Hiruko the Goblin (ヒルコ/妖怪ハンター, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1991)

Shinya Tsukamoto burst onto the scene with indie cyberpunk classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man, an avant-garde body horror exploration of dehumanising industrialisation. After performing as a virtual one man band, however, Tsukamoto’s second film, Hiruko the Goblin (ヒルコ/妖怪ハンター, Hiruko / Yokai Hunter), was his studio first accepting the opportunity to direct a feature adaptation of Daijiro Morohoshi’s Yokai Hunter manga. Some have seen this as a huge stylistic departure, shifting from the punk aesthetics of Tetsuo towards warmly nostalgic summer adventure, but it is in fact perfectly in keeping with Tsukamoto’s earlier 8mm work such as Adventures of Electric Rodboy while also reminiscent of the kind of wistful teen adventures Nobuhiko Obayashi among others had been making throughout the Bubble era. 

Nevertheless, Hiruko’s main lessons seem to relate to the dangers of buried history and its corrupted parental legacy. The franchise protagonist, Reijiro Hieda (Kenji Sawada), is a once promising archeologist ostracised by his peers for his determination to prove the existence of yokai or “goblins”. Still grieving the death of his wife Akane (Chika Asamoto), Reijiro is summoned to her hometown by his brother-in-law, high school teacher Mr. Yabe (Naoto Takenaka), who informs him that he’s found something in a burial mound which he believes was built “by the ancients to appease evil spirts”. Yabe insists that he doesn’t believe in yokai, but thinks it might be a good opportunity for Reijiro to further investigate his theory. By the time Reijiro arrives, however, Yabe has already disappeared along with high school girl Tsukishima (Megumi Ueno) after exploring the tomb alone. 

Though set in the present day, Tsukamoto plays with horror serial gothic motifs such as the creepy tombs, suspicious janitor, and the continually befuddled Reijiro dressed in his old-fashioned white suit while armed with an arsenal of yokai fighting gadgets all contained in the Mary Poppins-like suitcase he continually carries around though at one point he seems to try catching escaped yokai with fly paper and is generally found wielding bug spray. Despite constantly working with dirt, an early joke sees him undone by spotting a creepy crawly in his room. This does not bode well for him, because Hiruko’s end game is convincing its victims to decapitate themselves before attaching their severed heads to weird, spider-like bodies. 

It does this seemingly by locating a pleasant, poignant memory and promising to prolong it forever. Reijiro’s nephew Masao (Masaki Kudou) is almost seduced on seeing an idyllic scene of missing high school girl Tsukishima dressed in white and enjoying a picnic on a summer’s day only to be suddenly brought back by his uncle. The inheritor of a curse, Masao is often struck by fits of furious burning in which his clothes seem to steam while he later displays strange scars on his back which take on the appearance of human faces. His predicament is largely his grandfather’s fault in having kept from his father the truth about the mound, leading him towards an over curious investigation during which it appears he accidentally released a bunch of demons from their eternal imprisonment. Now all Hiruko wants is to find the spell to open the door so they can all escape for good. 

Having been in a sense betrayed by a corrupted parental legacy, Masao nevertheless finds salvation in his history by way of his uncle who has of course memorised the entirety of the “Kojiki”, an ancient chronicle of myth and folklore, and recognises the two passages necessary for opening and closing the stone enclosure one found on a broken stele and the other hidden inside an ancient helmet appropriated by Yabe. Masao can only save himself and lift the curse by learning the truth which had been hidden from him, ironically putting on the helmet while others lose their heads. 

Yet Hiruko itself is also perhaps a manifestation of grief, something which cannot be eliminated but must in a sense be contained. Reijiro is almost tricked by Hiruko on being shown a vision of his late wife, unwittingly revealing the opening spell in return for being able to remain within the memory. Masao is similarly seduced by his vision of Tsukishima, but must then deal with the loss of his father who sacrificed himself trying to save others having realised his mistake in unearthing truths intended to stay buried. The fault lies however with Yabe’s own father whose attempt to keep him safe only endangered him. 

