Knockout (どついたるねん, Junji Sakamoto, 1989)

Knockout cap 1Thirty years after his debut, the career of director Junji Sakamoto has proved hard to pin down. An early focus on manly action drama gave way to character pieces, issue films, and comedy, but it was with his breakout first feature Knockout (どついたるねん, Dotsuitarunen) that something like a signature style was born. One of Japan’s many boxing movies (perhaps an unexpectedly populous genre), Knockout is once again the story of a man fighting himself as he struggles to overcome serious physical injury, emotional trauma, and his own fiercely unpleasant personality to finally become the kind of champion he has always feared himself incapable of becoming.

Dreaming dreams of boxing glory, Adachi (Hidekazu Akai) trained hard since he was a small boy and eventually became a champion of the ring. However, an ill-timed blow from a subpar opponent left him with an unexpected, life threatening injury requiring brain surgery after which he was advised to stay behind the ropes for the remainder of his days. A total asshole with a violent streak, Adachi can’t help alienating all those around him including childhood friend Takako (Haruko Sagara) whose father owns the National Brand gym where he used to train and had given vague promises of taking over once he retired. In his newly irritable state, Adachi has decided to start his own high class gym and has teamed up with a boxing enthusiast friend, Harada (Tetsuya Yuki), who runs a gay club, to buy National Brand’s promoter license to set up alone.

This being the kind of film that it is, it’s a given that Adachi will eventually want to get back in the ring despite all the inherent risks to his physical body. Nevertheless, the journey towards that realisation will be a humbling one as he is forced to confront the fact that he is a terrible person whose intense self obsession and intimidating behaviour has everyone around him walking on eggshells. Consequently, he does not make a particularly good boxing coach thanks to his didactic methods and rigid insistence on doing everything his own way. Only the kindly assistance of an older man, Sajima (Yoshio Harada), who also retired from the ring through injury, begins to show him the error of his ways but it’s not until he’s truly alienated all of his prospective pupils, as well as his patient backer, that he finally understands where it is that he belongs. 

Set in his native Osaka, Sakamoto weaves a rich tapestry of local life from the feisty Takako who dearly wanted to get in the ring herself only to be met with the constant refrain that boxing’s not for girls, to the mysterious Harada and his largely offscreen gay bar at which Adachi seems to be a frequent yet unwilling visitor who claims the place is too “weird” and fears interacting with others in the establishment. Meanwhile the applicants at his new gym which promises training with a “kindly” coach run from young toughs to softening salarymen desperate to engage with their dwindling masculinity. This is definitively a manly affair in which the frustrations of young(ish) men take centre stage though mainly through the destructive effects they have on the world around them – you’ll nary find a face around here that doesn’t have a bruise on it. While Adachi’s parents tiptoe around their own son as if he were some sort of gangster, Takako is the only one willing and able to stand up to him save the late entry of Sajima who appears to be dealing with some neatly symmetrical family issues of his own.

Starring real life boxer Hidekazu Akai, Knockout strives for realism in the ring even whilst emphasising the ongoing psychodrama that lies behind it. Adachi, like many boxing heroes, is engaged in constant battle with himself, trying to overcome the frightened little boy he once was rather than accepting him and admitting that even older he is often still scared and angry without really knowing why. Perhaps through his final, infinitely dangerous entry into the ring he will find some kind of answers to the questions he has been too afraid to ask but he has, in any case, become less of a problem for those around him in his continued quest towards becoming the best version of himself.


