Goodbye Cruel World (グッバイ・クルエル・ワールド, Tatsushi Omori, 2022)

Tatsushi Omori has had a rather strange career beginning with the incredibly grim Whispering of the Gods which was so controversial that the only way he could screen it was to set up a marquee in a park and put it on himself. Since then he has in recent years softened a bit with the incredibly charming Seto and Utsumi and heartwarming tea ceremony drama Every Day a Good Day. Goodbye Cruel World (グッバイ・クルエル・ワールド) returns to the nihilism of Omori’s earliest work, but with a layer of heavy irony in its self-consciously cool aesthetics. 

This is world is cruel indeed, pulling each of the worldweary protagonists into an inescapable hell of crime and violence. As the film opens, a car of full of criminals drives towards a love hotel where they plan to rob a bunch of yakuza in the middle of a money laundering exchange. If you have to rob someone, perhaps it’s fair enough to rob the yakuza but for obvious reasons it’s not a very good idea. Still, the fact is they accomplish the heist pretty easily not least because the yakuza are lazy and complacent. Not only could they not be bothered to change their meeting place like the boss told them, the lookouts didn’t even put up much of a fight. “Japan’s gone to hell,” “old-leftist gone bad” Hamada (Tomokazu Miura) sighs lamenting that no one does their job properly anymore.

Now in his 70s, Hamada waxes on his days as a student protestor while now a disillusioned old man who was previously dismissed from his position as a political secretary for cooking the books. In a last ditch bid to change the status quo, he later hatches on a plan to rob the secret campaign stashes of the incumbent conservative candidate whom he has also exposed for tax evasion and an affair with a bar hostess not to mention a general air of sleaze and corruption. The robbers’ main competition is a corrupt policeman who’s been working with the yakuza ever since he was foolish enough to accept a tip off from boss Ogata (Shingo Tsurumi) to arrest some of his rivals. 

Like everyone else, what Detective Hachiya (Nao Omori) wants is out but there is no out from this hellish world of crime. Anzai (Hidetoshi Nishijima) tried to go straight in the wake of anti-organised crime legislation but there are no second chances for ex-yakuza. He just wanted a normal life, but it’s hard to leave the yakuza world behind when you can’t even open a bank account and no wants to employ a former thug. Hachiya steals the money to buy himself a new life trying to resurrect his father-in-law’s failed hotel in a moribund seaside town where the other businessmen lament the decline of the local shopping area amid the economic complexities of the contemporary society. But he’s frustrated by the arrival of former associates, Iijima (Eita Okuno), who blackmails him over his yakuza past and poignantly says he’s done for the same reasons Anzai does the robbery, he just wants to be able to live together with his wife and child. 

Miru (Tina Tamashiro) says she came up with the idea of robbing the yakuza to escape sex work and is helped by hotel employee Yano (Hio Miyazawa) who dreams of running away with her. She says all she wants is sleep, while he wants to live comfortably in a quiet seaside town. Like the kids that hang round Hamada, they represent a kind of rebellious youth rejecting the corrupt authority of men like Anzai and Hachiya but are quickly slapped down. As Hachiya points out, the “grown-ups” took all the money and the only reason they’re not dead is that Ogata wants them to clean up their mess before they go by taking out the other gang members. During the robbery, Miru appears an unwilling participant so frightened that she cannot pry her fingers from the pistol when the sociopathic Hagiwara demands it back. But on her eventual murder spree/mission of revenge she’s an ice cold killer with vacant eyes trying to shoot her way out of existential malaise. 

Omori signals the degree to which they are all trapped by the ubiquity of retro nostalgia in the unlikely ‘70s getaway car and the soul music which plays on its sound system. Seeming to directly reference ‘90s Tarantino in musical choices, the film’s self-consciously cool aesthetic sometimes works against it even while hinting at the general sense of emptiness which envelops those caught in this hellish underworld. As Anzai later suggests, they are all the same, covered in blood with nowhere to go for there is no place for any of them in contemporary Japan. A bloody tale of nihilistic futility and self-destructive violence, Goodbye Cruel World suggests that there’s no way back from the purgatorial exile of an underworld existence.