In keeping with much of Tsukamoto’s work, Hiruko’s threat lies in the loss of bodily autonomy and corporeal destruction forcing the victim into an act of mortal self-harm and thereafter repurposing and remaking the physical form in its own image. Tsukamoto’s characteristically elaborate practical effects and use of creepy stop motion add to the sense of the uncanny, horror lurking in dark corners everywhere waiting for the opportunity to strike. Even so, Hiruko is not without its sense of silliness, Tsukamoto playing gleefully with genre archetypes while conforming fully to the summer adventure movie necessarily filled with a sense of wistful nostalgia. Having contained their demons, Masao and Reijiro emerge at summer’s end, but are greeted with another hazy goodbye if each a little more secure in having learned to accommodate their corrupted legacies. 


Hiruko the Goblin streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Raid (財叔之橫掃千軍, Tsui Hark & Tony Ching Siu-Tung, 1991)

Comic book heroes often rise in resistance to a label others have placed on them, but Uncle Choy (Dean Shek Tin) may be the first to offer fierce opposition to societal ageism. Inspired by a series of comic books which ran from 1958 to the mid-1970s, Tsui Hark and Tony Ching Siu-Tung’s The Raid (財叔之橫掃千軍) is at great pains to make plain that you shouldn’t write people off because of a few numbers on an ID card as its admittedly geriatric hero proves that he’s the force for good the Resistance has been waiting for. 

That would be the Resistance towards the Japanese and the new puppet state of Manchuria in the confusing world of 1932. Tsui and Ching open with Pu Yi himself getting out of a limo in a sparkling white uniform adorned with meaningless medals glinting in the sun before he takes to the stage and bizarrely likens himself to Hitler while insisting that he’s here to unify China because his ancestors told him to in a dream. Meanwhile, the Resistance has already infiltrated his forces and installed dynamite in his microphone only for his right-hand man, Matsu (Tony Leung Ka-fai), to catch on right before it explodes. Pu Yi is saved, for now, while Matsu declares himself unfazed by the Resistance fighter’s dying words that he will be coming back to haunt him. 

In another part of the jungle, a team of mute locals is trying to bring a doctor to some soldiers hiding out in a remote shack. After narrowly escaping a plane attack by blowing a hole in a dam and drowning it with water, Uncle Choy arrives to discover that the men are victims of a new kind of poison gas. It’s too late to save the commander, but Choy manages to restore the others to health and even offers to join them in their new mission of destroying the poison gas factory, but Lieutenant Mong (Paul Chu) tells him to go home. He’s too old to be of help and would only get in the way. As expected, Choy finds that very upsetting. Unwrapping the giant sword he fought with in his youth, he leaves a note for his adopted daughter Nancy and heads off on his own towards the revolution, but she follows him with her giant spear and is then followed by a cheeky young guy armed with slingshot. 

There is something a little bit suggestive about this rag tag bag of patriots trying to stop the poisonous fumes of a new China wafting over towards the land they love. Pu Yi, the “last emperor” is something of a tragic figure, a bumbling fool with some weird ideas but also a noticeably progressive streak which sees him tell Matsu, in the middle of an otherwise silly and slightly homophobic joke, that he firmly believes love is love and he plans to make a law that says so. He is, however, just a puppet himself, caught between the villainous Matsu and beautiful actress/super spy Kim Pak-fai/Kawashima Yoshiko (Joyce Godenzi).

Matsu is fond of telling the heroes that they cannot win against a force with superior technology, that old Uncle Choy’s sword and fists are useless in a modern world of guns and chemical warfare. To perfect their poison gas, they’ve been working with a local gangster who cares only for money and has been willingly sending them test subjects. Big Nose (Corey Yuen Kwai) is currently engaged in a turf war with the equally greedy Bobo Bear (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau), testifying to the tendency of oppressed people to fight amongst themselves rather than unite against the true evil. Bobo Bear is also in love with the famous actress Kim Pak-fai and deeply regrets getting mixed up with the Resistance, but later falls for nerdy undercover spy Tina (Fennie Yuen), who is the real brains of the operation, and comes over to the side of right. As does Big Nose after getting a dressing down from Uncle Choy and being confronted with the consequences of his actions by an overconfident Matsu. 

