Radio Star (라디오 스타, Lee Joon-ik, 2006)

radio star posterWhat do you do if you’ve just directed a box office smashing, taboo busting, giant mega hit? Well, you could direct Star Wars, but if you’re Lee Joon-ik you go back to basics with a low budget, heartwarming tale of friendship and failure. Radio Star (라디오 스타) reunites frequent costars Ahn Sung-ki and Park Joong-hoon whose shared history runs all the way back to ‘80s movies Chilsu and Mansu, Two Cops, and Nowhere to Hide. ‘80s nostalgia plays not a small part in Lee’s film as it takes a washed up one hit wonder from 20 years back and gives him a new opportunity to shine…if only he can get over himself first.

1988 was something of a banner year for Korea, a newly minted democracy the country put itself on the international map with that year’s Olympic Games taking place in Seoul. It was also a big year for rock star Choi Gon (Joong-hoon) who scored a chart topping mega hit with his song The Rain and You which won him a prestigious musical prize. However, it all went to his head and despite the best efforts of his best friend and manager Park Min-soo (Ahn Sung-ki), 18 years later in 2006 Gon is a cafe singer with a habit of getting into fights which land him in jail. After yet another “incident”, Min-soo is having trouble finding the money to bail his friend out, until, that is he hits on the opportunity of selling Gon’s name as a radio host in an isolated rural town.

Of course, this doesn’t go down well with Gon who’s still every inch the edgy rockstar despite his reduced circumstances. Eventually Min-soo talks him into taking the gig but he’s anything but enthusiastic about his new life as a disembodied voice talking to a handful of country bumpkins who still have transistor radios. Gradually, through learning to appreciate his surroundings Gon begins to understand exactly what it is that’s important in his life.

Playing off its central dynamic, Radio Star undoubtedly brings a lot with it in the casting of Ahn and Park whose similar trajectories add to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative. Min-soo appears to have only the one client to whom he remains completely devoted (even neglecting his wife and daughter in the process) though it’s true Gon’s career has not gone in the hoped for direction. Still dressing like an ‘80s rock god with sunglasses, torn jeans and a leather jacket, Gon is his own worst enemy as he plays the rockstar game all the way into a jail cell he fully expects Min-soo will get him out of. His new assignment as a local radio DJ is one he finds beneath his dignity and only takes because he thinks it’s a favour to a friend (rather than a friend doing a favour for him), but when it brings him unexpected success he finds that it’s all worth nothing if Min-soo isn’t there to enjoy it with him.

Though many in the small town barely remember Choi Gon or his iconic, prize winning song, he still has a few fans in the form of local garage band East River (played by real life punk band No Brain) who become devoted supporters of the show even helping to spread the word and putting on a special celebratory tribute concert. Ironically enough, the show starts to take off with Gon’s nonchalant approach to hosting which often sees him abandoning the mike to a random local either by phone or getting a guest into the studio. Sliding into talk radio territory, Gon begins taking calls and offering (to begin with) flippant advice on such topics as jobs for the unemployed and the proper rules for card games but he’s soon involved in a campaign to help a shy florist declare his love to a bank cashier and eventually makes a heartfelt personal appeal in support of a little boy who’s father has run off, encouraging him to come back home if only to apologise for making the kid think it’s all his fault that his dad went away.

It’s undoubtably small scale stuff, which of course means that it’s infinite in scope as Gon’s growing sense of interconnectedness takes the show out of the local area and eventually all the way to Seoul after the East River boys’ internet fan site gives him a potentially global (well, to anyone who can speak Korean) reach. As Min-soo points out, stars don’t shine alone – they reflect the light they’re given, and therefore Gon’s only rises because of his friendship with Min-soo and the support he begins to win from the local people once he drops the aloof rockstar persona and begins to engage. Necessarily sentimental and drenched in the dust of broken dreams, Radio Star is a sometimes melancholic though warm tribute to the power of friendship and redemptive possibilities offered by unlikely second chances.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gon’s prizewinning song – Rain and You as sung by Park Joong-hoon

And sung by Korean punk band No Brain

 

