The Burning Buddha Man (燃える仏像人間, Ujicha, 2013)

“There are many strange things happening in this world” according to the mysterious young woman who appears in the brief live action sequences bookending Ujicha’s debut feature, The Burning Buddha Man (燃える仏像人間, Moeru Butsuzo Ningen). Who is she? One of the “space people” mentioned in the accompanying voice over which also points out that humans are hard to trust seeing as they don’t even trust each other, or merely a stand in for the omnipotent artist sitting down as she does and looking over her creation her butler dutifully waiting at her side? Who can say, it’s just one of many mysteries at the heart of Ujicha’s beguiling retro sci-fi/horror Buddhist conspiracy thriller animated in his now trademark and equally retro “gekimation” style. 

Taking place in the director’s native Kyoto, the action opens with a strange, alien-like creature breaking into a temple and firing some kind of laser from a phallic device on his belt directly into the head of a colossal Buddha statue. The couple who look after the family-run temple, mindful of their duty to protect their ancestral legacy, are perturbed and politely ask the creature to stop but are later caught in the crossfire when the statue suddenly disappears leaving only their bottom halves behind. Cue the arrival of teenage daughter Beniko (Yuka Iguchi) in her school uniform who is quickly taken in by weird old monk Enju (Minori Terada) who explains that he’s an old friend of her parents and that the theft of the statue is part of a spate of similar heists across the Kyoto area perpetrated by a crazed cult who are apparently intent on “rescuing” neglected Buddha statues from “disrespectful” modern people. Staying with him in his temple, however, Beniko starts to have doubts especially after encountering the strange-looking children who run wild in the grounds Enju claims are “disadvantaged” kids he’s taken in after they were abandoned by their parents because of their odd appearances, not to mention an encounter with Enju’s sculptor grandson Enji (Ryuki Kitaoka) who suddenly frees a small dog apparently trapped inside the uchiguri cavity of an Buddhist statue after being caught in the range of the “Matter Transference Device” used by the thieves to teleport the neglected icons to “safety”. 

A weird tale of spiritual fusion, The Burning Buddha Man’s villains have apparently forgotten all their Buddhist teachings and become “addicted” to melding with statues in order to harness their power and become all powerful beings. Beniko, however, is still pure of heart and is not after revenge for what happened to her parents but to save the wrongdoers by making them “reform”. To do so, however, she’ll have to undergo an apparently reversible transformation herself as well as journeying to another world where, she discovers, her elderly catatonic grandmother (Chisako Hara) has apparently been in training for just such an eventuality for the last couple of decades. “It’s easy just to kill them” Beniko later explains, “but no one can get out from their suffering that way” apparently hoping to undo some of the pain in the world caused by this strange new technology through an act of healing. 

As showcased in the live action intro/extro sequences in which the young woman painstakingly assembles and then disassembles her world, pausing briefly to look admiringly at a figure perhaps representing herself before handing it back to her gloved butler for safekeeping, Burning Buddha Man’s aesthetics consist of a series of beautifully painted backdrops and paper cut out puppets of its strange cast of characters which include a gang of Giger-esque biomechanical former Buddhist monks rendered monstrous by their experiments in spiritual enhancement. Amping up the body horror quotient, real liquid often oozes from their mouths made sickening in its viscosity while blood later fills the screen. Yet for all that there’s a strangely childlike glee in the macabre grimness as the wholesome heroine and her pure-hearted friends push back against the corruptions of hyper-religiosity and spiritual madness hoping to restore rather than destroy but ultimately finding themselves forging a purifying hellscape that ends only in fire (and a peculiar kind of sludge making its way towards the drain of all humanity). Deeply strange yet strangely charming Ujicha’s Buddhist body horror conspiracy thriller is undeniably dark but also imbued with a sense of ironic playfulness in its truly bizarre cosmology.


The Burning Buddha Man is available on blu-ray in the UK courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes Ujicha’s second feature Violence Voyager as well as a selection of shorts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Masayuki Suo, 2019)

Famously, silent cinema was never really “silent” in Japan. As the quote from director Hiroshi Inagaki which appears after the end credits of Masayuki Suo’s ode to the early days of the movies Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Katsuben!) reminds us, audiences always had the benshi to guide them. These narrators of film were often more of a draw than the pictures themselves, cinemagoers keener to see their favourite storyteller perform than the story up on screen. A relic of a bygone age, the benshi has often been blamed for holding Japanese cinema back as studios continued to craft their films around audience appetites for live performance, but as we’ll see even the benshi themselves could sense their obsolescence lingering on the horizon. 

Beginning in 1915, the film opens with a retro mockup of a Toei logo from the silent era though the studio was only founded in 1938 and therefore produced only sound movies. Shot as a silent picture the opening sequence follows a gang of kids as they make their way towards an active film set where a classic jidaigeki is in production, confused on passing what appears to be a woman peeing standing up against a tree, a reminder that early cinema was largely inspired by kabuki and therefore featured male actors playing female roles. This is a disappointment to young Umeko, the daughter of an itinerant sex worker, who dreams of becoming an actress. Shuntaro, a little boy obsessed with the movies and dreaming of becoming a benshi like his idol the marquee draw Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), reassures her that plenty of films from other countries feature female actors as the pair bond sneaking into the local picture house together but as in any good melodrama they are separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited 10 years later when neither of them is quite living their best life. 

While Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) is a struggling actress trying to make it in motion pictures, Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is living as a “fake benshi” impersonating Yamaoka and others for clueless provincial audiences while the gang he’s running with rob local houses using the movies as a cover. Escaping with some of the loot, he rebrands himself as “Kunisada” after a favourite character from the silver screen and fetches up in his old stomping ground, getting a backstage job at the troubled picture house which finds itself at the mercy of the new outfit in town, a purpose built modern cinema run by local yakuza Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his movie-loving modern gal daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue). Like the film itself, the town is at the nexus of changing times. The Aoki cinema is housed in a former kabuki theatre with the staff dressing in kimono even if Shuntaro and his divaish rival Mogi (Kengo Kora) don suits to talk the pictures. The palatial Tachibana meanwhile boasts modern seating and has the habit of poaching the Aoki’s staff partly because they pay more and partly because no one wants to work with Mogi who is, in his own way, an exemplification of the ways the benshi can interfere with cinematic development in that he forces the projectionist to undercrank the movies to ensure they follow the rhythm of his narration and not vice versa. 

The handsome Mogi is still pulling in the crowds, but the ageing Yamaoka has become a melancholy drunk now convinced that his own art is an act of destruction, actively unhelpful in becoming a barrier between the audience and the movies rather than a bridge. After all, cinema is a visual medium, it shouldn’t need “explaining” in words. He’s actively standing in the way, imposing his own narrative over someone else’s vision just as Shuntaro is a “fake” benshi in that he merely copies the routines of others, adopting a “fake” persona while hiding out in the movie house from the gang he ran away from and the movie-loving cop (Yutaka Takenouchi) who’s chasing them. Yamaoka may have a point, the days of the benshi are numbered though there were those who argued the advent of the talkies was also a regression, the advances of the silent era squandered on the spectacle of sound. Nevertheless, filled as it is with silent-era slapstick, silly farce, melodrama, and romance, Talking the Pictures is a warm and nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of cinema and the men and women who guided us through it. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Yasujiro Ozu, 1957)

Closely associated with the family drama, Yasujiro Ozu is perhaps the most socially conservative of golden age directors. Unlike Naruse or Mizoguchi, he cheerfully reinforces patriarchal social norms and foregrounds the paternal experience while upholding the primacy of the traditional family in a rapidly modernising society. In his later career he’d come to sympathise more strongly with the young, but 1957’s Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Tokyo Boshoku), perhaps his bleakest take on familial failure, is essentially a treatise on the legacy of corrupted motherhood and rebuke to growing post-war freedom in which a young woman is made to feel that her future is impossible because of maternal betrayal while her sister is forced back into an unhappy marriage to an abusive husband in order to avoid the same fate befalling her own daughter. 

Unlike most Ozu families, the Sugiyamas do not seem to be particularly happy in each other’s company, living in superficial politeness rather than true intimacy. This may partly be because the sisters had a brother who passed away young in a mountain climbing accident, but it also seems that Mr. Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu), though kind and polite, is a typically authoritarian, distant father. Oldest daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) has returned home declaring herself unable to go on living with her professor husband Numata (Kinzo Shin) who, she says, has become increasingly erratic, taking out his petty professional disappointment on their small daughter Michiko whom he seems to resent. Younger sister Akiko (Ineko Arima) meanwhile is sullen and introverted. Unmarried, she lives at home and is studying to become a stenographer. 

As we later discover, the girls’ mother Kikuko (Isuzu Yamada) left the family during the war after falling in love with the junior officer Mr. Sugiyama enlisted to look in on the family while he was away in Seoul. Akiko was only three when their mother left and barely remembers her. Takako attributes her wayward behaviour to “loneliness”, that she has been forever corrupted through never knowing a mother’s love. Mr. Sugiyama admits he tried his best, but both agree that children need two parents and no matter how much he wants to a father cannot make up a mother’s share. 

This atmosphere of alienation is perhaps why Akiko feels as if she has no one to turn to in her own moment of maternal crisis. She has become pregnant by her college student boyfriend who has been avoiding her and even has the audacity to ask if the baby’s his when Akiko finally manages to pin him down. Trying to borrow money for an abortion, Akiko visits her aunt who declines to give it to her without knowing why, eventually turning to a family friend who apparently provides no questions asked. The woman at the clinic assumes she is a bar girl, as does a policeman who eventually “arrests” her for loitering in a sleazy cafe where her boyfriend has obviously stood her up which is quite openly being used as a place for men to pick up call girls. All of this contributes to Akiko’s increasing sense of shame and worthlessness. She sees herself as a fallen woman, convinced that she is all her mother’s child contaminated by her “bad blood” which makes a conventionally successful life as an ordinary wife and mother an impossibility. 

Akiko’s aunt wants to set her up with arranged marriage matches, but Akiko declares she has no intention of marrying or having children. Without knowing anything of Akiko’s circumstances, Takako assumes this is because of her obviously unhappy marriage, trying to convince her sister that there are plenty of happy couples she is merely unlucky. Mr. Sugiyama attempts to talk to his son-in-law but finds him strange and indifferent, offering treatises on familial love while implying that he has little of it. He regrets pressuring Takako to marry him when he knew that she preferred someone else while Takako is once again haunted by the spectre of corrupted maternity in her mother’s decision to leave the family for emotional fulfilment and is fearful of making the same mistake creating another troubled daughter just like Akiko in denying her a father’s love (which seems a moot point given that Numata does not care for the child). 