Cats in Park Avenue (公園通りの猫たち, Shinichi Nakada, 1989)

vlcsnap-2017-01-06-00h41m34s475Looking at the poster and its “A Most “Oshare” Movie” tag line, you’d assume Cats of Park Avenue to be very stylish kind of story, about some fashionable felines living on an uptown street comparable to the famous New York landmark. The title is entirely coincidental as it’s a literal translation of the Japanese and just means the cats live on a street near the park. These cats are full on alley cats, scrappy and free, roaming the rooftops of Shibuya and not giving a damn about whatever it is cats are supposed to do. Ostensibly a throw away young adult movie about a group of dance students and their obsession with a gang of local street cats, Cats of Park Avenue (公園通りの猫たち, Koendori no Nekotachi) takes on a surprisingly individualist message as the virtues of freedom and validity of life outside the mainstream are resolutely reinforced through cute animation and nonsensical musical sequences.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on a local dance troupe who are about to put on a musical show inspired by the life of the their local cats (no, they don’t seem to be aware it’s been done already). Each of the main girls is lined up with a corresponding alley cat with whom she shares a degree of affinity and, oddly enough, the cats themselves are allowed to take centre stage for large parts of the film as they play, fight, and make improbable leaps from building to building.

Aside from the show, the main narrative kicks off when a wealthy old lady one of the girls works as a baby sitter for starts to get paranoid that one of the alleycats is after her prized kitty Marilyn. When she thinks Marilyn has gone to the dark side, she immediately kicks her out as “dirty” and starts on a mass “purification” programme for the surrounding area to eliminate all of the stray cats, including our beloved heroes. The “Cat Busters” are called in as a kind of storm trooper-esque exectution squad complete with a strange scanning machine which works out if a cat is nasty or nice and dumps the unwanted ones right into the furnace. The cats, however, are about ready to fight back and free their friends from certain doom.

The cats have to save themselves in the end, aided by the villainess’ young son who wields the weight of his own privilege to help them. The girls are aligned with the cats in ways which are intended to be positive – emphasising the freedom they would like to have, the strength and daring, but are contrasted with the more “conservative” attitude of the film’s villain who wants everything to be “clean”, with “cats” confined to the home in a kind of golden cage. It is interesting in that sense that the evil instigator is herself a woman, wealthy and successful with a young son but seemingly unmarried. Despite living outside of the mainstream, it is she who seeks to grade the cats according to their usefulness and destroy the ones which don’t meet her criteria. The girls however, perhaps talking for themselves, insist the cats need to be free and keeping them indoors as pets where they don’t want to be not only makes them miserable but deprives them of the right of being what they are.

Intended for a very specific audience, Cats of Park Avenue cuts between images of these quite odd looking cats doing what they do, to large scale dance sequences and infrequent animation. The human cast are not the focus of the film and the character arcs of the real life girls take a back seat to those of their feline counter parts but they do at least get the opportunity to show off their singing and dancing credentials. The final show does indeed bear a significant resemblance to that other well known musical, but is much more cheerfully silly despite the heavy, if surreal, events which have previously taken place. A strange odyssey back to 80s consumerist pop, Cats of Park Avenue is unlikely to find much of an audience among modern viewers but is a kind of interesting time capsule of the lower end of populist movies in the late 1980s.


TV Commercial (part of a reel of ’80s adverts – starts at 1:44)

24 Hour Playboy (愛と平成の色男, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1989)

24-hour-playboyYoshimitsu Morita is an enigma. While directing some of the most acclaimed Japanese films of the 80s including The Family Game or the Soseki adaptation Sorekara, his primary dedication was to the “popular” which meant he did his share of more commercial projects such as the Kadokawa idol movie Main Theme or Banana Yoshimoto adaption Kitchen. As might be discerned from the title, 24 Hour Playboy (愛と平成の色男, Ai to Heisei no Irootoko) is among his more populist efforts and is most concerned with capturing the unique quality of its time as mid-bubble Japan said goodbye to the traumatic Showa era for the (hopefully) more prosperous Heisei.

After opening with a series of scenes of the luxury to be found in the modern era from expensive rolexes to elegant yachts, the film zooms in on its hero, Nagashima (Junichi Ishida), as he receives a call from his girlfriend to the effect that she will be visiting him shortly. However, Nagashima’s first action is to leap over his balcony and run down the hill below to hide out in his car and play his saxophone before taking refuge at his younger sister’s place. Nagashima has a serious problem in that he finds himself unable to sleep and is longing for a woman who can really tire him out. Consequently he’s become the “24 hour playboy” of the title, flirting with women here there and everywhere all day long hoping to find the one who can send him straight to bed.