Goodbye Cruel World screened as part of this year’s Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

BL Metamorphosis (メタモルフォーゼの縁側, Shunsuke Kariyama, 2022)

As the heroines of Shunsuke Kariyama’s charmingly heartwarming dramedy BL Metamorphosis (メタモルフォーゼの縁側, Metamorphosis no Engawa) introduce themselves to each other, the older, Yuki (Nobuko Miyamoto), reflects that their names mean “snow” and “sunshine” respectively though for much of the film their roles are reversed. 17-year-old Urara (Mana Ashida) is gloomy and introverted, diffident to the point of inertia and in danger of becoming resentful while the widowed 75-year-old Yuki is relentlessly cheerful despite her loneliness and the increasing effects of age. 

What brings about their serendipitous meeting is, strangely enough, BL manga which a curious Yuki picks up on a whim struck by the beauty of its artwork much to the embarrassment of secret BL fanatic and part-time bookshop girl, Urara. “BL” or “Boys’ Love” manga is a genre which focusses on romance between men but is largely written by and for a straight female audience. Readers have been termed or may term themselves fujoshi, which literally means “rotten girl” and hints at the disdain with which the genre is sometimes held explaining Urara’s intense sense of shame about her secret hobby. She keeps her substantial collection of BL manga in a cardboard box hidden behind several other boxes under the desk in her room where no one will find it, and when an enthusiastic Yuki takes her to a cafe for a few primers, Urara snatches the book from the table before the waitress can see it while two women snigger from behind struck by the incongruity of hearing an elderly lady speak so enthusiastically about a love story between teenage boys. 

Yuki is more open-minded than many might assume even if the lovely suburban house where she holds calligraphy classes is the peak of refined elegance. She’s exactly the sort of person you wouldn’t think would be into BL, but unlike Urara and perhaps because of her age she feels no embarrassment at all and asks her questions straightforwardly without shame. Her cheerfulness and positivity begin to rub off Urara who begins to wonder what it is she’s so ashamed of, why she resents the popular girlfriend of the childhood friend she may or may not have a crush on, and what it is she’s really afraid of pursuing in the course of her life. As the two women bond over over their shared interest a new connection develops that brings sunshine back into each of their lives along with a new sense of strength and possibility in a true tribute to intergenerational friendship. 

Yet the nature of their connection leads Urara, who had considerately brought out a stool for Yuki while searching for a book she wanted at the store, to forget that Yuki is not as young as she was and cannot necessarily accompany her as a friend of her own age might. She invites her to come to a large convention for self-published manga, but then begins to rethink on seeing pictures of the queues realising it might not be much fun for a 75-year-old woman with a couple of mobility problems to stand in line for hours on end just to walk around inside. Her sense of embarrassment in her thoughtlessness causes her to pull away from Yuki, only to come to regret it on returning to her home and finding it a little emptier as if a part of Yuki had already disappeared. 

Nevertheless, it’s Yuki’s encouragement that finally gives Urara the courage to write a manga of her own which is part fan fiction based on the BL manga they’d read together and a tribute to their friendship retold as a BL love story in which two people find each other and bring joy and happiness back into each other’s lives. Yuki ended up becoming a calligraphy tutor because she’d wanted to write a fan letter to the author of a manga she liked as a child but was ashamed of her handwriting and never sent it. The author stopped publishing a while later and she regretted not having told her how much the manga had meant to her. Similarly the author of the manga the pair read (Kotone Furukawa) is mired in creative difficulties and artistic doubt only to unexpectedly rediscover her confidence on coming across Urara’s fan fiction and realise that her work had touched someone and held meaning in their life. The film’s Japanese title translates more literally as “the engawa of metamorphosis” which refers to the small deck area looking on to Yuki’s beautiful garden where the pair often sit together sharing their love of manga, each somehow blossoming under the warm summer sunshine transformed by their friendship and ready to embrace the future.

BL Metamorphosis screened as part of this year’s Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

It Comes (来る, Tetsuya Nakashima, 2018)

According to a duplicitous folklorist in Tetsuya Nakashima’s anarchic horror film It Comes (来る, Kuru), monsters aren’t real. People made them up so they wouldn’t have to face an unpleasant reality. Farmers who had more children than they could feed invented a monster who came to claim their infants rather than have to live with the reality that they left them in the in the forest to die. As it turns out this monster may actually be “real”, but undoubtedly fuelled by the loneliness of a neglected child whose parents are burdened by their own particular legacy of parental toxicity. 

