Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

Hanzo sword of Justice posterJapanese cinema was in a state of flux in the early ‘70s. Audiences were dwindling. Daiei, a once popular studio known for polished, lavish productions folded while Nikkatsu took the proactive measure to rebrand itself as a purveyor of soft core pornography. Toho did not go so far, but in its first foray into a new kind of jidaigeki, exploitation was the name of the game. Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Goyokiba) was released in 1972 – the same year as the beginning of another seminal series, Lone Wolf and Cub, which was produced by Hanzo’s star, former Zatoichi actor Shintaro Katsu, who also happens to the be brother of the franchise’s lead Tomisaburo Wakayama. Like Lone Wolf and Cub, Hanzo the Razor is based on a manga by Kazuo Koike whose work later provided inspiration for the Lady Snowblood films, and is directed by Lone Wolf and Cub’s Kenji Misumi. It is then of a certain pedigree but its intentions are different. More obviously comedic in its exaggerated, unpleasant sexualised “humour”, Hanzo the Razor is also a tale of the systemic corruption of the feudal order but one which casts its “hero” as a noble rapist.

Honest and steadfast police officer Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) usually skips the annual swearing in ceremony but this year he’s decided to make an appearance. He appears to have done so to make a personal stand by refusing to sign the policeman’s oath because he knows everyone else is breaking it. Officers may not be doing something so obvious as accepting cash for preferential treatment, but they gladly accept free drinks, gifts from lords, and entertainment in the local geisha houses. Hanzo’s actions, honest as they are, do not go down well with his fellow officers and if he can’t figure something out on time, Hanzo faces the possibility that his career in law enforcement may come to an abrupt end when contracts are up for renewal at the end of the year.

Whatever else Hanzo is, he doesn’t like bullies or those who abuse their authority and the trust placed in them by those they are supposed to be protecting. More than just saving his own skin, Hanzo is determined to unmask the hypocrisy and corruption of his boss, Onishi (Ko Nishimura), who he discovers shares a mistress with a notorious killer still on the run. Chasing this early thread, Hanzo walks straight into a chain of corruption which leads all the way to the top.

At his best, Hanzo is a steadfast champion of the people who remain oppressed by the corrupt and venal samurai order. Far from the a by the books operative, Hanzo is prepared to do what’s best over what’s right as in his decision to help a pair of siblings who are faced with a terrible dilemma trying to care for a terminally ill father. He’s also extremely well prepared, having installed a host of booby traps and hidden weapons caches throughout his home to deal with any conceivable threat. Dedicated in the extreme, Hanzo has also spent long hours testing his torture techniques on himself to find out the exact point of maximum efficiency for each of them.

Here’s where things get a little more unusual. As Hanzo climbs down from a bout of torture, a huge erection is visible inside his loincloth, prompting him to reveal that it’s pain which really turns him on. Later we see Hanzo doing some maintenance on his “tool” which involves placing it on a wooden board bearing a huge penis shaped indent, and hitting it repeatedly with a hammer before ramming it back and forth into a bag of uncooked rice. Each to their own, but Hanzo derives no pleasure from these acts – they are simply to make sure his “special interrogation method” runs at maximum efficiency. Which is to say, Hanzo’s preferred technique for getting women to talk amounts to rape but as each of them fall victim to his oversize member they cry out in pleasure, willing to spill the beans just to get Hanzo to finish what he started. Playing into the fallacy that all women long to be raped, Hanzo’s inappropriate misuse of his own authority is played for laughs – after all, the women eventually enjoy themselves so it’s no harm done, right? Troubling, but par for the course in the world of Hanzo.

This essential contradiction in Hanzo’s character – the last honourable man who nevertheless abuses his authority in the course his duty (though he apparently takes no personal pleasure in the act), is reduced to a roguish foible as he goes about the otherwise serious business of taking down corrupt authority and ensuring the law protects the people it’s supposed to protect. Odd as it is, Hanzo’s world is an strangely sexualised one in which sexually liberated women wield surprising amounts of power. Hanzo is assured one of his targets has “no lesbian tendencies” as other older court ladies are said to, while a gaggle of camp young men gossip about the size of Hanzo’s world beating penis. In an odd move, Misumi even includes a penis eye view of Hanzo’s techniques, superimposed over the face of a woman writhing in pleasure. Surreal and broadly humorous if offensive, Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice is very much of its time though strangely lighthearted in its obviously bizarre worldview.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ghost in the Shell (Andrew Osmond)

ghost in the Shell cover
Cover Illustration by Chris Malbon

Since its release in 1995, Ghost in the Shell has, ironically enough, taken on a life of its own becoming a long running animated franchise expanding far beyond the borders of the original manga by Appleseed’s Masamune Shirow. Anime expert Andrew Osmond attempts to chart this unexpected legacy by looking specifically at the 1995 film with comparisons to its sequel Innocence, “upgraded” 2.0 re-release, and recent American live action adaptation with brief asides to its TV anime incarnations Stand Alone Complex and Arise.