According to Matsu whoever has the best weapon controls the world, but as in any good kung fu movie the best weapon is righteous solidarity. Uncle Choy’s sword turns out not to be so useless after all, while he also makes himself useful as a doctor to the revolutionaries, proving that old people still have a lot to offer and don’t deserve to be put out to pasture by patronising youngsters. Making plenty of space for cartoonish slapstick fun and a series of farcical episodes including the classic misdirected love letter and spy hiding under the bed, The Raid is pure pulp but never pretends to be anything more than it is even while leaving its earnest revolutionaries in media res as if to remind us that a battle still rages even in 1991.


Short clip (no subtitles)

Zodiac Killers (極道追踪, Ann Hui, 1991)

Melancholy exiles seeking a better future find only futility in the dying days of the bubble economy in Ann Hui’s 1991 gangster drama, Zodiac Killers (極道追踪). The English title is admittedly misleading, there’s seemingly no connection to any kind of “zodiac” and no hint of conspiracy murder except those forced by the world’s enduring cruelty, though the Chinese is perhaps equally so meaning something like “yakuza pursuit” which is accurate but only to a point.

The hero, Ben (Andy Lau Tak-wah), has come to Tokyo from Hong Kong to study film but rarely goes to classes, preferring to learn how to make money instead. Making the most of the then affluent city, he works as a tour guide for Chinese tourists, dutifully delivering the men to the strip clubs of Shinjuku in the evenings for kickbacks and giving his boss a kicking when he tries to stiff him out of the agreed amount, heading to his second job in a kitchen immediately afterwards. “Man does not live to make money only, you must learn to spend it too”, he explains to his friend, Chang (Tou Chung-hua), persuading him to come hang out in a swanky bar they’ve been invited to by Ben’s shady relative Ming (Suen Pang) who is currently trying to make it as a yakuza by marrying the boss’ mama-san sister Yuriko (Junko Takazawa). It’s at the bar that Ben first sets eyes on Tieh-lan (Cherie Chung Chor-hung), a young woman from the Mainland in Tokyo studying at a Japanese language school and working as a hostess to make ends meet though as she points out “not every Chinese girl likes to work here”, instantly offending Ming but interestingly not Yuriko who seems sympathetic if embarrassed. 

All of them are in Tokyo because at that moment in time Japan looked like the future, though the window was rapidly closing. Tieh-lan is beginning to wonder why she came. Her friend Mei-mei (Tsang Wai-fai) has ended up in an unwanted sexual relationship with the man who sponsored their visas, Harada (Law Fei-yu), who nevertheless continually sexually harasses Tieh-lan. “Why did we come here?”, Tieh-lan asks Mei-mei, “for our future or for men? You can debase yourself at home, why have you come to Japan to do it?”. Ben later asks something similar of Ming who freely admits that he is prepared to sell his body for influence, “satisfying” Yuriko in order to buy influence with her brother and be admitted into his yakuza clan. The Tokyo they inhabit is one steeped in exile. They surround themselves with other Chinese migrants, be they from the Mainland, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, and congregate in the seedier parts of Shinjuku living on the fringes of society, working as bar hostesses, or gangsters, or in kitchens. For Ben whose bachelor pad student dorm is adorned with posters of Bruce Lee and Rocky, his purpose is more adventure and youthful longing for freedom than escape which is why he makes a point of ignoring his loving mother’s phone calls, but even he struggles to find what he needs on the unforgiving streets of a hostile city. 

That hostility is first brought home to him by a gang of ultranationalist bikers flying the imperial flag one of whom threatens him with a samurai sword (a moment which is tragically echoed in the film’s nihilistic conclusion). They are not, however, the only ones feeling displaced, as a heartbreaking cameo from golden age star Kyoko Kishida as an ageing geisha makes plain. Asano (Junichi Ishida), the melancholy yakuza with whom Tieh-lan has fallen in love much to Ben’s disappointment, declares himself “always a loner”, returning to Tokyo after years of exile in South America. An orphan, Asano laments that the beach he visited as child no longer exists and the city he’s come home to is changed beyond all recognition. Perhaps for that reason he falls for melancholy exile Tieh-lan as they bond in a shared sense of hopeless rootlessness. 