Tears for You (涙そうそう, Nobuhiro Doi, 2006)

tears-for-youComing in at the end of the “pure love” boom, Nobuhiro Doi’s second feature, Tears for You (涙そうそう, Nada So So) is presumably named to tie in with his smash hit debut Be With You, and continues in the same general vein but with a much less satisfying melodrama at its core. A complicated love story centring on a pair of orphaned step-siblings, Tears for You edges into some difficult, perhaps unpalatable, territory but neatly skirts around it with a childish innocence intended to enhance its romantic credentials. Starring the jun-ai icon Masami Nasagawa, the tragic heroine at the centre of Crying Out Love in the Center of the World, alongside the then up and coming leading man Satoshi Tsumabuki, Tears for You is never quite as heartrending as it would like to be but does its best to wring its sorrowful narrative for all of its inherent tragedy.

21yr old Yota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a young man with big dreams but he’s put lots of them on hold in order to take care of his younger step-sister, Kaoru (Masami Nagasawa), who has only him to depend on. Yota’s mother married Kaoru’s father when both the children were small but her new husband soon ran off leaving his daughter behind. The three of them continued as a tightly knit family until Yota’s mother became ill and passed away, making Yota promise to take care of Kaoru no matter what even whilst on her deathbed. The two then moved back to an Okinawan island to live with Yota’s grandmother until Yota came back to Naha for high school. Kaoru is now about to make that same journey but the siblings’ happy reunion also provokes a number of questions about the nature of their relationship and the course each of their lives will take in the future.

This being a “pure love” movie, tragedy is coming though Tears for You does its best to disguise where it’s coming from even if the eventual outcome is quite obviously signposted. The original barrier between Kaoru and Yota is raised by their nature as accidental siblings, not related by blood but raised alongside each other with a familial bond stronger than that of just childhood friends. This, of course, becomes a problem as they grow older and begin to find it difficult to draw the line between their familial love and a possibly romantic one which would allow their family of two to continue forever.

Yota, the self sacrificing older brother has indeed become everything to Kaoru – a brother, father, and friend all in one. Dropping out of high school early, Yota has been sending a pay check home since the age of sixteen, putting his own future to one side in order to provide for Kaoru. Determined that Kaoru should prosper and escape their lowly, poverty stricken island existence through getting to university and into a middle class profession, Yota has been working three different jobs. When it looks as if he’s about to be able to realise his own dream of opening a restaurant, it all comes crashing down around his ears as he realises he’s been duped by a con artist and is now on the hook to a gang of loansharks.

In addition to adding to his financial burdens, causing him embarrassment, and further deepening his worry about providing for Kaoru, the situation also creates instability in his romantic life when the father of his longterm medical student girlfriend finds out about his predicament and offers to help – but only at a price. Keiko (Isao Hashizume), he reminds him, is a middle class girl on track to take over her father’s clinic. Yota is a poor boy with limited expectations. The implications are clear and already known to Yota who has internalised a degree of shame over his lowly origins and lack of education which he overcomes through hard work and enthusiasm. Keiko is not the sort to worry about a petty class difference even if her father is, but his words get to Yota who has always felt Keiko is too good for him. She does, however, care slightly about Yota’s ongoing and complicated relationship with his younger sister whom, she fears, will always eclipse any other woman in his life.

As in all pure love stories, love is an impossibility, surrounded by unassailable walls of culture and fate. Though there is no blood relation between Yota and Kaoru, their familial circumstances make romantic love a taboo which leads the film into a rather odd corner in which the familial side of their relationship is the one which gains the upper hand as the love of a brother and sister eclipses that of a tragic missed opportunity. As such the nature of the heartrending conclusion does not reach the melodramatic heights of other genre hits, even if it adheres to the form in maintaining the “purity” of the love through the final impossibility of its realisation. Doi employs many of the same techniques he used so well in Be With You, artfully shifting between past and present and making the most of repeated motifs to bring home the circularity of the relationship between the pair of tragic lovers but never achieves the same kind of emotional depth. Nevertheless, Tears for You is a suitably melancholy weepy anchored by strong performances from its two leads which does ultimately prove moving even if not quite reaching the degree of melodrama implied by the title.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s the original song, Nada Sou Sou, in its cover version by Rimi Natsukawa which spawned a mini industry of its own encompassing two TV dramas and this standalone film (English translation):

Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (Unang aklat: Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak, Lav Diaz, 2006)

heremiasLav Diaz has never been accused of directness, but even so his 8.5hr epic, Heremias (Book 1: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (Unang aklat: Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak) is a curiously symbolic piece, casting its titular hero in the role of the prophet Jeremiah, adrift in an odyssey of faith. With long sections playing out in near real time, extreme long distance shots often static in nature, and black and white photography captured on low res digital video which makes it almost impossible to detect emotional subtlety in the performances of its cast, Heremias is a challenging prospect yet an oddly hypnotic, ultimately moving one.

Diaz begins with a long, static take of a roadway in which a convoy of pedlars is parked while the modern world passes them by in the form of speeding motor cars. Heremias (Ronnie Lazaro) is a member of this timeless nomadic community, travelling along the road selling handicrafts from a cart pulled by a cow. The other pedlars seem worried about Heremias, they describe him as seeming “unwell” and are concerned because he hasn’t been eating. Eventually Heremias makes the fateful decision to go his own way, leaving the safety of the caravan behind to tread his own path. Yet what he finds out on his own amounts to trouble and strife beginning with the theft of his cart and ending with his overhearing a gang of teenage boys outline their plan to rape and murder a local girl.

Diaz spends the first few hours of the film immersing us in the world of the caravan with its routines of singing and eating broken with children’s lullabies and games of basketball. Heremias, however, wants something more than his simple life of community and the security of the familiar. Rather than simply retread familiar routes alone, Heremias follows a solitary, untravelled path which promises little more than aloneness. His cow, in a fine supporting performance, is often less certain of the wisdom of his master’s decision and makes his displeasure known, though Heremias is unwavering. When the cow is suddenly removed from the picture, its absence is very much felt as Heremias is left entirely alone without hope or guidance.

On trying to report the crime to the authorities, Heremias finds that all of his faith in the rule of law has been misplaced. Though the police begin to investigate, it’s clear that they have little interest in solving the crime, eventually asking for a sizeable bribe to complete the job. Later, when Heremias hears the terrible plan of the drunken young men, he tries the police again but finds them unwilling to help as the young men in question are sons of important people. Finally Heremias turns to the church but the priest is unwilling to offer anything more than prayer to save the life of a vulnerable young girl. Heremias, disappointed and with his faith shaken to the core, is left with no other recourse than to strike a bargain with God. Fasting and wandering, Heremias hopes that God will save the girl whom he seems incapable of helping in any other way though Diaz offers no clue if his faith will be repaid.

The film’s title comes from the name of a town which Heremias passes through. A couple once lived there and had a beautiful daughter who was abducted and never seen again, save perhaps for a baby lizard appearing at her parents’ home. This story repeats itself in that of Helena – the young woman who will be raped and murdered according to the tale Heremias overhears whilst watching the young men waste their time on drugs and alcohol inside an abandoned home. Old stories seem to resurface in new but no less tragic ways as the lizard who can tell good men from bad gives way to a discussion of the Japanese who hid in the forests after the war, too ashamed (as the villagers describe it) to return home. Among the executed soldiers was a colonel, Oshima, but the men can’t decide if the Oshima who died was the bad Oshima or another one altogether or if the bad Oshima was really bad at all – he did, so they say, design the water sanitation system at the school to the great benefit of everyone.

Heremias wanders alone through the difficult terrain, falling ever deeper into despair. Though generally impassive, Heremias is allowed two great moments of emotion – the first as he’s overtaken by the enormity of the loss of his cart and cow, and then after his greatest test which leads him to make his fateful bargain with God. The police have failed him, the priest ignored him, and there’s nothing to say he’ll have any more luck with the invisible protector yet with this last descent into the depths of hopelessness he emerges changed, almost saintly, as he agrees to make a personal sacrifice for only the hope that the girl will be saved from her grizzly fate. Aimlessness gives way to purpose, as Heremias adopts the path of the fallen prophet.