Beginning with the film’s transition from a niche interest release in its home country to an international breakout hit, Osmond attributes much of Ghost in the Shell’s ongoing (overseas) popularity to its association (rightly or wrongly) with The Matrix. The Matrix picks up on the classic, noir-tinged trope of the stealthy female hacker in the gun toting Trinity but, as Osmond points out, the similarities largely end with the poster. Trinity, unlike Kusanagi, is soon relegated to a traditionally female supporting role whereas Kusanagi remains very much in the lead as the commander of Section 9.

Osmond then goes on to question the film’s relationship to the landmark sci-fi noir Blade Runner as well as to the cyberpunk subgenre to which it is so often attributed. Ghost in the Shell, despite sharing many thematic and aesthetic similarities, according to Osmond, differs from Blade Runner in its positive female focus rather than the noir-tinged male world of Scott’s retro-futuristic city. Osmond’s central disagreement with the cyberpunk designation is that Ghost in the Shell lacks the punk attitude usually so essential to the genre. Gibson’s Neuromancer, the iconic cyberpunk text, was indeed influenced by mid-80s punk centring on a group of youthful outsiders, but Kusanagi and Section 9 are the authority against which cyberpunk youth is often trying to rebel. Osmond argues that Akira, despite its lack of cyberspace, fits the label better because of its much more recognisably “punk” milieu of motorcycle gangs and rebellious youth. Ghost’s association with the genre, Osmond states, has more to do with its later association with the Matrix (which may not even really be cyberpunk itself) rather than any essential part of its own nature.

What Ghost in the Shell does share with the world of cyberpunk, is its generally gloomy world view influenced by classic noir, hardboiled fiction. In keeping with this, Kusanagi, as argued above, is less a Trinity-style action heroine later sidelined in favour of a male hero than a solitary detective, caught, like Deckard, inside a web of existential questioning provoked by her own dualities.

As laid out in Chapter 3, Oshii’s first contribution to the Ghost in the Shell adaptation was to raise the tone – the “cute” Kusanagi of the manga with her oversize boobs and childlike appearance was redesigned in keeping with Oshii’s more serious intentions which replaced Shirow’s goofier approach with something altogether more mature and in that regard “naturalistic”. Osmond argues that this crucial decision perhaps alienated Japanese anime fans who preferred manga-esque aesthetics, but helped to gain traction overseas precisely because it lacked the hyperfeminine character designs which had come to define Japanese animation in even in other “arthouse” leaning anime such as Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. 

Osmond links this same sensibility back to the film’s methods of production which involved an unprecedented investment from a foreign distributor – Manga Entertainment, which had been founded in the wake of Akira and on the assumption that there must be other explosive, adult orientated animation waiting to be discovered. Finding out that animation featuring Akira’s lavish production values was not as plentiful as hoped (or at least, the ones in the realms of affordability), Manga decided to get into producing the content they needed themselves. Though Osmond is clear that Manga did not particularly influence the film’s production beyond creative controls including storyboard approval, poster design, and music requests, their desire was for another well produced, “mature” anime with an “auteur” aesthetic to follow in Akira’s footsteps (which it eventually did). On the film’s completion, Manga’s American CEO suggested that the film was more comprehensible to Western fans because of the already familiar science fiction tropes, even going so far as to label it “an intelligent, animated Blade Runner.”

Looking more deeply into the film’s creative process, Osmond profiles the contributions not only of the film’s director, Mamoru Oshii, but also the influence of his long term screenwriter Kazunori Ito and the later involvement of composer Kenji Kawai, before finding space to spotlight individual animators whose work often goes unappreciated, as well as reflecting on the role of the (poor quality) English dub on the film’s immediate reception. Following a comprehensive overview of the franchise’s creation which was, so it seems, born with the 1995 film, Osmond ends with a few words (and lengthy review) of the recent Hollywood live action adaptation which he views as an entertaining if less thoughtful entry into the franchise. Like its heroine, Ghost in the Shell lives on in many forms and the announcement of a new, CGI addition to the franchise directed by Kenji Kamiyama – director of the most successful spin-off Stand Alone Complex, and Space Captain Harlock’s Shinji Aramaki, proves the net is vast indeed.