Neither woman is able to escape paying for their mother’s transgression. Akiko is punished firstly for embracing her sexuality and secondly for the rejection of motherhood in choosing to have an abortion. Alone and humiliated by her unreliable boyfriend, she is denied the opportunity to start over, while Takako meditates on female failure and believes that her only option is to live in misery with a cruel and narcissistic husband because that is the “proper” thing to do and the only way to bring her daughter up “right”. The absent mother, meanwhile, is denied reconciliation and left only with the painful separation from her daughter who finally rejects her in order to reclaim the image of the good wife and mother by returning to her unhappy home. Bleak as it is, all of this is presented as a kind of happy ending in that it restores the idea of the traditional family, increasingly threatened by post-war modernity, to its original primacy. We leave with Mr. Sugiyama rehiring his maid and heading cheerfully back to the male world of work, making the fresh start that his daughters have been so cruelly denied.  


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

My Little Monster (となりの怪物くん, Sho Tsukikawa, 2018)

A wilfully self-contained high school girl falls for a big-hearted classmate, but struggles to understand that they are in essence fighting different battles in their parallel quests for acceptance. Adapted from the hit shojo manga by Robico, Sho Tsukikawa’s My Little Monster (となりの怪物くん, Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun) is in many ways a typical high school rom-com in which a repressed young woman begins to deal with her abandonment issues essentially by mothering a displaced young man whose “problematic” big-heartedness sees him regarded as a “monster” by a still conservative society. 

Opening with a flashback presumably set in the present day, an older Shizuku (Tao Tsuchiya) now wearing a lawyer’s pin listens wistfully to Kana Nishino’s 2010 hit Best Friend and reflects on a time when all she cared about was studying, rejecting all human connection. Until that is she met the titular “monster” Haru (Masaki Suda) and suddenly found herself surrounded by people. Haru, as we discover, got into a fight on the first day of school and never actually showed up for classes. Because Shizuku should have been his desk neighbour, the panicked teacher asks her to take the handouts etc to his home in the hope he’ll one day return. Shizuku has no interest in doing as the teacher has tasked her but fulfils her duty, only to unexpectedly encounter Haru who then decides they must be “friends” based on a primary school understanding that friends take each other notes and homework when one of them is sick. 

It turns out that Haru hasn’t been coming to school because it bothers him that everyone finds him scary because of his lack of impulse control. He desperately wants to make friends and thinks he has some in a trio of local boys but Shizuku can see right away that they are essentially bullying him for money and tries to explain that “real” friends don’t sponge off each other. Perhaps because of his innate kindness, Haru is completely guileless and sees the best in everyone unable to understand when he’s being taken advantage of. Despite herself, Shizuku begins to feel protective assuring Haru that he will one day be surrounded by people who understand him unwittingly echoing the words of his late aunt who was the only other person who’d ever rooted for him. Straightforward as ever, Haru immediately confesses his love and so their awkward high school romance begins. 

Shizuku, however, is still largely uninterested in love. She has devoted herself to studying and only cares about coming top in the school exams. As we discover this is less because of academic ambition than practical application. She studies hard and immediately sees results. It’s the sure thing, something which is completely within her own control, unlike other people’s feelings which are necessarily messy and unpredictable. There is however an uncomfortable conservatism in the centring of Shizuku’s trauma solely in the fact that her mother works outside the home and is therefore not present in her life in the way that mothers are expected to be in a patriarchal society while her family set up is regarded as unusual in that her father, having failed several times in business, is a househusband. 

Meanwhile, she remains fairly blinkered to Haru’s parallel familial disconnection in that he has apparently been disowned by his authoritarian father for his free-spirited ways. Taken to a birthday party held for Haru’s older brother Yuzan (Yuki Furukawa), Shizuku begins to realise there is a large class difference between them but reacts badly, confused that he is rejecting the very things she’s striving for in refusing to reconnect with his father, ignoring the fact that he has separated from him because he is essentially abusive. He refuses to let Haru be Haru, trying to straight-jacket him into conventionality by forcing him to clamp down on his noisy impulsivity, something which he seems unable to do even if he wanted to. Shizuku fails to realise the hurt she deals him in refusing to understand his reluctance, unable to see that it amounts to a rejection from the one person he assumed had completely accepted him. 

What she discovers is that you won’t always be forgiven for momentary thoughtlessness and in the end you have to let people be what they are, which throws into light the problematic “monster” of the title which is how Haru is often seen by others, a quality brought to vivid life in Suda’s manic performance. A rival suitor, Yamaken (Yuki Yamada), selling himself as the slow and steady candidate perhaps more suited to Shizuku in being more like herself, describes their relationship as a “make-believe friendship” rather than a real romance, something she has to accept may have a grain of truth in it in her inability to fully understand the person she claims to love, but nevertheless comes to the conclusion that while Yamaken may make her feel at ease in herself it’s the stressful stimulation with the intense yet passionate Haru that she truly craves. That aside, their romance is a fairly cool affair and its resolution too contrived to have any kind of impact which is perhaps why Tsukikawa resorts to anime-style imagery including a flying leap of love accompanied by bright sunshine flooding in from behind. Nevertheless, in true shojo fashion My Little Monster celebrates not only its heroine’s gradual path towards an embrace of the chaos of being alive, but also the power of friendship and acceptance as the gang find a place to belong in each other and with it a more concrete sense of self.