With the surprise introduction of Asano, Hui transitions into the moody noir with which the film opened, shots of Andy Lau plaintively looking back at the shore from a boat on the open sea intercut with Cherie Chung walking sadly through an empty, neon-lit city. Asano hoped for reconciliation but found only betrayal, there can be no home for exiles even if they return. The trio’s broken dreams find their final expression in the nihilistic violence of a non-existent yakuza war. Asano’s final gesture was one only of futility, no one wants to hear his inconvenient truth because the clans in question have already made “peace” and are intent on working together for future prosperity. “Your heart is too soft for this wicked world” Ming says of Ben but it’s a statement that rings true for them all, living life by movie logic in which good will eventually triumph. Ming sees no point in returning to Hong Kong because he’d be a nobody, tragically believing that being a gang boss’ brother-in-law is close enough to somebody in Shinjuku. Only Chang, who came to Japan to look for his missing sweetheart, manages to keep himself safe but largely, as we later find out during a rather bizarre sequence featuring a surprise outdoor porno shoot, because he does not yet know that his dream is futile too. A chronicle of a world in collapse, Zodiac Killers leaves its marginalised heroes with no place left to run, permanent exiles denied safe harbour sailing towards a promised horizon with no land in sight.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Au Revoir, Mon Amour (何日君再來, Tony Au Ting-Ping, 1991)

Love and Resistance go to war in Tony Au’s noirish romance, Au Revoir, Mon Amour (何日君再來, AKA Till We Meet Again). The evocative title sets the scene for a tale of love betrayed by changing times, but ultimately asks if love is a question of priorities and if you have the right to put your romantic destiny on hold to serve a greater good, even if that greater good is a shared ideal. Predictably, the answer may be no, because in the world of the movies at least love is an absolutist choice and you won’t be forgiven for resisting it. 

One fateful evening in the Shanghai of 1941, Resistance operative Sum (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) is an accidental witness to the murder of “notorious Japanese monks” which he later learns may have been set up by the Japanese authorities themselves. Chasing the perpetrator, Shirakawa (Jun Kunimura), through a series of back allies where he slices and dices his now redundant Chinese mercenaries, Sum is brought to a smoky nightclub where the singer, Mui-Yi (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), is none other than his one true love whom he met thanks to the Resistance movement some years earlier but was forced to leave behind with only a heartfelt letter explaining that he would return when the battle was done. Returning the favour Sum had done her in saving her life when she was about to be hit by a car, Mui-Yi tosses him a gun that allows him to defend himself against a crazed Shirakawa and thereafter shelters him in an abandoned garage until he is well enough to return to his mission. 

Heartbroken and embittered, Mui-Yi is still lowkey anti-Japanese and seemingly unafraid of telling the local goons where to get off despite her father’s attempts at collaboration. Her aunt Jing (Carrie Ng Ka-Lai), however, finds herself succumbing to the dubious charms of violent and thuggish turncoat Tit Chak-Man (Norman Chu Siu-Keung) who is working with the Japanese apparently because he thinks China is weak and unsophisticated. Tit Chak-Man thinks nothing of blowing up little children and blackmailing suspects which is how he begins to manipulate Mui-Yi after seizing her father’s bar and having him put in prison on a trumped up charge. Meanwhile, she flip flops in her relationship with Sum, at once resenting him for his tendency to disappear and then longing for his return, while he berates her in a mistaken assumption that she has decided to collaborate but promises that he will be hers and hers alone once the war is over. 