Unusually for a film set in the age of consumerism, Nagashima is not a high powered executive or something more glamorous like an actor or a singer, he is, in fact, a dentist. When not inappropriately flirting with the young women who end up in his dentist’s chair, Nagashima also has a sideline as a jazz saxophonist which seems to be what he’d really like to do with his life but presumably is not as lucrative as the unexpectedly elite world of dentistry.

The consumerist society runs as background throughout the film as Nagashima enjoys a fairly upscale lifestyle perfect for a playboy with visits to trendy nightclubs and late night driving ranges, but the film also gets a lot of milage out of the literal change in era occurring just at the time the film was made. The traditional Japanese dating system takes its name from the emperor – the Showa era began in 1926 and was witness to both Japan’s tragic affair with militarism and expansionist warfare and the beginnings of its return to prosperity in the now nostalgic ‘70s and ‘80s. With the death of Hirohito in January 1989, his son Akihito assumed the throne and began the “Heisei” era. The film was released in 1989 but “Heisei” is referenced several times throughout both as a joke on the fact that “Heisei” means “peace everywhere” and in Nagashima’s comments that some things have already improved in the extremely young new regime.

In keeping with Morita’s determination to stay up to the minute, the film is very much of its time but paints its transitional moment as one of excitement and possibility but also of confusion and inertia. When Nagashima tells a late night barman that he doesn’t know what he wants, he’s talking about more than drinks though he seems happy enough with the gimlet the bar tender picks out for him. Nagashima’s insomnia is apparently caused by not having a good woman to share his bed, but he spends the film playing four women off against each other without ever being really serious about any of them.

After his sometime girlfriend whom he ran out on in the beginning starts talking marriage, Nagashima hatches a plan to get his sister to pretend to be a religious nutcase to put her off. Later he gets another girlfriend to pretend to be his wife and mother of his three children to rid himself of one of the others, gets rid of another by telling her he’s off to “dentists without borders”, and even ends up treating two of his simultaneous girlfriends at the same time in adjacent dental surgeries. Nagashima’s behaviour is caddish in the extreme, thinking only of himself and never really seeing the women in front of him as entities separate from their relationship with him.

A throwback to feckless ‘60s male heroes whose casual womanising represented aspirational male fantasy, Nagashima’s exploits are depicted in a light hearted and humorous way eased by the fact that the women don’t seem to mind very much even after they discover that they aren’t Nagashima’s one and only. Eventually outed as a love rat in the papers, Nagashima’s accidental fame, far from causing outcry and condemnation, attracts a vast crowd of ladies wanting in on the action for themselves.

Oddly the one woman Nagashima does seem to be able to connect with is his sister whom he ironically describes as the one woman he doesn’t understand. Frequently staying over at her apartment, Nagashima often remarks that he wishes all women like her or that all women were his sister, which is an extremely odd thing to say in the circumstances but she is the one woman he seems to have a fully realised conception of and is able to relate to on a human level.

Necessarily very much of its time – the Heisei era is even referenced in the slightly ironic title, 24hr Playboy is one of Morita’s most disposable efforts but is also a perfect reflection of contemporary society in its increasingly consumerist fervour where dentists can live like playboy millionaires and the sheer abundance of choice leaves young men paralysed with indecision. Nagashima’s playboy lifestyle is mined for comic value as he plays the melancholic hero who doesn’t know what he wants and and so has a massive fear of (and yet intense desire for) commitment, but Morita is always careful to point out his essential ridiculousness as Nagashima’s “Heisei” lifestyle becomes less “peaceful” with each additional girlfriend and the increasingly elaborate excuses needed to jilt them.