Singapore release trailer (English/Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Kana Nishino – Best Friend

Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

1951’s Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Ginza Kesho) is often said to mark a kind of rebirth in the career of director Mikio Naruse whose output in the 1940s was perhaps unfairly denigrated not least by Naruse himself. As in much of his golden age work and in anticipation of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza’s heroine is a resilient bar hostess whose brief hopes of escape through romance are doomed to failure, but it’s also, like the slightly later Tokyo Profile (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1953) and Tales of Ginza (Yuzo Kawashima, 1955) an ode to the upscale district and all the defeated hopes of its illusionary glitz and glamour. 

Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), the heroine, is a single-mother approaching middle age and working as a hostess in a Ginza bar. Her landlady who runs a nagauta school on the ground floor and constantly complains about her feckless though goodnatured unemployed husband seems to think she could do better, pointing out that she is an educated woman who seems slightly out of place in the rundown backstreets of this otherwise aspirational area. Even for educated women, however, there may not be many other opportunities in the straitened and socially conservative post-war economy especially for those without connections, and Yukiko also needs to provide for her young son Haruo (Yoshihiro Nishikubo), born out of wedlock after an affair with a customer with whom she had fallen in love but abandoned her when she became pregnant. 

As a slightly older woman who has been working at the Bel Ami bar for many years, seemingly from war to occupation, Yukiko is both looked up to by the younger women and resented as a stern older sister who does not approve of the way some of them ply their trade. She’s taken one, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), who often babysits for her, under her wing, cautioning her against making the same mistakes that she once made in taking the kinds of men that come into the bar at their word. “Men are all animals” she warns her, supporting her desire not to give in to her parents’ attempts to arrange for her not a marriage but a “position” as a mistress. Unlike Yukiko, Kyoko still has hope of leaving the Ginza bar world behind to become a respectable wife even if those hopes are fading with the relative unlikelihood of finding a “good” man with a salary good enough to support a wife who is not already married and can be understanding of her bar girl past. 

The bar world may be on the fringes of the sex trade, but the bar girls are not necessarily sex workers even if some of the younger women are clearly engaging in the kinds of casual sex work of which Yukiko clearly disapproves even while not against consensual romantic liaisons. For her own part, she finds herself in the awkward situation of a continuing non-relationship with a failed businessman, Fujimura (Masao Mishima), who was fairly wealthy during the war but apparently no longer. Yukiko attributes this to him being in someway too good to prosper, though having money in the war which disappeared afterwards perhaps implies the opposite. She does not love him and seems to find his presence a little irritating, but feels indebted because he stood by her when she was pregnant and alone. In any case, he has a wife (whom he apparently resents) and children (whom he claims to adore) and so she feels at best conflicted, especially as the tables have turned and it’s him now constantly asking her for money. Money is not something Yukiko has a lot of, but she isn’t mean and often consents to losing it with a resigned shrug as she does by taking on Kyoko’s bar debt after a customer runs out on the bill and then tricks Yukiko into buying more drinks while waiting for a “friend” to arrive. 

Men, it seems, will always be predatory and unreliable. On hearing from her boss and longtime friend that the bar is in trouble and may have to close, Yukiko ends up acting on an introduction from an acquaintance, Shizue (Ranko Hanai), to meet a “stingy” industrialist who had expressed an interest in her. Shizue has escaped the bar world by becoming a wealthy man’s mistress and with it has claimed a kind of independence. He splits his time between Tokyo and Osaka, leaving her free to do whatever she likes (including meeting other men) for most of her time with none of the strings that go with being a wife. Yukiko is perhaps too “pure” for that kind of arrangement, hinting at the Ginza paradox that only those who learn to accept a certain level of complicity can ever truly be happy there. She agrees to meet Kanno (Eijiro Tono), the businessman, in order to ask him to “invest” in the bar, suggesting they talk things over in a coffeeshop while he tries to pull her into various shady establishments before pushing her into a warehouse and attempting to rape her to get his money’s worth. Yukiko escapes and resolves not to see him again. After all, the point of getting the money to keep the bar open was precisely to avoid having to make arrangements with men like Kanno. 

It’s Shizue, however, who later gives her a last shot at escape when she introduces her to her “true love”, Ishikawa (Yuji Hori), making a brief trip into the city. Shizue can’t entertain him herself because her patron is in town and so entrusts him to Yukiko with the strict instruction not to try it on. Despite herself, however, Yukiko becomes fond of him, reassuming something of a past persona in engaging in intellectual conversation, once again an educated, middle-class woman rather than a bar hostess used to telling men what they want to hear. She has been warned, however, that Ishikawa hates anything “low culture” which is why Shizue has told him they are both war widows and discovers that he has a strong dislike for Ginza which sees him longing for the wholesome charms of home. 

The crisis occurs when Yukiko has to break a promise to Haruo to take him to the zoo in order to look after Ishikawa, causing him to go temporarily missing when he wanders off on his own roaming all over the endless construction site of the contemporary city standing in for the makeshift, in-progress reconstruction of the post-war society. She perhaps feels she’s being punished for choosing to disappoint her son in order to pursue a dream of romantic escape she might also feel is somehow undeserved, but pays in quite a different way after accidentally setting Ishikawa up with Kyoko whom she introduced as her “sister”. Originally angry and resentful, proclaiming herself disappointed with Kyoko in assuming she is the same as the other young women at the bar, Yukiko’s good nature eventually wins out as she realises that Kyoko and Ishikawa seem to have fallen in love in a single night. She has told him everything, and he apparently wants to marry her anyway. Kyoko, at least, is getting out, and Yukiko can be happy about that while privately internalising defeat. Acknowledging that Haruo is the only one on whom she can depend, she resolves to live on as a mother only, trapped in the deceptive diminishing returns of a Ginza bar life even while knowing it has increasingly little place for her.  