Ghost in the Shell is available now published by Arrow Books.

Look Out, Officer! (師兄撞鬼, Lau Sze-yue, 1990)

look out officer BD 1The thing about classic Hong Kong comedies is, they were made for a very specific time and place as a quick populist diversion not intended to have much of a life beyond their original release. Despite the thrown together, sketch show-style progression from one tenuously related set piece to the next held together by quick fire comedy, they could also be surprisingly subversive as in this 1990 comedy starring a young Stephen Chow. Look Out, Officer! (師兄撞鬼) is a silly buddy cop comedy and supernaturally tinged procedural but it also satirises the Hong Kong government’s response to the growing “boat people” crisis in which, as is declared in the film, those who’ve come from Vietnam for “economic reasons” will be regarded as illegal immigrants and deported. 

The film begins with two policeman as one berates the other for stopping to burn “ghost money” on the street, describing his need for ritual as like that of an old woman. The first policeman, Biao (Bill Tung), then gets a message on his pager to check out an abandoned warehouse. Piling into the police car, Biao and religious cop Chin (Stanley Fung) arrive but don’t find anything suspicious. Chin decides to leave while Biao wants to investigate further. Poking around, Biao finds himself directly above some kind of large scale drugs lab into which he heroically jumps and beats up most of the grunts waiting below before the head gangster turns up and throws him out of a window. Biao’s body lands directly on the top of Chin’s car who has returned after having second thoughts and wanting to make sure his partner is OK.

The “official” explanation is that Biao has killed himself because of his excessive gambling debts. Up in heaven he gets put on trial (alongside recently deceased dictators Ceausescu and Marcos) and the judges find that his death is indeed suicide despite his protestations. Eventually they agree to let him go back to Earth as a ghost to prove he was murdered and take revenge on the killer. Biao gets assigned a “saviour” whom he will know thanks to an unusual birthmark. The “saviour” turns out to be rookie cop, Sing (Stephen Chow), who is not exactly top of his graduating class but aided by Biao’s supernatural powers he just might be able to find the real killer after all.

As it turns out Chin dabbles in Taoist magic (to make his arms longer, for no particular reason) as do the gangsters who seem to have demonic forces on their side. Biao never saw the face of the man who killed him because he had him in a headlock, but he does remember his terrible body odour thanks to being shoved under his armpits. Victory in the final battle relies on conjuring a unique charm which consists of equally stinky ingredients including virgin’s urine, cat poo, and flatulence neatly bringing several of the film’s running jokes together into one satisfying punchline.

Running gags there are a plenty from the grumpy old cleaner at the police station they’ve nicknamed the 1000 year old virgin who likes to mop up the men’s toilets while they’re busy so she can assess the policemen’s “capabilities” for herself, to the cat who keeps defecting on the altar, and Sing’s general weediness. The supernatural procedural runs in tandem with the usual romantic comedy subplots including Chin’s over protective attitude to his grown up daughter who inevitably ends up in a relationship with Sing thanks to Biao’s supernatural wingman-ing. One of the “charms” Baio has been given to help him in his quest is a “lewd” spell which suddenly makes the victim randy for the first person they see. Biao uses this to get his own back on Chin for leaving him behind by making their austere superior officer suddenly come over all goey only to have her snap out of it and accuse him of sexual harassment.

The humour maybe distinctly lowbrow, but there is a degree of satire lurking in the background as Sing is sent into a “massage parlour” with a codeword in Vietnamese only to discover that all the girls in the place can understand it and immediately parrot back the recent ordinance of Vietnamese immigration. Later, a Vietnamese man threatens to commit suicide over the cruel and inhumane treatment he has received as a Vietnamese immigrant trying to make a life in Hong Kong, fearing he may be forcibly deported and will be killed if he has to go back to Vietnam losing everything he’s tried to build in Hong Kong.

