adult man.  

Like any good delinquent movie, Hanabusa makes space for more than a few mass brawls along with intensely personal one-on-one battles drawing a direct line between high school violence and street war thuggery. “Thugs aren’t cool anymore” Toman leader Mikey (Ryo Yoshizawa) had explained, his compassionate second in command Kenchin (Yuki Yamada) reminding him to “have a heart” in keeping gang violence within the confines of their society and refraining from injuring innocent people. Toman aren’t yakuza, but they are perhaps the inheritors of jingi, or at least would be if left untouched by trauma and betrayal. In beating his own trauma, Takemichi undoes his destiny saving his friends and himself by learning to embrace his inner strength and refusing to back down in the face of intimidation. Part high school delinquent manga, part time travel adventure, Hanabusa’s sci-fi-inflected drama swaps macho posturing for a more contemplative take on the weight of past mistakes while giving its hero a second chance to be the kind of man he always thought himself to be.


Tokyo Revengers screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 (8日で死んだ怪獣の12日の物語, Shunji Iwai, 2020) [Fantasia 2021]

“We, all of us, can be heroes! Let’s support each other to beat this monster.” the hero of Shunji Iwai’s pandemic dramedy, The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 (8日で死んだ怪獣の12日の物語, Yoka de Shinda Kaiju no Juninichi no Monogatari) affirms. Inspired by Shinji Higuchi’s Kaiju Defeat Covid project and originally streamed as a web series, Iwai’s surreal screen drama is replete with the atmosphere of the pandemic’s early days, a mix of boredom and intense anxiety coupled with a determination to protect and support each other through this difficult time. Yet it’s also a tale of uncanny irony taking place in world in which Ultraseven is a documentary while the Earth has apparently been subject to waves of monster aggression, alien visitors, and even apparently an epidemic of ghosts. 

All of this the hero, Takumi Sato (Takumi Saitoh playing a version of himself) finds out from director Shinji Higuchi after contacting him on Zoom for advice about how to raise the “Capsule Kaiju” he bought on the internet in order to do something to help battle corona virus. Sato’s single “egg” soon becomes three, later back down to one again causing him to worry if the other two managed to escape or perhaps were eaten by the sole remaining monster. In any case, while they are three he names each of them after various Covid-fighting drugs and is informed by Higuchi that they currently resemble three kaiju from classic tokusatsu series Ultraseven. 

Nevertheless, Takumi is continually confused and disappointed by the slow progress of his project, confessing to one of his friends online that they were rated only one star on the store he bought them from but he’s sure that’s just because they’re a new product. His friend Non, (also playing a version of herself), meanwhile, has invested in an alien though the alien is, conveniently enough, entirely invisible and inaudible via camera. Non’s alien seems to be making much better progress to the extent that it eventually becomes disillusioned with selfish, apathetic human society and decides to return to outer space. Challenged, Takumi has to admit he hasn’t really done anything to make the world a better place except for raising his capsule kaiju and even that hasn’t gone particularly well. 

Then again, perhaps just getting through is enough to be going along with in the middle of a global pandemic. Takumi’s friend So (So Takei) is separated from his family in Bangkok and is struggling to find work as a chef while all the restaurants are closed only to later confess that he actually has a second family he, understandably, had not mentioned before in Japan that he also needs to support financially. Even so, Takumi is bemused watching the YouTube channel of a young woman (Moeka Hoshi) who broadcasts from her bathtub dressed in a nightgown and has managed to raise a recognisably dragon-like kaiju while his keep shapeshifting without progressing into a final form. He starts to worry, what if his kaiju are actually evil and intend to destroy the world rather than save it? The fact that it eventually takes on the form of a giant coronavirus might suggest he has a point, but kaiju work in mysterious ways and perhaps they are trying to help in their own small ways even if it might not seem like it in the beginning. 

In many ways that might be the primary lesson of the pandemic, everyone is doing their best even if they’re only doing something small like staying at home and wearing their mask. Shot entirely in black and white and mostly as direct to camera YouTube-style monologues or split-screen Zoom calls complete with occasional lag and echoing, Iwai adds in eerie pillow shots from a camera positioned high above the streets of a strangely quiet but not entirely empty Tokyo along with fragmentary dance sequences of young women dressed in black with CGI kaiju heads. A whimsical slice of pandemic life, 12 Day Tale ends as it began, with Takumi once again reminding us that we are all heroes and should support each other to beat the “virus monster” but adds a much needed note of hope as he assures his audience that the the day we beat the virus will certainly come, “let’s do our best together”. 


The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)