Japan Cuts Announces Complete 2019 Lineup!

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New York’s Japan Cuts returns for its 13th edition in 2019, bringing with it another premium selection of the best in recent Japanese cinema. This year’s Japan Cuts Cut Above Award goes to veteran director Shinya Tsukamoto whose latest film, anti-jidaigeki Killing, is screening as the festival’s Centrepiece Gala.

The programme in full:

Dance With Me

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An ambitious office worker faces career crisis when she is hypnotised to break into song and dance every time she hears music in the latest from comedy maestro Shinobu Yaguchi (Waterboys, Swing Girls, Survival Family). Q&A with director Shinobu Yaguchi and star Ayaka Miyoshi. 

The Island of Cats

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The peaceful days of an old man and his cat are disrupted by the arrival of a pretty young woman from Tokyo (Kou Shibasaki) and her newly opened cafe in an adaptation of the manga by Nekomaki.

I Go Gaga, My Dear

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TV doc director Naoko Nobutomo follows her ageing parents as her mother’s Alzheimer’s-related dementia intensifies.

Being Natural

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An aimless middle-aged man’s peaceful existence is threatened when hipster Tokyoites rock up in his tiny rural village looking for the “natural life” only to insist on reforming it to their city bound images of idyllic country living in Tadashi Nagayama’s anarchic satire. Review. Q&A with director Tadashi Nagayama and stars Yota Kawase and Natsuki Mieda. 

Ten Years Japan

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Anthology film featuring five dystopian visions of near future Japan. Review.

Samurai Shifters

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Isshin Inudo takes a trip back to the samurai era as a nerdy librarian (Gen Hoshino) is unexpectedly named relocation officer when his clan is ordered to move to another domain.

A Step Forward

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Atsushi Kasezawa’s documentary follows a pastor who commits himself to saving the lives of suicidal individuals who find themselves drawn to a particular cliff in Wakayama. Q&A with director Atsushi Kasezawa. 

The Chaplain

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The late Ren Osugi stars as a prison chaplain ministering to those languishing on death row. (No. 10 on Kinema Junpo’s best of 2018 list)

The Kamagasaki Cauldron War

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When a yakuza clan’s precious cauldron is stolen a war breaks out in the Osakan working class district of Kamagasaki. Q&A with star Yota Kawase. 

Demolition Girl

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High school girl Cocoa has given up on her dreams because she has to support her gambling addict father and no good failed manzai comedian brother, but her fortunes change when she finds out her mother left her money and if she can just top it up a little she could escape her humble life by getting into a top university in Tokyo. Q&A with director Genta Matsugami and star Aya Kitai. 

And Your Bird Can Sing

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Three slackers struggle to accept love in present day Hakodate in Sho Miyake’s adaptation of the Yasushi Sato novel in which an apathetic bookstore employee (Tasuku Emoto) starts a halfhearted romance with a free spirited colleague (Shizuka Ishibashi) only to introduce her to his infatuated best friend (Shota Sometani). Review.

His Lost Name

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A small-town carpenter (Kaoru Kobayashi) takes in a drifter (Yuya Yagira) he finds unconscious on the side of the road but their growing paternal bond begins to place a strain on his relationships with his fiancée (Keiko Horiuchi) and employees in Nanako Hirose’s sensitive debut. Q&A with director Nanako Hirose.

Red Snow

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Mystery thriller starring Arata and Masatoshi Nagase in which a dogged journalist’s unearthing of a decades old child disappearance in a small rural town opens up old wounds.

Killing

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A samurai prefers not to raise his sword but finds himself tested by his times in Shinya Tsukamoto’s impassioned anti-violence jidaigeki. Review. Q&A with director Shinya Tsukamoto, with CUT ABOVE Award ceremony. 

Bullet Ballet

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An ad director becomes obsessed with the idea of finding a gun after his fiancée shoots herself in Tsukamoto’s 1998 classic. Q&A with director Shinya Tsukamoto. 

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Miyoko Asada stars as Satoko – a con artist whose gradual path to wealth through pyramid schemes and increasingly elaborate scams eventually leads her to reinvent herself in Thailand as a 38-year-old woman named Erica.

Jesus

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A young boy relocates from Tokyo to a sleepy mountain village where he has to bunk with grandma and attend catholic school. His days are eventually brightened through meeting a tiny Jesus who grants all his wishes until an inescapable tragedy colours his view of religion in Hiroshi Okuyama’s whimsical debut. ReviewQ&A with director Hiroshi Okuyama. 