Unlike many similarly themed movies from both the Mainland and Hong Kong, the big bad is not the Japanese themselves but the Chinese who betrayed their country and sided with the enemy. Somewhat two dimensional, Tit Chak-Man is a thuggish brute who is prepared to do anything and everything to stamp out the Resistance but is at once humanised by his intense romance with Jing which continues even after she attempts to assassinate him and eventually proves his weakness when he refuses to abandon her to escape from a baying mob. Though Shirakawa is indeed crazed and bloodthirsty, we’re shown his opposite in the gentle, sensitive Noguchi (Hidekazu Akai) who has also fallen in deep and selfless love with Mui-Yi and is willing to facilitate her romance with Sum while doing everything he can to keep her safe. 

Years later, Sum irritably points out that Noguchi had a choice in serving his country and was therefore free to choose love instead which seems extremely disingenuous seeing as he was most likely (in some way) a conscript too but was in his own way resisting in order to serve the best interests of his country. Sum chose China over Mui-Yi. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to wait in line until you’ve finished being a revolutionary hero and have the proper time to devote to love, no one likes being second choice even if you’re right behind “freedom” when it comes to priorities. To save his love, Sum sent it into the arms of the enemy but failed to realise that she might also find a home there or at least a sense of relief in no longer needing to wait for someone who might never return. Can there be love in time of war? Yes, but love like revolution is a choice and it won’t wait for you forever, if you betray it you may not be forgiven. 


Fortune Star trailer (no subtitles)

Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Kon Ichikawa, 1991)

noh mask murders posterFor one reason or another, Japanese mystery novels have yet to achieve the impact recently afforded to their Scandinavian brethren. Japan does however have a long and distinguished history of detective fiction and a number of distinctive, eccentric sleuths echoing the European classics. Mitsuhiko Asami is just one among many of Japan’s not quite normal investigators, and though Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Tenkawa Densetsu Satsujin Jiken) is technically the 23rd in the Asami series, Kon Ichikawa’s adaptation sets itself up as the very first Asami case file and as something close to an origin story.

Ichikawa, though he may be best remembered for his ‘60s arthouse masterpieces, was able to go on filmmaking where others perhaps were not precisely because of his forays into the populist with a series of mystery thrillers including several featuring top Japanese detective Kindaichi (who receives brief name check in Noh Mask Murders). Published by Kadokawa, Noh Mask Murders is produced by Haruki Kadokawa towards the end of his populist heyday and features many of the hallmarks of a “Kadokawa” film but Ichikawa also takes the opportunity for a little formal experimentation to supplement what is perhaps a weaker locked room mystery.

Asami (Takaaki Enoki) begins with a voice over as four plot strands occur at the same temporal moment at different spaces across the city. In Shinjuku, a salaryman drops dead on the street, while a young couple enjoy a secret tryst in a secluded forest, a troupe of actors rehearse a noh play, and Asami himself is arrested by an officious policeman who notices him walking around with a dead bird in his hand and accuses him of poaching. As he will later prove, all of these moments are connected either by fate or coincidence but setting in motion a series of events which will eventually claim a few more lives before its sorry conclusion.

To begin with Asami, he is a slightly strange and ethereal man from an elite background who has been content to drift aimlessly through life to the consternation of his conservative family which includes a police chief brother. He harbours no particular desire to become a detective and is originally irritated by a family friend’s attempts to foist a job on him but gives in when he learns he will have the opportunity to visit Tenkawa which is where, he’s been told, the mysterious woman who helped him out with the policeman in the opening sequence keeps an inn. Hoping to learn more about her, he agrees to write a book about the history of Noh and then becomes embroiled in a second murder which links back to the Mizugami Noh Family which is currently facing a succession crisis as the grandfather finds himself torn over choosing his heir – he wants to choose his granddaughter Hidemi (Naomi Zaizen) who is the better performer but the troupe has never had a female leader and there are other reasons which push him towards picking his grandson, Kazutaka (Shota Yamaguchi).

As with almost all Japanese mysteries, the solution depends on a secret and the possibilities of blackmail and/or potential scandal. The mechanics of murders themselves (save perhaps the first one) are not particularly difficult to figure out and the identity of the killer almost certainly obvious to those who count themselves mystery fans though there are a few red herrings thrown in including a very “obvious” suspect presented early on who turns out to be entirely incidental.