Tokyo Dragon Chef (Tokyoドラゴン飯店, Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2020)

Yoshihiro Nishimura began his career designing makeup and special effects for other directors working in the genre he would later headline, low budget splatter/exploitation primarily produced for the export market. With such legendary titles as Tokyo Gore Police, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, and Helldriver under his belt Nishimura’s reputation for surreal violence is already assured, but Tokyo Dragon Chef (Tokyoドラゴン飯店, Tokyo Dragon Hanten) sees him heading in a different, perhaps unexpected direction with a “family friendly” (depending on your family) musical tale of changing times, intergenerational warfare, and the wholesome soul of ramen. 

Veteran yakuza Tatsu (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi) has just come out of prison but emerges into a world very different than he left it. His old comrade Ryu (Yasukaze Motomiya) now peddles Nata de Coco out of a tiny van, explaining that a mysterious invader with a third eye, Gizumo (Yutaro), apparently beheaded not only their gang boss but several others in the area effectively killing off the local yakuza scene. Remembering that Tatsu had a reputation as top a cook, a skill he apparently honed inside, Ryu suggests permanently retiring from the life to open a ramen bar. Meanwhile, two rival yakuza, Kazu (Kazuyoshi Ozawa) and Jin (Hitoshi Ozawa), have had exactly the same idea, setting up a van virtually outside and positioning themselves the competition by serving truly ginormous portions literally pushing quantity over quality.  

The truth is that the yakuza as an organisation has entered its twilight period, these older, Showa-style gangsters no longer have much of a place in the modern world hence why they need to find alternative ways of living. This is a fact brought home to them by the main villain who has a bizarre habit of singing Merry Christmas and is something like a youth elitist who resents the privileged status of the middle-aged and older in Japan’s ageing society, insisting that “Japan can’t survive with only old people like you” and that they should step aside to allow the young to rule. His villainy is well and truly signalled by his allegiance to fancy steak dinners which he characterises as high class cuisine suitable for righteous citizens like himself, rejecting the earthy, wholesome charms of the iconic shomin soul food that is ramen. 

The former yakuza, meanwhile, forced to work together, are an unexpected source of egalitarian solidarity. Not only do they eventually add an Okinawan soothsayer (Michi), holding a bright red crystal ball and dressed in traditional Ryukyu fashion while singing in a typical island style, to their ranks but their chief supporter closes all his YouTube videos with “kamsamnida”. Old style gangsters, they intensely resent that Gizumo has taken the battle to the streets in targeting those outside the life such as the Chinese owner of another local ramen bar and the father of their biggest fan, ramen-obsessed high school girl Kokoro (Rinne Yoshida). Yet there is something a little subversive in the irony of these multicultural nods, Kazu and Jin’s rival mascot character Mimi (Saiko Yatsuhashi), a YouTube star famous for eating giant portions who intensely resents being called an “alien”, breaking into cod Korean while the Chinese ramen guy is dressed in the full “Chinaman” outfit complete with fake pigtail. 

Nevertheless, it’s the wholesome charms of authentic ramen which eventually bring people together as the gang prepare to face off against Gizumo who apparently wants to turn the land into some kind of soulless hotel state. The final fight in which the former goons arm themselves only with ramen utensils and noren poles is also not without its share of irony as they turn Gizumo’s weird iconography back against him in despatching his henchmen who are each wearing helmets in the shape of an eyeball which would it seems be something of a handicap in hand-to hand combat even if your opponents were not fearsome gangsters, determined high school girls with vengeance on their minds, “alien” mascots, and spiritualists armed with hazardous balls. A fantastically silly affair, Tokyo Dragon Chef isn’t taking itself too seriously but has wholesome charms of its own in a tale of reformed yakuza, rebirthed communities, and the healing power of ramen as a universal unifier pushing back against snooty, youthful elitism in an ageing society.


Tokyo Dragon Chef is released on DVD & VOD on 25th January courtesy of Terracotta Distribution.

UK Release trailer (English subtitles)

The Ghost of Kasane (怪談かさねが渕, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1957)

“Fear the hatred of the dead!” a blameless slain wife exclaims after being cruelly cut down by her deluded husband in Nobuo Nakagawa’s tale of karmic vengeance, The Ghost of Kasane (怪談かさねが渕, Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi). Then again, though cleaving close to the standard formulas of the ghost movie not to mention the famous tale, these fatalistic, generationally twinned tales of ghostly revenge have an oddly imprecise quality in which it is the innocent who are eventually made to suffer, caught between concentric circles of guilt and retribution. 