Melancholic

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Kazuhiko graduated from Todai, but he’s now unemployed and living with mum and dad. A chance encounter with a pretty friend from school leads him to a job in a bathhouse but his fortunes change again when he realises the baths double as a yakuza killing ground after hours… Review.

The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan

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A shogi-loving child prodigy (Ryuhei Matsuda) is devastated when he hits the age limit for becoming a professional player but eventually finds amateur success and then the courage to challenge the system in Toshiaki Toyoda’s surprisingly inspirational drama. Review. Q&A with director Toshiaki Toyoda. 

Jeux de plage

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Rohmerian drama in which college friends Sayaka and Yui take a trip to the beach where they meet up with Yui’s old pal Momoko but find their dynamic disrupted by sleazy passersby and mutual awkwardness.

The Journalist

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Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung makes the first of two Japanese language performances included in the programme as an earnest Tokyo journalist haunted by her father’s suicide, playing opposite Tori Matsuzaka as a cynical bureaucrat who discovers evidence of coverup and conspiracy.

The Legend of the Stardust Brothers

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Long forgotten, Macoto Tezka’s anarchic cult comedy debut has been lovingly rediscovered and restored by Third Window Films. A tale of fame, corruption, and destiny, Stardust Brothers is a whimsical piece of absurdist Showa-era nostalgia . Review. Q&A with director Macoto Tezka. 

Randen: The Comings and Goings on a Kyoto Tram

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Three stories of love occur along the the iconic Kyoto tram line as a writer from Kamakura searches for a ghost train while recalling memories of his wife, a local girl helps a Tokyo actor master the Kyoto accent, and a girl from Aomori falls for a trainspotter!

NIGHT CRUISING

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Makoto Sasaki’s documentary follows blind musician Hideyuki Kato as he works on a sci-fi short in which a non-sighted fighter and a telepath search for a mysterious ghost in the far future. Q&A with director Makoto Sasaki, producer Miyuki Tanaka and subject Hideyuki Kato. 

Orphan’s Blues

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A young woman suffering unexplained loss of memory goes in search of a childhood friend after rediscovering a drawing of an elephant in Riho Kudo’s award winning debut.

Blue Hour

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30-ish Sunada (Kaho) is becoming rapidly disillusioned with city life. She’s worked her way up to directing commercials but finds herself mostly dealing with workplace sexism and difficult stars while she is also carrying on an affair with a married colleague. Taking off on a road trip with her lively best friend mangaka (Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung in her second Japanese language role included in the programme), she is finally forced to reconnect with her rural childhood and rediscovers her sense of self in the process. Review.

Japan Cuts runs from 19th to 28th July 2019 at Japan Society New York. Full details for all the films along with ticketing links are available via the official website and you can also keep up with all the latest details by following the festival’s official Facebook page and Twitter account.

Blue Hour (ブルーアワーにぶっ飛ばす, Yuko Hakota, 2019)

Blue Hour poster“I don’t like people who like me” confesses the heroine of Yuko Hakota’s first feature Blue Hour (ブルーアワーにぶっ飛ばす, Blue Hour ni Buttobasu) to her best friend, who presumably is excluded from the statement. Then again, perhaps not. Running from or running to, Sunada (Kaho) can’t seem to escape herself while chasing the ghost of small town ennui in frenetic Tokyo. An impromptu road trip with a lively partner in crime returns her to the problematic roots from which she struggles to break free, but maybe breaking free wasn’t exactly what she needed anyway.

At 30 or so, Sunada has worked her way up to directing commercials but much of her job involves negotiating workplace sexism and stroking the egos of stars. In any case, she doesn’t seem to find the work particularly fulfilling and on looking around has noticed that there don’t seem to be a lot of women over 40 working in her industry which has her wondering what’s next in her possibly dead end career. Meanwhile, she’s married to a perfectly nice, mild-mannered sort of guy (Daichi Watanabe) but is secretly having an affair with a married colleague (Yusuke Santamaria) whose wife is currently pregnant with their second child. More stressed out and confused than she’d perhaps like to admit, Sunada has been putting off visiting her sickly grandmother because she isn’t the sort of person who deals with crisis well and so she was waiting in the hope her grandmother’s health would improve. Now that it has, she’s talked into an impromptu road trip with her freewheeling mangaka friend Kiyoura (Shim Eun-kyung).