When Biao eventually gets back to heaven they don’t want to let him in even though he’s cleared his name because heaven has a quota and he doesn’t meet the criteria. All is not lost, however, because you can buy your way in as an immigrant with ”special investor” status. In heaven, it seems, everything is fine so long as you have money. As above, so below. Another characteristically nonsensical, juvenile comedy from Shaw Brothers, Look Out, Officer! is as silly and of its time as one would expect but it is undeniably entertaining and unexpectedly moving in its final moments.


Remake of Philip Chan & Ricky Lau’s Where’s Officer Tuba? (1986)

Celestial Pictures trailer (English/traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Day After Opens London Korean Film Festival 2017

The day after posterFollowing a long series of teaser screenings which culminated with Cannes hit The Villainess, the London Korean Film Festival has now revealed the complete lineup for this year’s event which runs from 26th October to 19th November 2017.

Opening Gala

The day After Still 2The London Korean Film Festival 2017 will open with one of three films released this year by prolific director Hong Sang-soo – The Day After. Another whimsical comedy of manners from Hong, The Day After stars Kim Min-hee as the new girl at a publishing firm completely unaware that she’s taken the place of the previous new girl who has been “let go” after an affair with the boss ended badly.

Closing Gala

first lap stillClosing the festival will be the second film from Kim Dae-hwan who picked up the best new director award at Locarno for this awkward tale of familial disconnection. The First Lap revolves around young couple Ji-young and Su-hyeon who are not married but have been living together for a few years. Discovering they might be about to have a child of their own, the pair decide to try and reconnect with their old families before starting a new one.

Special Focus: Korean Noir, Illuminating the Dark Side of Society

The Merciless still 1The special focus for this year’s festival is Korean Noir and Korean cinema has certainly had a long and proud history of gritty, existential crime thrillers. Running right through from the ’60s to recent Cannes hit The Merciless, the Korean Noir strand aims to illuminate the dark side of society through its compromised heroes and conflicted villains.

  • Black Hair – Lee Man-hee’s 1960s genre hybrid neatly mixes noir with melodrama as a gang boss’ wife is blackmailed after having been raped by one of her husband’s underlings only to be facially disfigured and cast away when her husband learns of her assault. Read the Review.
  • The Last Witness – Lee Doo-young’s 1980 mystery thriller follows a police officer’s investigation into the murder of a brewery owner which leads him back to events of 25 years earlier and into the darkest parts of his own soul. Director Lee Doo-young will be in attendance for a Q&A.
  • Dead End – Darkly humorous 19 minute short directed by City of Madness’ Kim Sung-soo.
  • The Rules of the Game – released in 1994, the second film from Jan Hyun-soo follows a young man who comes to the city to join a gang but ends up selling his girlfriend into prostitution.
  • Green Fish – the 1997 debut from the now legendary Lee Chang-dong follows a recently demobbed soldier who returns home to find nothing waiting for him and eventually falls in with gangsters.
  • Nowhere to Hide – Lee Myung-se’s experimental 1999 noir stars Ahn Sung-ki as a ruthless gangster.
  • KilimanjaroThe Shameless director Oh Seung-uk’s 2000 debut also stars Ahn Sung-ki as a gangster alongside Park Shin-yang playing a pair of twin brothers one of whom is a criminal and the other a policeman. Director Oh Seung-uk will be in attendance for a Q&A.
  • Die badVeteran / Battleship Island’s Ryoo Seung-wan made his debut with this 2000 four part crime themed portmanteau film.
  • A Bittersweet Life –  Kim Ji-woon’s 2005 existential hitman thriller stars Lee Byung-hun as a conflicted mobster.
  • A Dirty Carnival – Yoo Ha’s celebrated gangland thriller from 2006
  • New World – an all powerful policeman tries to bring down a crime syndicate through underhanded means while an undercover cop begins to wonder if his mission will ever end in Park Hoon-jung’s tense psychological thriller.
  • Coin Locker Girl – a baby found in a coin locker gets sold to a gangland organ trafficker who decides to raise her as her own in Han Jun-hee’s dark 2013 drama
  • The Merciless – Premiered at Cannes in 2017 Byung Sung-hyun’s The Merciless is a violent thriller in which an undercover cop and the leader of a prison gang team up for gangland domination.

The Noir section will also feature a panel event, Forum on Korean Noir, featuring Eddie Muller (president Film Noir Foundation), Huh Moonyoung (film critic), Last Witness director Lee Doo-young, and Kilimanjaro director Oh Seung-uk.