Ichikawa attempts to reinforce the everything is connected moral of the story through an innovative and deliberately disorientating cross cutting technique which begins in the prologue as Ichikawa allows the conversations between the grandchildren to bleed into those of Asami and his friend as if they were in direct dialogue with each other. He foregrounds a sad story of persistent female subjugation and undue reliance on superstition and tradition which is indirectly to blame for the events which come to pass. Everyone regrets the past, and after a little murder begins to see things more clearly in acknowledging the wickedness of their own actions as well as their own sense of guilt and complicity. Noh is, apparently, like a marriage, a matter of mutual responsibility, fostering understanding between people and so, apparently is murder, and one way or another Asami seems to have found his calling.


Heat Wave (陽炎, Hideo Gosha, 1991)

heat-waveHideo Gosha had something of a turbulent career, beginning with a series of films about male chivalry and the way that men work out all their personal issues through violence, but owing to the changing nature of cinematic tastes, he found himself at a loose end towards the end of the ‘70s. Things picked up for him in the ‘80s but the altered times brought with them a slightly different approach as Gosha’s films took on an increasingly female focus in which he reflected on how the themes he explored so fully with his male characters might also affect women. In part prompted by his divorce which apparently gave him the view that women were just as capable of deviousness as men are, and by a renewed relationship with his daughter, Gosha overcame the problem of his chanbara stars ageing beyond his demands of them by allowing his actresses to lead.

Heat Wave (陽炎, Kagero), which was to be the director’s penultimate feature, is a homage to late ‘70s gangster movies with a significant nod to Toei’s Red Peony Gangster series. Set in 1928, the action follows cool as ice professional itinerant gambler Rin Jojima (Kanako Higuchi) whose high stakes life becomes even more complicated when she accidentally runs into her adopted little brother, apparently on the hook to some petty gangsters. Dropping her commitments to help him out of his sticky situation and recover the family restaurant, Rin comes face to face with the yakuza who killed her father in a gambling dispute more than twenty years previously but vengeance is just one of many items on her to do list.

The title Heat Wave was apparently selected for the film to imply that Gosha was back on top form and ready to burn the screen with thrilling action but when producers saw his rushes they knew that their hopes were a little misplaced. Gosha was already seriously ill and was not able to direct with the fire of his youth. Heat Wave is undoubtedly a slow burn as Rin figures out the terrain and designs her campaign with the opposing side coming up with a counter plan, but the gradual acceleration begins to pay off in the film’s elaborate smoke and flames finale as Rin takes a bundle of dynamite to the disputed territory and then fights her way out with sword and pistol aided by an unlikely ally. Downbeat but leaving room for the hoped for sequels, Heat Wave is very much in the mindset of Gosha’s heyday in which, as Rin laments, the good die young and the bad guys win.

In keeping with many gambling films much of the action is taken up with tense games of hanafuda which may prove confusing to the uninitiated and are not particularly engaging in any case, though Gosha does not overly rely on the game to fill the screen. This may be early Showa, but save for the trains the action could almost be taking place a hundred years previously. Rin may have an unusual degree of autonomy as an unmarried woman travelling alone and earning her money through back alley gambling but her world is still a traditional one in which the honour of the game is supposed to matter, even if it is ignored by the unscrupulous who would be prepared to undercut their rivals away from the gaming table by attacking their friends and allies. Rin gains and then loses, reduced to an endgame she never wanted to play and which she fully intends to win by destroying herself only to be saved by her greatest rival.

Gosha’s reputation for vulgarity was not quite unjustified, even if perhaps overstated. Rin apparently inhabits the male world of her profession in a full way as an odd scene in which she’s taken to an inn to watch a live lesbian sex show seems to demonstrate though there is no dramatic purpose to its inclusion save to emphasise Rin’s impassive poise. Though nudity is otherwise kept to a minimum, Rin’s yakuza tattoos are on full show as a clear indication of her position in the underworld. The appearance of such extensive tattooing on female gangsters is a rare sight and Gosha does his best to make the most of its transgressive qualities.