True to form, Sunada doesn’t even really bother telling her husband where she’s gone because she doesn’t want “that sort of closeness”. Returning home, however, necessarily means reengaging with her distinctly odd family which is perhaps both easier and more difficult with her crazy friend in tow. While Sunada’s dad (Denden) seems to have picked up a habit of frittering money away on antique swords and suits of armour, her weird high school teacher brother (Daisuke Kuroda) cracks distinctly unfunny jokes about molesting pupils (a theme later echoed by her mother (Kaho Minami) who warns her men can’t be trusted, not even her brother). Out in the country there’s not much to do but drink, but this is not Tokyo and the bars are full of sleazy old men feeling up the hostesses and hogging the karaoke mic in an attempt to escape the stultifying boredom of their small-town lives. This is what Sunada has been running from. Ashamed of her bumpkinish childhood, she threw herself headlong into Tokyo sophistication only to find it equally unfulfilling.

Kiyoura is in many ways a projection of her other self. Childishly giddy, willing to jump into any situation with fearless enthusiasm, Kiyoura is a middle-class girl from the city and knows no shame. Only to her does Sunada seem to express her true self. Fearing intimacy, she keeps herself aloof but resents her lover’s family while pushing back against her husband’s meek indifference. “All ghosts are lies” her grandmother told her, which may be truer in some senses than others, but Sunada continues to haunt herself as she recalls the spirit of her free and easy childhood in which she snuck out to enjoy the “blue hour”, waiting for the sun to rise in peace and tranquility.

Only by confronting her grandmother’s ill heath can she begin to move forward towards a greater emotional clarity. Gently clipping the older woman’s nails, Sunada gets to hear her life philosophy or at least her parting words, “I try to make the best of every day, but what does that even mean anyway?”. Suddenly freed of her fear of attachment, her anxieties for the imperfect future, and even perhaps of her intense self loathing, Sunada prepares to take the wheel and confidently head in a more positive direction. “Being tacky means being alive”, her other self tells her, finally accepting her small-town roots and all that goes with it only to discover they were already accepted by someone who was paying more attention than she gave them credit for. A melancholy but ultimately hopeful and warmhearted exploration of midlife ennui and urban disconnection, Blue Hour is a delayed coming of age tale in which the heroine comes to an acceptance of adulthood only by reconnecting with her childhood self and all the fantastical promise of her sleepy rural youth.


Blue Hour was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Jesus (僕はイエス様が嫌い, Hiroshi Okuyama, 2018)

Jesus posterIt’s tough being a kid. You have no control over anything and everyone always insists they know best, dismissing resistance as childish rebellion. Yura, the hero of Hiroshi Okuyama’s Jesus (僕はイエス様が嫌い, Boku wa Jesus-sama ga Kirai), has things harder than most as his peaceful days are disrupted by the abrupt announcement that the family will be moving from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo to the sleepy Nakanojo where he doesn’t even get his own room and has to share with grandma! To make matters worse, his new school is going to be a little “different” in that it’s a religious institution.

Yura’s (Yura Sato) family are not themselves Catholic and so the choice of a religious school adds an additional layer of displacement to his already irritated sense of alienation. Bored and lonely, even more of an outcast than solely being the new kid in town as a confused non-Christian suddenly dropped into an unfamiliar environment, Yura prays for a friend to make his days less dull and subsequently gains the constant companionship of a tiny Jesus (Chad Mullane) who follows him around and occasionally grants wishes. Eventually, Tiny Jesus gifts him a real friend in the form of Kazuma (Riki Okuma) – one of the most popular kids in school and a star footballer. Tragedy, however, lingers on the horizon leading to Yura to reconsider his relationship with Tiny Jesus who seems to have betrayed him in granting his trivial wishes only to break his heart.

In fact, the film’s Japanese title translates to the more provocative “I hate Jesus” which might give more of an indication of the film’s final destination as Yura first flirts with and then rejects the religiosity of his new environment. Confused by the zeal with which his classmates seem to run off mass and embarrassed that he doesn’t have a bible or hymnbook to join in, he nevertheless goes along with his teacher’s constant prayer meetings. Through the offices of Tiny Jesus, he comes to associate the power of prayer with asking and receiving. He asks Tiny Jesus for money, and suddenly his grandma comes up with 1000 yen, he asks for a friend and finds one, but just as he’s starting to have faith in his possibly imaginary friend doubt enters his mind. What is Tiny Jesus up to, and why won’t he help when it really matters?