The mother of soon-to-be-married Hideki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) more or less says as much when he brings his fiancée to meet the family at a memorial service for his late grandfather. “Maybe it’s her upbringing” she snidely suggests, remarking that Kana (Haru Kuroki) is “a little gloomy” (which seems like an odd criticism to make of a guest at what is effectively a reenactment of a funeral). A strangely beaming Hideki keeps reassuring his fiancée that she’s “perfect” while she continues to worry about whether she’s a good fit seeing as she never knew a “real” family having been raised by a mother she regards as neglectful. But even at the couple’s wedding it’s clear that Hideki mostly ignores her, so obsessed is he with being the centre of attention. “Is it ever not about you?” one of the fed up guests eventually heckles, but it evidently never is. After setting up his “perfect” life in a “perfect” luxury flat and having a “perfect” baby, Hideki sets up a blog about being the perfect dad and barely helps with their small daughter Chisa driving Kana slowly out of her mind with his narcissistic self-obsession and thinly veiled emotional abuse. 

When the ghosts start coming, we might wonder if they reveal the truth or effect a distorted reality that leans in to otherwise unspoken dark thoughts, but Hideki really is as someone puts it all lies. When he’s persuaded to visit an “exorcist” she simply tells him to treat his wife and daughter properly to make the monster go away sending Hideki into a small moment of rage implying that he really does know what he is rather than having “forgotten” a cruel alter ego. In his charmed life, we might even wonder if he made some kind of deal with the devil which would explain his rather vacant smile though as it turns out it’s more like he’s cursed by a forgotten childhood encounter with an ancient forest spirit which hints at a deeper, older evil going all the way back to those farmers and the children they abandoned. 

Then again, it seems as if Hideki was rather spoiled as a child leaving him craving both attention and approval, while Kana is still struggling with resentment towards the mother she mainly had to parent herself and is afraid of becoming. Hideki snaps at her that she shouldn’t lose her temper with the baby because children remember, though as it turns out neither of them can really give their full attention to Chisa because of the realities of parenthood which among other things include constant anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. The parents are effectively haunted while cursed by their own toxic parental legacies that they will inevitably pass on to their daughter whether they mean to or not. 

It’s much the same for occult writer Nozaki (Junichi Okada) brought in to help solve the case with the help of his girlfriend, Makoto (Nana Komatsu), a bar hostess with psychic abilities. He once persuaded an old girlfriend to have an abortion because he was afraid of becoming attached to something he might eventually lose, and may be in a relationship with Makoto partly because she is unable to bear children for reasons connected to her frustrated love for her icy exorcist sister Kotoko (Takako Matsu) who like Nozaki wilfully distances herself from others to protect herself from the pain of loss. But as another shaman tells him, in a land of darkness where you no longer know right from wrong pain is the only truth. 

Nakashima shoots with a thinly veiled irony, vacillating between the ridiculousness of demonic spirits wreaking havoc in a well-appointed Tokyo apartment and the concession that there are indeed monsters in the world and as another infected suggests, they are we. Once again set at Christmas much like World of Kanako, Nakashima’s familial horror juxtaposes the season of goodwill with supernatural violence even as Kotoko marshals every power at her disposal from her roots in Okinawa shamanism to Buddhism and Christianity to hold back the latent evil born of a little girl’s loneliness. Meanwhile, he draws inspiration from classic J-horror and particularly the work of Nobuo Nakagawa in his green mists and swamp-based set piece in which Nozaki finds himself mired in a lake of life and death. Kotoko’s wounded eye and fear of mirrors hark back to Yotsuya Kaidan and the betrayed ghost of Oiwa, herself a victim of a man whose self-involved quest for approval cost her her life. At heart an interrogation of the parental bond the film eventually comes down on the side of family as Nozaki reclaims his frustrated paternity while a little girl dreams of nothing more sinister than a land of omurice. 

It Comes screened as part of this year’s Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International Trailer (English subtitles)