 

Robinson on the Beach (砂の上のロビンソン, Junichi Suzuki, 1989)

Robinson on the Beach“Family Drama” is often said to be the mainstay of Japanese film. From Ozu to Koreeda, drama in the basic social unit has often been exploited to create a wider dialogue about society at large. However, In the wake of Yoshimitsu Morita’s condemnation of modern family values in The Family Game the nature of the conversation shifted. As Japan eased into its bubble era, concerns began to grow about what exactly the rise of consumerism meant for traditional values. Robinson on the Beach (砂の上のロビンソン, Suna no Ue no Robinson, AKA A Sandcastle Model Family Home) takes things one step further than The Family Game in that it repackages the entire idea of “the ideal family” as something that can itself be bought and sold and therefore manipulated as the perfect marketing tool.

At the beginning of the film, the Kidos are a fairly ordinary lower middle class family of five all living a modest apartment. They’re a little cramped – in fact so much so that mum and dad have to sneak into the wardrobe to get some alone time together just watching movies on a tiny TV set and sharing a set of earphones between them. The kids are always at each other’s throats but broadly they’re happy. However, when both husband Shouhei and wife Ryoko spot an advert for a new scheme which promises a “free” house to a “model family” they decide that this is their best chance at a new life. The deal does have a few drawbacks – they all have to play the part of a perfect family for a whole year and let the public into their lives to prove it.

Things were a little more innocent back in 1989. Reality TV hadn’t yet kicked in and the Kido’s don’t quite understand what it is they’re letting themselves in for when they agree to this too good to be true offer. The house they’ve been given is a veritable mansion – a huge, sprawling Western style home with a bedroom each for the children, a dedicated study for Shouhei and as many walk-in closets as anyone could wish for. However, the cars in the garage are only for show and even if the house is in the same general area as their old flat, Shouei still has to cram himself inside the sardine tin of the morning commuter train everyday just like before.

He does at least have the luxury of being allowed to leave the house, unlike Ryoko who becomes a bizarre “first lady” to this new show home empire expected to play a role somewhere between real estate agent and princess as she welcomes prospective buyers and allows them to poke and prod all over her nice new home spreading thinly veiled judgement wherever they go. Suddenly she has people going through her fridge and oggling her washing left hanging up to dry . The liaison lady from the company even has the gaul to criticise Ryoko’s nightwear as “frumpy” and orders her to buy something a little more glamorous which will match the “upmarket” appeal of the house.

After she gives in and does this she just has to listen as two visitors describe the new nightwear as “slutty” and wonder how a “respectable” wife could wear such a thing (it’s just a regular pink negligee nightdress, nothing unusual about it at all save for being a little more career woman than mumsy in appeal). In fact, the family’s new found circumstances only cause resentment in those around them and Ryoko in particular is plagued by nuisance callers who repeatedly accuse her of having prostituted herself to win the house.

In the economic reality of Tokyo at the time, there was just no feasible way a family like the Kidos would ever be able to afford to own their own house. They probably wouldn’t even be able to rent one or get anything bigger than the apartment they occupied at the beginning of the film. Shohei provokes the ire of his boss after moving into the show home because it’s already better than anything his boss could afford and he already owns a small home far out in the suburban commuter belt. Now everyone has it in for Shohei and he does get a kind of demotion as the company send him to demonstrate their “super slicer” kitchen gadget in a local department store. This is doubly worrying as Shohei is a very shy and nervous man who is not well suited to public speaking leaving the company’s excuse of making use of his new found celebrity as an ironic way of taking revenge on his jumping up the social order through unorthodox means.

All of these stresses gradually build up as even the children are subject to attacks from outside (and some of them very cruel and disturbing in nature). Before long this once happy family begins to buckle under the strain of pretending to be what they once really were. One particularly perverse episode sees them sitting down to a pre-scripted dinner while an audience of onlookers silently judge them as if they were engaged in some kind of performance art – which, of course, they are albeit almost unconsciously. Having gained everything they’d ever wanted, they discover that the costs far outweigh the benefits with Shohei hit hardest after he succumbs to a streak of selfish individualism that has dire consequences for everyone.