When the producers realised Gosha was not as filled with intensity as they’d hoped, they hatched on the idea of attaching a hard rock song to the end to give the film more edge (apparently much to the consternation of the composer). This might explain the strange entry to the credits sequence which is accompanied by a very up to the minute burst of synthesiser music accompanied by computer graphics loading the faces of the stars across the screen in strips. Perhaps meant to bring the ‘70s inspired action into the present day the sudden entry of the modern world is jarring to say the least though perhaps it kept viewers in their seats long enough to enjoy the post credits sting of Rin giving it her best “you shall perish”, presumably to whet appetites for a sequel. Even if not quite as impressive as some of Gosha’s previous work, Heat Wave makes up for its flaws in its exciting finale which brings all of his choreographical and aesthetic abilities to their zenith as Rin basks in both victory and defeat with the legacy of the good people who took her in burning all around her.


Selection of scenes from the the film (no subtitles)

A Scene at the Sea (あの夏、いちばん静かな海, Takeshi Kitano, 1991)

scene-at-the-seaReview of Takeshi Kitano’s A Scene at the Sea – first published by UK Anime Network.


Takeshi Kitano’s third feature, A Scene at the Sea (あの夏、いちばん静かな海, Ano natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi), is about as much of a departure as it is possible to make from his first two films. Not only does Kitano not star, but he eschews his focus on down and dirty, grimy crime thrillers in favour of a poetic tale about a boy who falls in love with the sea. Largely told without dialogue, A Scene at the Sea is Kitano in one of his more contemplative moods as he creates an existential fable of one man’s search to find his place.

Shigeru (Claude Maki) has a dull and unfulfilling life as a dustman, endlessly staring out over the beautifully blue seas of his harbour town as if searching the horizon for some kind of destiny. His luck changes when he finds an old broken surfboard on one of his rounds and manages to repair it. Lacking the proper equipment, Shigeru takes to the seas to indulge his new sport after stripping down to his pants and T-shirt while his girlfriend Takako (Hiroko Oshima) watches him from the sands, lovingly folding his clothes as she waits for him. Over time Shigeru’s love for surfing begins to pull him away both from Takako and from his everyday life on land as he starts skipping work to spend more time riding the waves.

Shigeru is deaf and mute and his girlfriend Takako is more or less silent too, hence the overall lack of dialogue in the film though words are not especially necessary in their relationship. Shigeru is constantly isolated from all social groups (aside from his friendship with Takako) whether it be his inability to join in with workplace banter or the rejection of the snobbish surfers who laugh at his original attempts on the board whilst also grudgingly praising his determination to brave the cold seas without even a wet suit. Though he also had a kind of ally in his partner for dust round, the only person to try and help Shigeru is the owner of a surf shop who sees potential in him and convinces Shigeru to enter a competition. However, at the competition itself there is no one to help him participate – Shigeru misses his opportunity to surf because he can’t hear them call his name. The surf shop owner berates the other surfers for not helping Shigeru, but they continue to ignore him even after he’s been semi-admitted to the group.

Shigeru perseveres despite his lack of ability and paucity of equipment to hone his skills and quickly become a competent surfer. As his obsession with the sea deepens he moves further and further away from Takako. The sea becomes his lover and the surfing a kind of congress or quest for conquest in his new romance. Takako can forgive this growing need for the ocean, but finds herself hurt when she catches Shigeru peeling another girl’s oranges (not a euphemism). Kitano employs another of his beautifully composed long shots to show us Takako wordlessly approaching the pair, who after all are only sitting together on a beach, before stopping indecisively and leaving again without being seen.

The Japanese title of the film, Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi, translates as “That Summer, the Quietist of Seas” which is a little ironic given that calm seas are good for sailors but the opposite of what a surfer needs. The tinge of nostalgic melancholy is clearer here and it’s more obvious that we’re dealing with the remembrance of a past summer, taken from a specific viewpoint, rather than something which is occurring in real time in the present. This may explain some of Kitano’s stranger repeated imagery such as the footballers who never play football and more lyrical, less linear approach to narrative.