Suddenly angry and resentful, Yura rejects his teacher’s kind yet insensitive attempts to comfort him with the affirmation that all that praying turned out to be completely pointless. Despite not being a Christian and only being a small boy, he is suddenly asked to give a eulogy for someone important to him that he has just lost. The adults might think this is a nice gesture, one that will bring a kind of closure while honouring the memory of the deceased, but it’s also a big ask for a child facing not only loss and grief on an intense scale for the first time but also trying to process his complicated relationship with a religion which is not his. Thoroughly fed up with Tiny Jesus, Yura brings his fist down on the good book as if to crush the false promise of misplaced faith in accepting that there are no real miracles and sometimes no matter how hard you ask your wish will not be granted.

Yura’s disillusionment with religion is swift as he realises you cannot get what you want merely by asking for it. He feels betrayed, not only by Tiny Jesus, but the entire religious institution which led him to believe he could change the world around him through prayer and positivity. Nevertheless, his disappointment does at least begin to bring him some clarity which, ironically, helps him to accept his new surroundings through bonding with grandma and coming to feel at home with his family even if his new environment is likely to be one tinged with sadness as he remembers better times before Tiny Jesus ruined everything. Whimsical if perhaps slight, Okuyama’s debut provides a rare window into Japan’s minority Christian culture as it celebrates Christmas in the Western fashion and seemingly exists in its own tiny little bubble, but subverts its religious themes to explore childhood existential angst as its adolescent hero is forced to deal with loss at a young age and discovers that there is no magic cure for death or eternal life (on Earth at least) for those who believe, only the cold reality of grief and bittersweet memories of happier times. 


Jesus was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

And Your Bird Can Sing (きみの鳥はうたえる, Sho Miyake, 2018)

And Your Bird Can Sing poster 1Yasushi Sato, an author closely associated with the port town of Hakodate who took his own life in 1990, has been enjoying something of a cinematic renaissance in the last few years with adaptations of some of his best known works in The Light Shines Only There, Over the Fence, and Sketches of Kaitan City. And Your Bird Can Sing (きみの鳥はうたえる, Kimi no Tori wa Utaeru), taking its title from the classic Beatles song, was his literary debut and won him a nomination for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1981. Unlike the majority of his output, And Your Bird Can Sing was set in pre-bubble Tokyo but perhaps signals something of a recurring theme in its positioning of awkward romance as a potential way out of urban ennui and existential confusion.

Sho Miyake’s adaptation shifts the action back to Hakodate and the into present day but maintains the awkward triangularity of Sato’s book. The unnamed narrator (Tasuku Emoto), the “Boku” of this “I Novel”, is an apathetic slacker with a part-time job in a book store he can’t really be bothered to go to. After not showing up all day, he wanders past the store at closing time which brings him into contact with co-worker Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi) who appears to be leaving with the boss (Masato Hagiwara) but blows him off to come back and flirt with Boku who makes a date with her at a cute bar but falls asleep after getting home and (accidentally) stands her up, drinking all night with his unemployed roommate Shizuo (Shota Sometani) instead. Luckily for Boku, Sachiko forgives him and an awkward romance develops but their relationship becomes still more complicated when Boku introduces Sachiko to Shizuo with whom she proves an instant hit.

This is not, however, the story of an awkward love triangle but the easy fluidity of youth in which unselfishness can prove accidentally destructive. Boku, for all his rejection of conventionality, is more smitten with Sachiko than he’s willing to admit. He counts to 120 waiting for her return, refusing to make a move himself but somehow believing she is choosing him with an odd kind of synchronised telepathy. She pushes forward, he holds back. Boku encourages Shizuo to pursue Sachiko, insisting that she is free to make her choices, and if jealous does his best to hide it. Shizuo, meanwhile, is uncertain. Attracted to Sachiko he sees she prefers Boku but weighs the positivities of being second choice to a man dressing up his fear of intimacy as egalitarianism.