Eventually the value of the traditional family is reinforced as everyone starts to realise that the fancy house was never as important as the simple happiness they felt being crammed together in their tiny apartment. Though there is a hopeful resolution at the end, whether or not the damage can be repaired may be a matter for debate though the overriding message of caution about the corrupting influences of rampant consumerism including classism, petty jealousy and a growing tendency towards the voyeuristic is one which finds its way into many of the films from this period and is sadly still worth restating even today.


Not quite sure about the signifcance of the title with this one – think it refers to Swiss Family Robinson (rather than Robinson Crusoe) but it’s quite an awkward fit.

Scene from near the beginning of the film (with English subtitles):

 

Kitchen (キッチン, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1989)

KitchenBanana Yoshimoto’s debut novel Kitchen was first published in 1988 and instantly became a publishing phenomenon. The first film adaptation came not long after with the identically titled Kitchen (キッチン) directed by Yoshimitsu Morita in 1989. Like most of Yoshimoto’s work, Kitchen deals with people learning to live with grief and cope with the aftermath of tragedy. However, though Morita’s script sticks closely to the novel for the first half of its running time, he later deviates into a conventional romantic youth drama much like his more populist offerings of the time.

The film opens with a strange image of a young woman asleep in front of a fridge in an otherwise entirely darkened kitchen. The young woman is Mikage Sakurai – orphaned at a young age, Mikage (Ayako Kawahara) was raised by her grandmother who has recently also passed away leaving her entirely alone in the world. The one place Mikage has learned to feel at peace is in a kitchen and she has her sights set on a culinary career.

At the funeral, Mikage meets a young man who had apparently become good friends with her grandmother through his part-time job at a florist. After striking up a friendship with Mikage, Yuichi (Keiji Matsuda) invites her to the upscale apartment he shares with his mother, Eriko (Isao Hashizume). Mikage falls in love a little bit with their well appointed and spacious Western style kitchen which is filled to the brim with all the latest gadgets. Soon after, Mikage moves in with Yuichi and Eriko and begins to rebuild her life with a new family beside her.

It’s difficult to avoid spoilers in this respect but for anyone who is familiar with Yoshimoto’s novel, it’s important to note that one particular tragedy which informs the entirety of book has been completely eliminated in this adaptation. The biggest change Morita has made is in his depiction of Eriko who is a trans woman and the father of Yuichi having undergone gender reassignment after the death of Yuichi’s mother.

The film is actually very positive in dealing with Eriko’s character and doesn’t try to elide or make a joke out of her. However, whereas Eriko in the book is described as an extremely glamorous and beautiful woman to the extent that she may seem slightly intimidating at first despite her warm and loving nature, here she is played by a male actor with a man’s haircut and slightly frumpy fashion sense as well as being depicted more like a stereotypically gay male character. Likewise, though Eriko’s friend Chika-chan is still in the movie, we never see anything of Eriko’s life at the gay club she runs or much of her life away from Yuichi and Mikage. That said, the change in question does offer a little more hope and happiness for Eriko than her outcome in the novel.

Morita also gives the film more of the quirky, light hearted feel he adopted in many of his other populist films from the ‘80s. Yoshimoto’s work often successfully straggles a difficult tonal gap in which it’s filled with a kind of existential despair but simultaneously light and cheerful. Though Mikage is numbed with grief throughout the novel which prevents her from assessing what it is she really wants from life, the film is satisfied with depicting her as a fairly ordinary young woman whose problems stem more from trying to step out alone for the first time rather than trying to emerge from a life altering tragedy like the death of your last remaining family member.

However, Morita retains the magical realist qualities of the novel through his use of dream sequences and expressionist imagery. Juxtaposing bright colours of nature with the often extremely dark backgrounds, he creates an impressive sense of differing realities with Mikage’s cheerful on the surface yet depressed inner life recreated through iconography rather than through performance or dialogue. He also retains the use of the moon as symbol for life and happiness, presenting a source bright light in an otherwise dark world which can help to guide the way in times of trouble.