Cinema Now 

master still one.jpgThe best in recent cinema across the previous year ranging from period drama to financial thriller, gangland action, social drama, and horror.

  • Come, Together – Shin Dong-il examines the destructive effects of financial pressures on a middle class family.
  • Crime City – turf war drama starring  Ma Dong-seok. Director Kang Yoon-sung will be present for a Q&A.
  • In Between Seasons – Intimate family drama following a mother’s reaction to discovering the relationship between her son and his best friend is closer than she thought.
  • Warriors of the Dawn – historical drama set in 1592 in which a group of mercenaries attempt to protect the newly crowned prince on a perilous journey.
  • Master – corporate thriller in which a team of fraud specialists led by Gang Dong-won attempt to unmask a dodgy financial guru played by Lee Byung-hun. Read the Review.
  • The Mimic – horror movie in which a monster lures children away to eat them by impersonating familiar voices.

Indie Fire Power

Bamseom Pirates Seoul InfernoProgrammed by Tony Rayns, this year’s indie strand has a special focus on documentary filmmaker Jung Yoon-suk who will be attending the festival in person to present his films.

  • Non Fiction Diary – 2014 documentary directed by Jung Yoon-suk centring on a notorious clan of serial killing cannibals. Director Jung Yoon-suk will be present for a Q&A
  • The White House in My Country – documentary short by Jung Yoon-suk. Director Jung Yoon-suk will be present for a Q&A
  • Ho Chi Minh – documentary short by Jung Yoon-suk. Director Jung Yoon-suk will be present for a Q&A
  • Bamseom Pirates Inferno – 2017 documentary by Jung Yoon-suk focussing on an underground punk band. Director Jung Yoon-suk will be present for a Q&A
  • Merry Christmas Mr. Mo – indie comedy/drama from Lim Dae-hyung in which a dying barber’s only wish is to star in a short film directed by his estranged son.
  • A Confession Expecting a Rejection – witty drama following characters on and off screen as they discuss various topics from failed relationships to disappointing film courses.

Women’s Voices 

jamsil still 1Focussing on female viewpoints this year’s Women’s Voices strand includes one narrative feature and four short films.

  • Jamsil – drama focussing on the lives of two women. Director Lee Wanmin will be present for a Q&A.

Shorts

  • Candle Wave Feminists – an examination of the misogyny hidden inside the campaign to unseat Park Geun-hye Director Kangyu Garam will be present for a Q&A.
  • My Turn – 15 minute drama focussing on pregnancy in the workplace.
  • Mild Fever – 36 minute drama in which a secret comes between a husband and wife.
  • Night Working – 28 minute drama exploring the relationship between a Korean factory worker and a Cambodian migrant.

Classics Revisited: Bae Chang-ho Retrospective

whale hunting still 2Three films from legendary director Bae Chang-ho each starring Ahn Sung-ki.

  • People in the Slum – drama revolving around a single mother who always wears black gloves and has a rebellious son with a tendency to steal things.
  • Whale Hunting – a boy gets rejected by his crush and runs away to hunt whales but ends up wandering round with a tramp and helping a mute girl find her voice again.
  • The Dream – a monk breaks his vows of chastity, attacks a young woman, leaves the monastery to start a family with her, but never captures her heart.

Documentary

good bye my heroWorkers’ rights and examinations of the Yongsan tragedy in which five civilians and one police officer lost their lives during a protest against redevelopment dominate the feature documentary strand.

  • Two Doors – documentary examining the Yongsan tragedy. Director Kim Il-rhan will be present for a Q&A.
  • The Remnants – documentary examining the Yongsan tragedy. Director Kim Il-rhan will be present for a Q&A.
  • Goodbye My Hero – an unemployed father battles for reinstatement
  • Dream of Iron – industrial ship building documentary

Animation

lost in the moonlight still 1Two charming yet very different animated adventures aimed at a younger/family audience.

  • Lost in the Moonlight – a shy young girl dreaming of the spotlight gets lost in a fantasy world.
  • Franky and Friends: A Tree of Life – Franky and Friends head off on a journey to save the world after nearly destroying it through wastefulness

Mise-en-scène Shorts

tombstone refugee still 1A selection of shorts from the Mise-en-scène International Short Film Festival.