Boku tells us that he wanted the summer to last forever, but in truth his youth is fading. Like Sachiko and Shizuo, he is drifting aimlessly without direction – much to the annoyance of an earnest employee at the store (Tomomitsu Adachi) who prizes rules and order above all else and finds the existence of a man like Boku extremely offensive. Sachiko, meanwhile, has drifted into an affair with her boss who, against the odds, actually seems like a decent guy if one who is perhaps just as lost as our trio and living with no more clarity despite his greater experience. Like Boku, Shizuo too is largely living on alienation as he strenuously resists the fierce love of his admittedly problematic mother (Makiko Watanabe).

“What is love?” one of Sachiko’s seemingly less complicated friends (Ai Yamamoto) asks, “why does everybody lie?”. Everybody is indeed lying, but more to themselves than to others. Fearing rejection they deny their true feelings and bury themselves in temporary, hedonistic pleasures. Boku reveals that he hoped Sachiko and Shizuo would fall in love so that he would get to know a different side to Sachiko through his friend, as if he could hover around them like transparent air. The problem is Boku doesn’t quite want to exist, and what is loving and being loved other than a proof of existence? Sachiko prompts, and she waits, and then she wonders if she should take Boku at his word and settle for Shizuo only for Boku to reach his sudden moment of clarity at summer’s end. A melancholy exploration of youthful ennui and existential anxiety, And Your Bird Can Sing is a beautifully pitched evocation of the eternal summer and the awkward, tentative bonds which finally give it meaning.


And Your Bird Can Sing was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2018)

Miracle of Crybaby Shottan poster 1Toshiaki Toyoda burst onto the scene in the late ‘90s with a series of visually stunning expressions of millennial malaise in which the dejected, mostly male, heroes found themselves adrift without hope or purpose in post-bubble Japan. For all their essential nihilism however, Toyoda’s films most often ended with melancholic consolation, or at least a sense of determination in the face of impossibility. Returning after a lengthy hiatus, Toyoda’s adaptation of the autobiography by shogi player Shoji “Shottan” Segawa, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Nakimushi Shottan no Kiseki), finds him in a defiantly hopeful mood as his mild-mannered protagonist discovers that “losing is not the end” and the choice to continue following your dreams even when everything tells you they are no longer achievable is not only legitimate but a moral imperative.

An aspiring Shogi player himself in his youth, Toyoda opens with the young Shoji discovering a love of the game and determining to turn pro. Encouraged by his surprisingly supportive parents who tell him that doing what you love is the most important thing in life, Shoji (Ryuhei Matsuda) devotes himself to mastering his skills forsaking all else. The catch is, that to become a professional shogi player you have to pass through the official association and ascend to the fourth rank before your 26th birthday. Shoji has eight chances to succeed, but in the end he doesn’t make it and is all washed up at 26 with no qualifications or further possibilities seeing as he has essentially “wasted” his adolescence on acquiring skills which are now entirely meaningless.

As his inspirational primary school teacher (Takako Matsu) tells him, however, if you spend time indulging in a passion, no matter what it is, and learn something by it then nothing is ever really wasted. Shoji’s father says the same thing – he wants his son to follow his dreams, though his brother has much more conventional views and often berates him for dedicating himself to shogi when the odds of success are so slim. It may well be “irresponsible”, in one sense at least, to blindly follow a dream to the exclusion of all else, but then again it may also be irresponsible to resentfully throw oneself into the conventionality of salaryman success.

Nevertheless, shogi is a game that drives men mad. Unlike the similarly themed Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow, also inspired by a real life shogi star, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan has a classically “happy” ending but is also unafraid to explore the dark sides of the game as young men fail to make the grade, realise they’ve wasted their youths, and retreat into despair and hopelessness. Shoji accepts his fate, internalises his failure, and begins to move on neither hating the game nor loving it, until finally reconnecting with his childhood friend and rediscovering his natural affinity free from ambition or desire.

Another defeated challenger, expressing envy for Shoji’s talent, told him he was quitting because you can’t win if you can’t learn to lose friends and he didn’t want to play that way. Shoji doesn’t really want to play that way either, freely giving up chances to prosper in underhanded ways and genuinely happy for others when they achieve the thing he most wants but cannot get. He does in one sense “give up” in that he accepts he will never play professionally because of the arbitrary rules of the shogi world, but retains his love of the game and eventually achieves “amateur” success at which point he finds himself a figurehead for a campaign targeted squarely at the unfair rigidity of the sport’s governing body.