As a film in its own right, Morita’s Kitchen is certainly very much of its time though perhaps not unwatchable, but as an adaptation of Yoshimoto’s novel it ultimately fails on all counts. Veering way off tone in its second half, Kitchen takes on much more of a conventionally romantic narrative eschewing Yoshimoto’s major messages about the need to come to terms with a traumatic past in order to move on and the importance of understanding your true feelings while there’s still time to act on them. Yoshimoto is more concerned with showing that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin and you can’t have one without the other but Morita’s story creates a much smoother, more natural path for a romance between Mikage and Yuichi which ultimately robs it of much of its power. That said even if Kitchen disappoints as a literary adaptation it isn’t entirely without interest and does at least offer several examples of Morita’s idiosyncratic gift for composition.


Opening scenes of the film (dialogue free)

Kitchen was also adapted as film in Hong Kong directed by Ho Yim in 1997, starring Yasuko Tomita and Jordon Chan. Banana Yoshimoto’s source novel was first published in English in 1993 (translated by Megan Backus) and is still in print from Faber & Faber in the UK and Grove Press in the US.

 

Bicycle Sighs (自転車吐息, Sion Sono, 1989)

utJ5fVVtDUtt2rlbYWNjvqTFrytThese days we think of Sion Sono as the recently prolific, slightly mellowed former enfant terrible of the Japanese indie cinema scene. Hitting the big time with his four hour tale of religion and rebellion Love Exposure before more recently making a case for ruined youth in the aftermath of a disaster in Himizu or lamenting the state of his nation in Land of Hope what we expect of him is an energetic, sometimes ironic assault on contemporary culture. However, his beginnings were equally as varied as his modern output and his first feature length film, Bicycle Sighs (自転車吐息, Jidensha Toiki), owes much more to new wave malaise than to post-punk rage.

Loosely speaking, Bicycle Sighs is a kind of coming of age film where three teenagers experience a bout of anxiety about the future near the end of the ‘80s. Shiro (played by Sono himself), Keita and their female friend Katako have remained behind in their small town after all of their friends have moved on, mostly to universities. Life for them carries on much as before as they continue their part time paper rounds and messing about around town. Shiro, the more arrested of the pair of boys, becomes fixated on the idea of finishing a film they started making in high school whereas Keita wants to finally get into college himself and study to be a doctor.

As might be inferred from the English language title, there’s a sort of latent nostalgia for an era of innocent, aimless bicycle riding – of time spent with now absent friends and an adulthood that was far enough away not be worth worrying about. The bicycles themselves take on a symbolic quality and actually end up undergoing two different kinds of “funerals” during the film, once by burial and another by fire. This all seems like a pointer towards a bonfire of innocence but in actuality nothing very serious happens to any of the young people in the film save the usual occasions of heart break and disillusionment.

The 8mm sections filmed for the film within a film segments are often the most impressive, taking on an authentic sort of youthful exuberance. The “First Base” movie that the guys are making is a typical high school scenario in which the friends are enjoying a game of baseball but start discovering their game invaded by “invisible runners”. Later they start to be able to see one of them only he’s wearing a Godzilla mask and carrying a briefcase. Eventually he leaves the game trailing a long line out behind him. When Shiro tries to finish the film it develops into a great sci-fi style conspiracy where the kids uncover a plot in which their own “invisibility” is the ultimate aim.

Bicycle Sighs is a picture of youth in disarray (a theme Sono would often come back to). They’re each in search of their identity, some wanting to move back and others forward but all stuck in a limbo land of frustration. Sono packs in avant-garde inspired symbols like flags with the various Japanese characters for “I” emblazoned on them or another character taking to the streets alone on new year’s eve (also the eve of his own birthday) to wish happy new year to an empty town. There’s a great deal of interesting material in Bicycle Sighs, but ultimately its messages are a little oblique and somehow Sono never manages to bring everything together in a meaningful way. Nevertheless, some of his later skills shine through, particularly in the 8mm scenes, and there’s enough going on to please most attentive viewers even if it seems a little derivative at times.


You can actually get this on UK iTunes with English subtitles (for the moment anyway)