Kitano may be in a maudlin mood, but he still injects some of his trademark dark humour notably in the pair of hangers on who follow Shigeru into the world of surfing but spend much of their time bickering about whose turn it is on their shared surfboard, as well as brief appearance from frequent Kitano star Susumu Terajima as a van driver who picks a fight with the police (and loses). Still, A Scene at the Sea is a melancholic vista of a boy lost among the waves, looking for a home on the water. A beautiful, if sad, summer story, Kitano’s third feature is one of his most romantic (in the wider sense) and bears testimony to his talent for crafting intensely moving cinematic poetry.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Shun Nakahara, 1991)

161_img_1_oAs you might be able to tell from its title, Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Juninin no Yasashii Nihonjin) is a loose Japanese parody of the stage play 12 Angry Men notably filmed by Sidney Lumet back in 1957. The Japanese title literally translates as “12 Kindly Japanese Guys” and the film takes the same premise of twelve jurors debating the verdict in a murder case which was previously thought fairly straightforward. This time our jury is a little more balanced as it’s not just guys in the room and even the men are of a more diverse background.

In contrast to the American version, each of our twelve jurors is immediately inclined to acquit and some of them are even walking out the door before one juror, Juror no. 2, raises an objection. He thinks the defendant may be guilty and they should at least talk about it a little more. Irritated, the jurors walk back into the room and enquire why he’s had this sudden change of heart. They will, of course, be entitled to some refreshments now, so what’s the harm in hanging round to talk things through. Eventually people start to switch sides, some in confusion or just wanting to get it over with, but gradually each is exposed as having a personal reason for feeling the way they do that has relatively little to do with the facts of the case.

In contrast to the original stage play, the first instinct of the Japanese jurors is to acquit. No one wants to believe the defendant, who is the mother of a young child accused of pushing her violent ex-husband into the path of an oncoming truck, could have wilfully planned such an outrageous crime in advance. Whatever the facts are, she has clearly suffered enough and her child certainly doesn’t deserve to be orphaned through having its mother taken away by over zealous seekers of “justice”. Nevertheless Juror no.2 doesn’t believe her story and thinks there’s at least the possibility that she pushed him deliberately if not having engineered the entire situation in someway.

As in the American version, they proceed to debate the facts of the case in detail but while some change sides after thinking over the arguments, others are rigidly committed to their positions. Of those in the not guilty camp, some of them can’t quite articulate their reasoning beyond “it’s just a feeling” which proves particularly infuriating to Juror No. 2. The US version placed more emphasis on societal prejudices with personal ones largely backing them up – i.e. they took against the defendant in that case because he was a poor boy from the slums so in their middle class, majority culture minds it was natural that he was guilty. Here, there’s a great deal of sympathy for the defendant who seems to have experienced a lot of misfortune but continues to try and do the best for her young son.

Even so, some take against her because she reminds them of past misfortune of their own, or take against the victim because even as a thoroughly unpleasant man he’d managed to attract himself a pretty wife and son only to misuse and abandon them. Some believe themselves to be excellent judges of character or to be good at spotting a liar only to have their opinions about themselves undermined when scrutinised. The revelations here are personal rather than societal, but the central fact remains that you can’t really ever know or prove what happened and even having witnessed something with your own eyes doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve totally understood the situation fully. Much of the juror’s deliberations consist of creating a narrative out of scattered facts and exercises in supposition. In the end, it more or less comes down to gut feeling anyway.

Originating as a stage play and scripted by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani, Gentle 12 has its moments of humour and never really takes itself too seriously. What else could you say about a case which seems to hinge on the smallest size of pizza available from a delivery company and how someone might say the words “ginger ale” when really, really angry. The “kindly” jurors also have a wonderful tendency towards tolerance or towards restrained anger that sees them getting quite annoyed whilst trying not to lose their tempers in exasperation or just calmly restating their arguments (or lack thereof) and infuriating everyone else in the process. Neatly filmed by Shun Nakahara, Gentle 12 might not have the same level of cultural bite as its original work suggests but it does prove an enjoyably absurd confined space drama which offers a few cultural revelations of its own.