  • Tombstone Refugee – alternative burial drama.
  • Home Without Me – a young girl looks for familial love
  • Thirsty – a man struggles to makes ends meet
  • Between You and Me – behind the scenes comedy drama.
  • Dive – drama about a boy’s love of water
  • The Insect Woman – centres on a young girl obsessed with insects.
  • 2 Nights 3 Days – follows a couple on the eve of their wedding anniversary.

Artist Video

This year’s collaboration with LUX | Artists’ Moving Image focusses on the work of two artists – Lim Minouk and Koo Dong-hee.

Lim Minouk

  • New Town Ghost
  • Wrong Question
  • Portable Keeper
  • The Weight of Hands
  • The Possibility of the Half
  • S.O.S. – Adoptive Dissensus

Koo Dong-hee

  • Tragedy Competition
  • The King Fish
  • Under the Vein: I Spell on You
  • Crossxpollination
  • What’s Not There

The London Korean Film Festival runs from 26th November to the 19th October at multiple Central London venues before heading out on tour to Glasgow Film Theatre, Manchester HOME, Sheffield Showroom, Nottingham Broadway Cinema, and Belfast Queen’s Film Theatre.

The full programme including details for all the films, screening times and ticketing information will be available on the official website in due course but you can also keep up with all the latest developments via the festival’s Facebook page, Twitter account, Flickr, YouTube and Instagram channels.

Big Man Japan (大日本人, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007)

big man Japan posterBeing a superhero is not all it’s cracked up to be. After all, with great power comes great responsibility and responsibility, well, it’s kind of a drag. The debut feature from comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, Big Man Japan (大日本人, Dai Nipponjin) is the story of a modern day gladiator – a slave and a prisoner, forced into an arena to fight “monsters” intent on causing widespread destruction, but usually being the cause of that destruction himself. Poor old Daisato (Hitoshi Matsumoto) is not much of anything at all, but bears all of his respective burdens with stoic resignation.

Shot in mock-documentary style, the film keys us in to Daisato’s predicament slowly as he lovingly looks at an umbrella or a packet of dried seaweed before adding that he likes them because they “only get big when you want them to”. The fact is, Daisato is the sixth in a line of superheroes known as Big Man Japan. Every time disaster strikes and there’s a scary looking monster about to pound Tokyo, Daisato has to hightail it to the nearest power station, undergo a lengthy, bizarre, and completely pointless ritual before jumping into a giant pair of purple pants and being pumped full of electricity which eventually causes him to grow to colossal size.

Yet unlike Batman, or even the obvious point of inspiration, Ultraman, Daisato is not particularly public minded and submits himself to this unpleasant treatment out of a sense of duty and tradition. Daisato’s grandfather, the Fourth, was the kind of superhero everybody loves – strong, clever, dependable, but more than that he was a fun guy to be around. Under the Fourth, superheroing was a laugh and a mini industry all at once. Asked why they bother with the strange ritual before Daisato transforms (given that they’re pushed for time), the old timer looks wistful and remarks that everything was much better when Four ran the show.

These days Four (Taichi Yazaki) is a doddery old man with dementia whom Daisato leaves in an old people’s home whilst feeling guilty about not being able to look after him. Occasionally Four goes rogue and causes havoc by beating up innocent buildings and generally destroying things that don’t need to be destroyed. Daisato maybe a monster fighting superhero but he’s no match for Japan’s ageing population and the increasing demands of elderly care.

Daisato bears his responsibilities with resignation rather enthusiasm. His father, unlike Four, had a lust for fame, repeatedly zapping himself to try and be bigger and stronger but eventually just zapping himself to death. Yet even whilst unhappy about being forced into his life of mercenary monster hunting, Daisato still wanted his kid to take over the Big Man Japan name – only his kid’s a girl who doesn’t actually like her dad very much and gets picked on at school for being the daughter of Japan’s most rubbish reality TV star. Daisato’s superpowers have led to the breakdown of his marriage as his wife has left him, unwilling to allow her child to be zapped with electricity and sucked into Daisato’s abnormal world. She’s moving on, going with the mainstream and looking to hook up with a decent, reliable sort of guy.

Even the documentary maker occasionally seems exasperated at Daisato’s passivity and general malaise. The monster hunting battles are not just in service of protecting the people of Japan but also a major TV event, though it has to be said that Daisato is not very popular and the few people who like him do so precisely because of his perseverance in the face of constant failure. Daisato has a manager of sorts, who drives expensive looking cars, has two expensive looking dogs named “simplicity” and “delicacy”, and is intent on selling each and every spot in Daisato’s giant torso to advertising sponsors landing him with tattoos advertising fresh goods right on his chest and back. Eventually Daisato ends up angering the public still further when he kills an incredibly cute, apparently harmless monster in a moment of panic.