The tale opens in 1773 with a blind masseur/money lender, Soetsu (Yoji Misaki), leaving his home on a snowy day hoping to catch venal samurai Shinzaemon (Akira Nakamura) at home. Shinzaemon and his wife are hospitable, but a conflict soon breaks out during which Shinzaemon accuses the old man of disrespecting him as a samurai and generally getting above himself as a mere member of the peasant class. All Soetsu has done is politely ask for the money he’s owed while making it clear that Shinzaemon’s attempts to give him the run around are wearing thin, but he ends up with a nasty gash on his face after the enraged samurai throws a pot at him. Driven into a frenzy by this unwelcome class-based anxiety, Shinzaemon slashes Soetsu with his sword and kills him, instructing a servant to stuff his body in a case and dump it in Kasane swamp. Soetsu, however, does not rest easy, returning to taunt him, eventually causing him to murder his wife by mistake and thereafter drawing him to his death by drowning in the very swamp where he dumped the body. 

20 years later in Edo, Soetsu’s daughter Rui (Katsuko Wakasugi) has become a successful shamisen teacher, while Shinkichi (Takashi Wada), the orphaned son of Shinzaemon, was taken in by a merchant family who continue to treat him as a poor relation. While having internalised a servant mentality that ironically inverts his father’s anxiety in his samurai status, Shinkichi has fallen in love with the daughter of the house, Hisa (Noriko Kitazawa), who is about to be betrothed against her will to the horrible son of local merchants, Seitaro (Shuji Kawabe). Rui, meanwhile, an older unmarried woman, is desperate to fend off the violent attentions of rough ronin Omura (Tetsuro Tanba), eventually convincing herself she is in love with the mild-mannered Shinkichi who might well think a rebound relationship is a good idea if it clears the way for Hisa’s inevitable marriage. 

Oddly enough and somewhat incomprehensibly, it’s Rui who becomes the target of her father’s curse, perhaps for her unwitting affection for the son of the man who killed him though it seems insufferably cruel that a father would involve his own child, not to mention the blameless infant of his murderer, in his bid for vengeance from beyond the grave. For his part, Shinkichi pays a heavy price for his unmanly diffidence, brave enough neither to say no to Rui or to run away with Hisa, simply passive if kind in the face of mounting impossibilities. Yet as much as it’s her father’s resentment that causes her downfall, struck by the pluck from the shamisen which scars her face to mirror his, she adds her own share in the wrath of a woman scorned dragging Shinkichi towards the lake for his inability to let go of his love for Hisa.

Old Soetsu might have a right to be vengeful, but his curse has collateral damage, enacted on women in order to target men as in Shinzaemon’s unwitting murder of his wife and Shinkichi’s accidental violence against Hisa at the instigation of Rui. Only the two old servants are left behind to make peace and tell the story, united by their respective positions rather than divided by their conflicting affiliations. Studio-bound yet filled with a series of supernatural tricks, Nakagawa’s atmospheric adaptation of the classic tale once again features the bug-eyed deformity of the scorned female ghost as Rui’s initial injury eventually balloons as her “sickness” intensifies, later finding time to turn her rage on Omura who was not, it has to be said, on the original list of victims being simply an embodiment of the cruelty of the age. Nakagawa ends, however, not with darkness but with light, freeing the souls of the troubled lovers from the gloom of earthly torment in urging them to leave their hatred behind and return to Buddha in eternal peace. 


Cats Don’t Come When You Call (猫なんかよんでもこない。, Toru Yamamoto, 2016)

How do you keep going after all your dreams have died? For the hero of manga adaptation Cats Don’t Come When You Call (猫なんかよんでもこない。, Neko Nanka Yondemo Konai.), a pair of adorable kittens eventually point the way towards a more positive future. After all, it’s easier to convince yourself to look after something else than it is to look after yourself. As the title suggests, however, cats like the future can be elusive and confusing, both needy and indifferent. In caring for them you’ll inevitably make mistakes, but those mistakes will perhaps teach you something about the business of being alive. 

The hero, Mitsuo (Shunsuke Kazama), is a dog person, which is why he walks on by when he sees a cardboard box with two abandoned kittens inside by the railway line. An aspiring boxer, he’s moved in with his mangaka brother (Takeshi Tsuruno) and given up all his part-time jobs in the hope of winning enough fights to achieve A-rank status and get a license to turn pro. He’s quite annoyed, therefore, to discover that his brother decided to adopt the cats, naming them Tiny and Blackie, and is expecting him to look after them seeing as he’s not contributing in any other way. 

Despite his original animosity (he claims to hate cats because of their “malicious, warped personalities”), Mitsuo ends up taking to the kittens who quickly take to him, though mostly because he is providing them food and warmth. He even starts to think that these must be “special”, “genius” cats, especially after he wins his big fight and is all set to turn pro believing that the cats are his good luck charm. But all at once his dreams crumble. He receives an eye injury that requires surgery and is advised not to box again in case he goes blind. Feeling sorry for him, his brother keeps giving him money to get out of the house, something which makes Mitsuo feel loved and appreciated. Only later does he realise that he had an ulterior motive when his brother announces he’s decided to get married and will be moving back to the country. “You’re good at taking care of others” he tells him, dropping the bombshell he’s leaving the cats behind too. 

It’s tempting to believe that Mitsuo’s brother picked the cats up with just this purpose in mind, to give Mitsuo another outlet outside of boxing that encouraged him to nurture a more caring side that wasn’t all about solitary, singleminded athletic pursuit. For a man in his early 20s who’s thrown everything at his boxing dream, Mitsuo has few life skills and is perhaps not particularly used to taking care of himself even if he lived alone before surviving on part-time jobs alongside training. He quickly realises that the money his brother left won’t last long, and not only that he can’t really afford to be a cat dad on his meagre savings. An attempt to cut costs by buying cheaper cat food (which he at some points shares) backfires when the offended felines decide to stage a protest by temporarily leaving home. Cats don’t come when you call after all, and Mitsuo wonders if there’s anything more in their decision to stay with him than the fact he feeds them. 