Shoji’s rebellion finds unexpected support from all quarters as the oppressed masses of Japan rally themselves behind him in protest of the often arcane rules which govern the society. As his teacher told him, just keep doing what you’re doing – it is enough, and it will be OK. Accepting that “losing is not the end” and there are always second chances even after you hit rock bottom and everyone tells you it’s too late, a newly re-energised Shoji is finally able to embrace victory on equal terms carried solely by his pure hearted love of shogi rather than by ambition or resentment. A surprisingly upbeat effort from the usually melancholy director, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan is a beautifully pitched reminder that it really is never too late, success comes to those who master failure, and being soft hearted is no failing when you’re prepared to devote yourself body and soul to one particular cause.


The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Killing (斬、, Shinya Tsukamoto, 2018)

Killing posterOppressed peasantry abandoned by their lords and under threat of violence have only ronin to turn to – it’s a familiar, some might say even the archetypal, jidaigeki story. Forever the iconoclast, Shinya Tsukamoto makes his first foray into the world of the samurai, Killing (斬、, Zan,), in typically contrary fashion, turning the classic formula on its head as samurai “justice” brings only more chaos, blood, and terror to the otherwise peaceful fields of ordinary farmers in Bakumatsu-era Japan.

In return for food and lodging, Mokunoshin (Sosuke Ikematsu), a young masterless samurai, has been living alongside a village of kindly farmers who, while deferent to his status, are grateful to have him around because they are desperately short of hands. In addition to helping out with farm work, he’s also been sharing his sword skills with local boy Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda) who has developed delusions of grandeur that he might one day be allowed to hold a sword of his own. Ichinosuke’s sister Yu (Yu Aoi), meanwhile, has become fond of the handsome samurai but is conflicted by his corruption of her brother with “samurai” values he can never hope to aspire to while she also must know that whatever she might feel nothing good can come of it because a samurai will not marry a farmer’s daughter.

The problems begin when twin threats descend on the village – first the appearance of cooler than ice ronin Sawamura (Shinya Tsukamoto) who wants to recruit Mokunoshin for his mission to support the rule of the Shogun in Edo and Kyoto, and the second a group of bandits hovering menacingly on the horizon but as yet doing no real harm. A pragmatist at heart, Mokunoshin prefers diplomacy to action and so he talks to the bandits and rates them as minimally dangerous as long as they’re treated fairly. Unfortunately, fairness is not what they get from hotheaded Ichisuke whose small conflict with them soon sparks into a conflagration when Sawamura starts wielding the sword of justice and doing it imperfectly, bringing yet more chaos down on all their heads.

Violence spreads like a virus contracted by the sword. A victim of his ideology, Sawamura sees his blade as his whole being and the embodiment of his right to act with honour and authority. He thinks the answer is to stamp out the bandits, whereas Mokunoshin knows there are always more than it first seems and to strike at them simply means there will never be an end to the petty tit for tat reprisals. His solution is to let it lie, but to Sawamura that simply looks like cowardice and dereliction of duty.

Despite the prevailing ideology of the world in which he lives, Mokunoshin is opposed to the idea of killing yet if pressed his reasoning is less humanistic pacifism than personal discomfort. Mokunoshin may be a samurai and a fine swordsman, but he has never killed and it seems is afraid to do so. He sees those around him whom he has come to love endangered but cannot act, refusing to raise his sword while the bandits do as they please with none of the existential confusion which cripples Mokunoshin’s ability to serve his own ideals. Rather than insist on an end to the rule of the sword, Mokunoshin resents himself for wishing he could kill as easily as Sawamura and be like the other men of his age.

Yu meanwhile looks on from the sidelines as the samurai code of violence tears her world apart and finally infects her too as she finds herself, far from pleading with him not to die as a substitute for asking him not to leave, insisting that Mokunoshin be the one to fix the mess he made by infecting her brother with a samurai’s lust for glory. Sawamura, meanwhile, becomes fixated on the notion of fixing Mokunoshin through a duel to death in which it is kill or be killed. He is prepared to die for his ideal and hopes that Mokunoshin will in the end choose his life over his soul and become the prized warrior for the Shogun that he knows he is destined to be.

Opening in flames as if to imply the sword is a weapon forged in hell, Killing centres itself not so much on the act but on its repercussions. The bandits too are a product of the inequalities of their times, and if they visually resemble the ragged soldiers of Fires on the Plain it is probably no accident. The code of violence spreads from one generation to the next with inexorable inevitability. Ending in a wail of despair, Killing finds little cause for hope in its relentlessly bleak conclusion which sees no release from the meaningless cycle of violence while humanity refuses to reject the cruel and oppressive social codes which fuel its existence.