Though the low res cinematography and extreme distance shots add to the film’s alienating approach, there are moments of rare beauty as Diaz captures the natural landscape even as it proves hazardous or threatening to man. Unusual sound design completes the effect as the boys’ loud rock music suddenly cuts out while they detail their heinous plans, or ancient folk songs float through the background, eerily echoing ongoing events. Oblique and detached, Diaz’s lengthy spiritual epic resolutely rejects connection yet the cumulative effect of its distancing approach leads to its ambiguous if ultimately moving conclusion.


Heremias loses his cow (dialogue free)

The Mamiya Brothers (間宮兄弟, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2006)

mamiya-brothersEver the populist, Yoshitmitsu Morita returns to the world of quirky comedy during the genre’s heyday in the first decade of the 21st century. Adapting a novel by Kaori Ekuni, The Mamiya Brothers (間宮兄弟, Mamiya Kyodai) centres on the unchanging world of its arrested central duo who, whilst leading perfectly successful, independent adult lives outside the home, seem incapable of leaving their boyhood bond behind in order to create new families of their own.

Older bother Akinobu (Kuranosuke Sasaki) and younger brother Tetsunobu (Muga Tsukaji) live together in a small apartment in Tokyo where they enjoy hanging out keeping track of baseball games and watching movies rented from the local store where Akinobu has a crush on the cashier, Naomi (Erika Sawajiri). They are perfectly happy but sometimes frustrated that they don’t have girlfriends so they decide to host a curry party and invite Naomi over in the hopes that she might develop an affection for Akinobu. So that she won’t feel weird about going to the house of two middle-aged guys she doesn’t really know, Tetsunobu invites a reserved teacher, Yoriko (Takako Tokiwa), from the primary school he works at as a caretaker though he “never dates coworkers” and is only really asking her as a backup for Akinobu.

Against expectation the both ladies agree to attend the curry party which actually goes pretty well though neither man is fully capable of following up on the opportunities presented to him. Outside events provide a distraction as Akinobu is swept into his adulterous boss’ divorce crisis and Tetsunobu becomes fixated on a damsel in distress who has no desire to be rescued by him. As much as the boys might want to form independent relationships for female companionship, their brotherly bond is more akin to a marriage in itself leaving both of them unwilling to abandon the status quo for a new kind of happiness.

These kinds of closely interdependent sibling relationships are more often seen between sisters, often as one or both of them has rejected offers of marriage for fear of leaving the other on the shelf. Elderly spinsters and their histories of unhappy romance are almost a genre in themselves though they often present the peaceful co-existence of the two women as a double failure and ongoing tragedy rather than a perfectly legitimate choice each may have made to reject the normal social path and rely solely on each other. The Mamiya Brothers neatly subverts this stereotype, presenting the relationship of the two men as a broadly happy one though perhaps tinged with sadness as it becomes clear that the intense bond they share is holding each of them back in a kind of never ending childhood.

Indeed, though they live alone together and have steady jobs, whilst in each other’s company the brothers regress back to childhood by spending their spare time riding bikes around the neighbourhood and playing on the beach. They are each keenly aware of how they must appear to members of the opposite sex and are always mindful not to appear “creepy”. Accordingly, they’re careful about which DVDs they check out so that Naomi doesn’t get a bad impression of them, and they’re sure to make it clear that both girls can bring other people to their parties so they won’t think there’s anything untoward going on. Throwing quick fire questions back for and constantly making references to private jokes the boys are effectively a manzai duo performing for an audience of two, perpetually suffocating inside their self made bubble.

Though they might not find love, the boys do at least make some new friends. Naomi’s sister, Yumi (Keiko Kitagawa), is exactly the kind of girl they’d usually steer clear of lest she begins to make fun of their old fashioned ways yet she actually becomes an ally and even a friend after spending time hanging out in the brothers’ odd little world. Yumi and Naomi are, in many ways, almost as closely connected as Akinobu and Tetsunobu though they both currently have boyfriends even if they find them equally disappointing.