For all that, however, they exemplify the contradictory qualities of his personality. The male cat, Blackie, is timid and shy, while his sister Tiny is outgoing and adventurous, quickly joining a local cat gang and taking up with its boss. Fuelled by a vicarious toxic masculinity, Mitsuo becomes preoccupied with Blackie’s lack of manly energy, obsessed with him becoming the boss of the local cats. A young woman in the park who found the pair after they ran away advises Mitsuo to get the cats spayed and neutered, something he probably should have thought about earlier but doesn’t really have the money for. Worried about Tiny’s “promiscuity”, he eventually decides she should have the surgery but later worries he did the wrong thing when the neighbourhood cats shun her and she becomes a depressed shut-in. Conversely he decides against Blackie getting the snip, glad to discover him going out on the prowl and challenging the local toms even when he is seriously injured in a fight. Projecting his own boxing struggles and the desire to be a champion onto his cat, Mitsuo decides his responsibility as a cat dad is to support from the sidelines as Blackie assumes his masculinity by becoming top cat. 

Because of his underdog boxer past, Mitsuo doesn’t stop to worry that it’s not good his cat keeps getting hurt, believing all these scars are badges of manliness especially after Ume (Mayu Matsuoka), the woman from the park, explains that the male cats fight over the females which is why he should have had him neutered. She also explains that Blackie’s delivering him dead lizards probably isn’t a thank you for not giving him the snip, but a minor insult in implying he thinks he’s a bit helpless and doesn’t know how to hunt. Spurred on by Blackie’s contempt he decides to forge ahead in the new frontier of manga, no longer content with his steady life working part-time in a school kitchen, to prove that he too is a “champion” even if not in the ring. Only too late does he realise he may have let Blackie down in not properly protecting him in projecting his own toxic masculinity onto his cat, and that he may have let himself down too with his all encompassing need to be the champion when maybe it’s better to just enjoy life while doing your best. Nevertheless as Ume points out, cats choose their carers and if they aren’t happy they leave. It’s better to look back on all the happy times you’ve spent together and take note of everything they’ve taught you. Cats don’t come when you call, but they come when you need them, and, as Mitsuo discovers, being needed by them when everything else seems to have rejected you might just be the push you need to finally start taking care of yourself.


Hong Kong release trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

This is My Place – The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2021

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme is back for 2021 in a brand new online edition with another handpicked selection of recent Japanese cinema hits for you to enjoy safely in the comfort of your own home, streaming across the UK 19th February to 10th March.

Shape of Red

An unfulfilled housewife’s (Kaho) personal desire is reawakened when she runs into an old lover (Satoshi Tsumabuki) in Yukiko Mishima’s steamy adaptation of the Rio Shimamoto novel. Review.

A Girl Missing

Mariko Tsutsui stars as a veteran home care nurse whose life falls apart she after is implicated in the kidnapping of her employer’s youngest daughter in Koji Fukada’s emotional drama. Review.

Extro

In a sometimes surreal mockmentary, Naoki Murahashi lampoons the Japanese film industry but has nothing but warmth and admiration for its unsung heroes, the extras. Review.

His

Shun has been living quietly in the country keeping his sexuality a secret but is surprised one day to discover his old over from his university days who had broken up with him in the belief that there could be no future for their relationship standing on his doorstep with his six-year-old daughter.

Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie

In a loose adaptation of an unfinished novel by Osamu Dazai, Yo Oizumi stars as a lecherous magazine editor who has realised that having so many girlfriends is a definite drain on his resources but being too cowardly to break up with them himself has enlisted the help of the brassy Kinuko (Eiko Koike) to pose as his wife.

Haruka’s Pottery

(c)2019 "Haruka's Pottery" Film Partners

An aimless young woman finds a purpose in pottery in Naruhito Suetsugu’s loving ode to the traditional craft of Bizen ware. Review.

Little Miss Period

An anthropomorphised period in the form of a giant fuzzy pink monster arrives monthly to wreak havoc on women’s lives but is also a source of warmth and solidarity in Shunsuke Shinada’s delightfully whimsical comedy. Review.

Miyamoto

A mild-mannered salaryman embarks on a pugilistic quest to assert his manhood in a discomfortingly cheerful romantic drama from Tetsuya Mariko (Destruction Babies). Review.

One Night

Adult children are forced to face the legacy of trauma and abuse when their mother returns after 15 years of exile in Kazuya Shiraishi’s raw family drama. Review.

Our 30-Minute Sessions

A mild-mannered student discovers a mysterious cassette tape which enables a recently deceased musician to possess his body for 30 minutes at a time in this college drama from Tokyo Ghoul’s Kentaro Hagiwara.

Hello World

A young man living in the Kyoto of 2027 is visited by his future self who enlists him to save the life of his soon-to-be girlfriend who will otherwise be struck by lightning at an upcoming fireworks festival in this sci-fi romance anime from Tomohiko Ito (Erased, Sword Art Online, Silver Spoon). 