Killing was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (星くず兄弟の伝説, Macoto Tezka, 1985)

Stardust Brothers poster 2More or less out of fashion today, concept albums were all the rage back in the ‘70s and ‘80s but few of them ever made it to the big screen. Macoto Tezka’s The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (星くず兄弟の伝説, Hoshikuzu Kyodai no Densetsu), apparently drawing inspiration from The Who’s Tommy, is a rare exception though you’d be forgiven for never having heard of it seeing as it’s been mostly forgotten since receiving a decidedly frosty reception from critics on its 1985 release. Tezka would revisit the Stardust Brothers in 2016 with a Brand New Legend, but this now fully restored “director’s cut” distributed by Third Window Films who are also co-producing Tezka’s latest work – an adaptation of a manga by his legendary father Osamu Tezuka starring Fumi Nikaido, is the first opportunity many will have to reappraise the film in 34 years.

Inspired by an “imaginary soundtrack” composed by Haruo Chicada, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers concerns itself with aspiring musicians Shingo (Shingo Kubota) and Kan (Kazuhiro Takagi) who seem to have a healthy rivalry in the intense 1980s Japanese underground club scene. Their luck changes one day when they are each handed a card for a shady-looking management company, Atomic Promotion, where the manager, Minami (played by voice of the ’70s crooner Kiyohiko Ozaki), promises to make them stars beyond their wildest dreams but only on one condition – they have to form a band of two, or it’s no dice.

On their first arrival at Atomic Promotion, the boys are introduced to a young woman, Marimo (Kyoko Togawa) – an aspiring singer who has been repeatedly kicked out of Minami’s office because he doesn’t hire girls (seemingly a satirical reference to an all powerful agency controlling most of Japan’s A-list male idols). Kan comes to her rescue and, in a throwaway comment, casts himself as Urashima Taro rescuing the “turtle” from, in this case, belligerent security guards. It is tempting, in an impish sense, to read the rest of the ongoing tale as an extended retelling of the Urashima Taro myth as the boys find themselves catching a ride to another kingdom filled with untold wealth and unimaginable pleasure only to tire of their newfound luxury and discover that while they were trapped within a tiny champagne bubble of success other stars were also rising.

It is indeed the “plateau” of success which highlights the differences between the two guys and threatens to send each of them on different paths as they contemplate the demands of showbiz life. Shingo, an insecure rocker, begins to resent the presence of the ultra modern Kan whose punkish energy and zeitgeisty features have captured the hearts of the youth. Numbing the emptiness with drink and drugs, he dreams himself swallowed whole by his sworn brother before being chased by creepy zombies emerging from their human suits to suck whatever of his soul remains right out of him.

Bored by their fame, the boys resent the implication that their “stardom” comes only at the price of their artistic integrity. They long to break free of the corporate straightjacket which attempts to strip them of their individuality in order to replace it with a manufactured, marketable persona in another jab at the increasingly commodified idol world of the burgeoning bubble era. Meanwhile, the corporate machine moves on, mass media is exposed as yet another medium of propaganda with a (perhaps conflicted) Minami propositioned by a politician with a son keen to get into the business. Fearing the Stardust Brothers are too “vulgar”, the powers that be want a new face to sell the message of love and peace to the young, which sounds much more positive than it really is. The boys’ rival, Kaworu (visual kei pioneer Issay), is very much a figure of the age – an androgynous, Bowie-like counter culture personality who is in essence the face of entrenched privilege insidiously camouflaged to infiltrate alternative youth subculture. 

Yet the political message is not perhaps the point so much as anarchic, absurdist fun. Perfectly in tune with lo-fi late punk / early New Wave sensibilities, Tezka’s script freewheels from one surreal set piece to another following the flow of Chicada’s expertly composed score which encapsulates the variety of the age while remaining absolutely of its time. Filled with youthful energy and true punk spirit, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers is the strange tale of the dust that stars are made on and its unexpected ability to find its way home even if it takes a little longer than expected.


The Legend of the Stardust Brothers is released on blu-ray later in the year courtesy of Third Window Films. It will also be screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival on 1st June, 22.30.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Bonus:

Kiyohiko Ozaki’s 1971 hit Mata Au Hi Made

And its fantastic use in Isshin Inudo’s La Maison de Himiko