Daisato is, in many ways, a victim of his culture as he feels compelled to put up with constant mistreatment in service of duty and tradition, seeing himself as the last in a long chain of ancestors he’s never been able to live up to and whose powers he will probably not be able to pass down to a successor of his own. In one particularly worrying episode, the mysterious forces which control Daisato do not even bother to contact him but break into his house for a spot of non-consensual zapping which destroys Daisato’s entire home leaving him with nothing. Being big in Japan is actually being very, very small. Poor old Daisato can’t seem to catch a break, but maybe there is one just waiting to catch him.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sword of the Beast (獣の剣, Hideo Gosha, 1965)

sword of the beast posterHideo Gosha’s later career increasingly focussed on men at odds with their times – ageing gangsters who couldn’t see their eras were ending. His second feature, Sword of the Beast (獣の剣 Kedamono no Ken), is much the same in this regard but its youthful hero knows perfectly that change is on the horizon. Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) tries to ride that change into a better, more equal future but the forces of order will not allow him. The cinematic samurai world of the post-war era is no longer that of honourable men, manfully living out the samurai code even when it pains them to do so. It is one of men broken by oppressive feudal rule, denied their futures, and forced to betray themselves in service to systemic hypocrisy. Yet even if men think of reforming the system, they rarely think to escape it unless it actively spits them out.

When we first meet Gennosuke, he’s crawling around in a muddy grass field, dishevelled and hungry. A lone woman spots him and plies her trade leading Gennosuke to embrace his baser instincts and give vent to his lust, but the pair are interrupted by the sound of approaching horses. Gennosuke is on the run from his clan for his part in the murder of a lord. His pursuers scream at him, “have you no pride?”, lamenting his lack of stoical resignation to one’s fate so central to the samurai ideal. “To hell with name and pride” Gensosuke throws back, “I’ll run and never stop.”

Gennosuke’s odyssey leads him into the path of petty bandits who’ve been swiping gold out of the local river. Unbeknownst to them, a couple from another clan have been living an isolated life in a small cottage where they too have been skimming the Emperor’s gold, only they’ve been doing it for their lord. The man, Jurota (Go Kato), is excited about this work because he thinks when it is completed he’ll finally be accepted as a true samurai and the future for himself and his wife, Taka (Shima Iwashita), will be much brighter. He is quite wrong in this assumption.

Gennosuke, it is later revealed, committed his fateful act of murder upon the assumption that he was part of a revolutionary vanguard, removing cruel and corrupt lords from their positions so fairer minded, decent men could rule in their stead. Instead he realises he’s been rendered a disposable pawn in a political game and that the new master he believed would usher in a brighter future only envisaged one for himself. Jurota has been duped in much the same way, asked to do something illicit, immoral, and against the samurai code under the assumption that he will finally be accepted as “one of us”. He has not considered the corruption of those he wants to join, and does not see that his crime likely means he cannot be allowed to live.

Gennosuke and Jurota are cynical men who nevertheless possess true faith in the way of the samurai. Exiled from his clan, Gennosuke is a wandering beast who pretends not to care about the people he meets, but ends up saving them anyway. Yet if Gennosuke has been “freed” from his illusions, Jurota’s devotion to them makes him a less heroic figure. When Taka is captured by bandits who threaten her life, Jurota has a difficult decision to make – surrender the gold or his wife. Jurota chooses poorly and abandons his wife to a fate worse than death at the hands of uncivilised ruffians. Taka finds this hard to forgive. No longer wishing to stay with a man who values her so lightly she turns to Gennosuke – her accidental saviour, and reveals to him that she longs to become “a beast” like him. Now “freed” of her own illusions as regards her husband’s love, their shared mission, and the fallacy of their future together as noble samurai, Taka is prepared to exile herself from the samurai world as Gennosuke has, but, as he tells her, the wife of a retainer cannot choose the life of a beast.