Labyrinth of Cinema

A poetic advocation of the transformative power of art, Obayashi’s final film takes a surrealist odyssey through the history of warfare as three youngsters chase the image of Japan in the labyrinths of cinema. Review.

Mrs Noisy

A self-involved writer learns the error of her ways when a vendetta with a noisy neighbour becomes an online viral phenomenon in Chihiro Amano’s empathetic plea for a little more peace and understanding. Review.

Soiree

An aspiring actor/con man bonds with a traumatised young woman working at a care home and ends up on the run with her after they commit an accidental crime in Bunji Sotoyama’s sensitive drama.

A Beloved Wife

An unsuccessful screenwriter is henpecked by his understandably irate sake-guzzling wife in this autobiographical take on a toxic marriage from 100 Yen Love screenwriter Shin Adachi. Review.

Me & My Brother’s Mistress

Filled with adolescent confusion a teenage girl begins to figure out what she wants out of life while conspiring with her brother’s mistress to wreck his impending wedding in Sho Suzuki & Takashi Haga’s coming-of-age comedy. Review.

Samurai Shifters

A nerdy librarian (Gen Hoshino) is forced to take on the poison chalice of taking charge when his clan is unfairly ordered to move domains in Isshin Inudo’s egalitarian samurai dramedy. Review.

Not Quite Dead Yet

A resentful young woman comes to understand her awkward scientist dad only after he becomes temporarily deceased in Shinji Hamasaki’s delightfully zany comedy. Review.


This year’s Touring Film Programme will take place online streaming for free in the UK from 19th February to 10th March. Full details for all the films are available on the official Touring Film Programme website with streaming dates and ticketing information to be announced 22nd January. You can also keep up to date with all the year round events organised by Japan Foundation London via their main siteFacebook page, and Twitter account.

Sasuke and His Comedians (真田風雲録, Tai Kato, 1963)

Criminally unknown in the Anglophone world, where Tai Kato is remembered at all it’s for his contribution to Toei’s ninkyo eiga series though his best known piece is likely to be post-war take on High Noon made at Shochiku, By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him in which a jaded doctor finds himself caught in the middle of rising tensions between local Japanese gangsters and Zainichi Koreans. Kato’s distinctive visual style shooting from extreme low angles with a preference for long takes, closeups and deep focus already make him an unusual presence in the Toei roster, but there can be few more unusual entries in the studio’s back catalogue than the wilfully anarchic Sasuke and his Comedians (真田風雲録, Sanada Fuunroku), a bizarre mix of musical comedy, historical chanbara, and ninja movie, loosely satirising the present day student movement and the limits revolutionary idealism. 

An opening crawl introduces us to the scene at Sekigahara, a legendary battle of 1600 that brought an end to Japan’s warring states period and ushered in centuries of peace under the Tokugawa. Onscreen text explains that this is the story of the boys of who came of age in such a warlike era, giving way to a small gang of war orphans looting the bodies of fallen soldiers and later teaming up with a 19-year-old former samurai realising that the world as he knew it has come to an end. Soon the gang is introduced to the titular Sasuke who, as he explains, has special powers having been irradiated during a meteor strike as a baby. Recognising him as one of them, the war orphans offer to let Sasuke join their gang, but he declines because he’s convinced they’ll eventually reject him in fear of his awesome capabilities. Flashing forward 15 years, the kids are all grown up and the only girl, Okiri (Misako Watanabe), is still carrying a torch for Sasuke (Kinnosuke Nakamura) who dutifully reappears as the gang find themselves drawn into a revolutionary movement led by Sanada Yukimura (Minoru Chiaki) culminating in the Siege of Osaka in 1614. 

Don’t worry, this is not a history lesson though these are obviously extremely well known historical events the target audience will be well familiar with. A parallel is being drawn with the young people of early ‘60s Japan who too came of age in a warlike era and who are now also engaging in minor revolutionary thought most clearly expressed in the mass protests against the ANPO treaty in 1960 which in a sense failed because the treaty was indeed signed in spite of public opinion. Kato’s Sanada Yukimura is a slightly bumbling figure, first introduced banging his head on a low-hanging beam, wandering the land in search of talented ronin to join up with the Toyotomi rebellion against the already repressive Tokugawa regime. His underling sells this to the gang as they overlook a mile long parade of peasants headed to Osaka Castle as a means of bringing about a different future that they can’t quite define but imply will be less feudal and more egalitarian which is how they’ve caught the attention of so many exploited farmers. 

Of course, we all already know how the Siege of Osaka worked out (not particularly well for anyone other than the Tokugawa) so we know that this version of the 16th century better world did not come to pass the implication being that the 1960s one won’t either. The nobles are playing their own game, the Toyotomi trying to cut deals but ultimately being betrayed, while the gang fight bravely for their ideals naively believing in the possibility of victory. Sasuke, for his part, is a well known ahistorical figure popular in children’s literature and this post-modern adventure is in essence a kids’ serial aimed at a student audience, filled with humorous anachronisms and silliness while Kato actively mimics manga-style storytelling mixed with kabuki-esque effects. Boasting slightly higher production values than your average Toei programmer, location shooting gives way to obvious stage sets and fantastical set pieces of colour and light which are a far cry from the studio’s grittier fare with which Kato was most closely associated. That might be one reason that the studio was reportedly so unhappy with the film that it almost got Kato fired, but nevertheless its strange mix of musical satire and general craziness remain an enduring cult classic even in its ironic defeatism. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)