This world of samurai is facing its own eclipse. The Black Ships have arrived, the spell has been broken, and the modern world awaits. Gennosuke can see this future, he tried to grasp it in the murder of his lord, but it is not here yet. Gennosuke’s friend, Daizaburo (Kantaro Suga), is duty bound to take his revenge as the fiancé of the murdered lord’s daughter though he’d rather not do it, and does so only to give Gennosuke an “honourable” death. The daughter, Misa (Toshie Kimura), is understandably angry and filled with hate but she pays dearly for her vengeance. Following their ordeal, neither Daizaburo or Misa can return to their clan. They are also “freed”, their illusions broken, their debts forgiven. Breaking with the burden of their past, they would now follow Gennosuke into his new world, even if none of them know exactly where they’re going.

These private revolutions amount to a kind of deprogramming, reawakening a sense of individual agency but one which is unselfish and carries with it the best of samurai honour. Gennosuke may be a “beast” on the run, reduced to a creature of needs rather than thoughts, but there’s honesty in this uncivilised quest for satisfaction which leaves no room for artifice or hypocrisy. It may be a rough world and lonely with it, but it is not unkind. To hell with name and pride, Gennosuke will have his honour, even as a nameless beast, a self-exile from a world of cruelty, greed, and inhumanity.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Night I Swam (La Nuit où j’ai nagé / 泳ぎすぎた夜, Damien Manivel & Kohei Igarashi, 2017)

The Night I SwamCinema, at its most innocent, is a place where children can have fantastic adventures while the adults watching them from the other side of the screen worry though somehow or other it always manages to turn out OK. From the anxious whimsy of the The Little Fugitive, to the melancholy dreaminess of Palle all Alone in the World, and on to the anarchy of Home Alone, children in movies are much more resourceful than we give then credit for. The Night I Swam (La Nuit où j’ai nagé / 泳ぎすぎた夜, Oyogisugita Yoru), a Japanese/French co-production co-directed by A Young Poet’s Damien Manivel and Hold Your Breath Like a Lover’s Kohei Igarashi, is testament to this as its central little hero sets off on a perilous journey to show his dad, who has to leave very early for work at the fish market in town, a drawing he made of a fish.

One fateful morning, while it’s still dark outside, a little boy wakes up and hears his father smoking a cigarette in the kitchen before going to work. The boy can’t get back to sleep. He tries to wake his mum but she’s deep asleep so he plays with the family dog, has a game with his toy animals, watches some TV and then draws a picture of a fish before trying to get a little more shuteye before he has to get up for school. The consequence of this is he’s very sleepy when it comes to getting ready in the morning as his mum helps him into the ski pants, jacket, and pretty blue hat that will keep him warm in the thick snow which is currently piled higher than his head on the way out of their home.

The little boy puts the drawing in his backpack and then sets off, but when he reaches the school gates he makes a surprising decision. He turns around, climbs over a fence and escapes! Playing in the snow for a while it seems as if the boy just didn’t fancy a day cooped up indoors but he has a plan and it requires getting on a train into the city…

The little boy’s journey is occasionally perilous. It’s certainly freezing cold out there, surrounded by snow and and ice, and the little tyke is so tired that at one point he just collapses and falls asleep in the snow. Somehow or other he seems to rally himself and continue on his journey even if he sheds some of his tools as he goes including a precious glove which he takes off to peel the oranges he’s brought along for sustenance. Once in the city he makes a dangerous dash across an icy road, wanders around a department store, and spends a while sitting in a food court, observing the busy lives around him like a visitor from a dream. When he gets to the fish market, it’s already closed, the place is eerily empty and deserted, waiting for the next day’s activity to begin.

Disheartened and completely exhausted, the boy starts testing doors on the cars in the carpark before crawling into a open van to keep warm and falls asleep. Luckily, the boy’s story has a happy ending as he meets some nice people who help him get back to his family safe and sound where he finally gets some proper sleep after his long adventure. The film’s most touching moments occur at the end as the boy’s dad hangs up his wet clothes to dry before looking at the drawing which the boy’s sister has pinned on the fridge before falling asleep next to his son, sharing this small amount of time they have together, while the boy’s mother watches TV downstairs with her little girl.

Shot in academy ratio and entirely dialogue free, The Night I Swam has an innocent, dreamlike quality as the little boy wanders through the snow, wide eyed and curious but set on reaching his destination even though he is clearly very tired, not to mention cold. Broken into three chapters with picture book font titles, The Night I Swam is a beautifully elliptical tale filled with whimsy and melancholy as the boy and his father are kept apart by practical concerns but united, perhaps, in dreams.


Currently available to view via Festival Scope (€4) until 19th September.

Original trailer