The teacher, Yoriko, also finds herself unlucky in love as she pursues a relationship with a colleague who doesn’t seem particularly invested in her and is lackadaisical about even the smallest forms of commitment. Tetsunobu seems to have discounted her as a romantic partner under his “no coworkers” rule and is either unaware or deliberately ignoring her growing feelings for him. It may be that he invited Yoriko as a love interest for his brother precisely because he was interested himself and wanted to eliminate the problem, but he may come to regret outwardly rejecting this chance of mutual affection turning into something more solid.

When push comes to shove it might just be that the Mamiya Brothers are happiest in their own company and have no desire to move on and leave their arrested development behind. Though tinged with a degree of lingering sadness as it appears the boys do have a desire to form bonds outside of their mutually dependent bubble, they are after all quite happy and mostly fulfilled in their life together. Cute and quirky, if at times melancholic, The Mamiya Brothers is a strange tale of modern romance in a world where no one really grows up anymore. The brothers are clearly not afraid of broadening their horizons, but might prefer to continue doing so together rather than finding their own, independent, paths.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Black Kiss (ブラックキス, Macoto Tezuka, 2006)

Black KissThe somewhat salaciously titled Black Kiss (ブラックキス) comes appropriately steeped in giallo-esque nastiness but its ambitions lean towards the classic Hollywood crime thriller as much as they do to gothic European horror. Directed by the son of the legendary father of manga Osamu Tezuka (not immune to a little strange violence of his own) Macoto Tezuka, Black Kiss is a noir inspired tale of Tokyo after dark where a series of bizarre staged murders are continuing to puzzle the police.

We witness the first of them as a sleazy producer type takes a prospective new sign out for a night on the town. He promises to make her a star but predictably the evening ends in a fairly grim love hotel. This early episode is brought to an abrupt halt as the man is conked on the head in the bathroom only to wake up tied to the bed for a spot of vivisection.

However, it turns out there is an unexpected witness to the crime in the form of aspiring model, Asuka, who we now meet by hopping back week as she moves into the flat opposite with the rather sullen and reluctant street punk Kasumi. The pair then get involved with the police as well as with a local paparazzo but what does Kasumi’s missing former roommate have to do with all of this and why does all the evidence keep pointing back to her? The reason may surprise you.

Black Kiss is playing with several genres during its running time but it certainly packs in its fair share of red herrings. Far too many, in fact, leaving its ultimate explanation feeling oddly hollow. Given this amount of build up and a careful arrangement of clues, Tezuka’s decision to end as a standard slasher leaves the viewer feeling cheated as our intrepid heroines make an admittedly exciting final run for it across the rooftops of Kabuki-cho. After throwing so many possible solutions on the screen, the one that is finally offered seems extremely dull in comparison and makes little to no internal sense.

That said, Black Kiss is actually quite good at painting its shady world with an appropriate layer of detail. Tezuka returns to the ideas of duality which play into his Vertigo homage, casting his two leading ladies as alike in some senses – both having been involved in the fashion industry, both half Japanese, both adrift in terms of their lives and ambitions, but is also careful place them on opposing sides as Asuka dresses in light colours to bring out her sweetness and innocence whereas Kasumi is all punk/goth darkness and aggression borne of self loathing. Though originally reluctant roommates, Asuka and Kasumi eventually bond though it’s another weakness of the film that aspects of their relationship appear curiously unresolved adding yet another layer of ambiguity to the already hard to pin down central narrative.

What Tezuka really seems to want to do is use the central mystery to explore notions of genre rather than actually follow or even blend them. He quotes Hitchcock both overtly onscreen with the oddly named “Bats Motel” and Vertigo night club as well as in his Rear Window and Dial M for Murder plot elements but then he veers widely off course into the world of giallo with his semi-explicit sex scene and leather clad avenging murderess. As an exercise in style, Black Kiss is frequently impressive with its innovative cinematography and unusual composition but dramatically it can’t unify its underlying concerns in a way which makes both visual and narrative sense.

A noble failure, there is much to admire in Black Kiss which is only let down by its non-sensical finale. Deliberately or otherwise, Tezuka constantly undercuts himself and pulls his punches just when it seems as if he may be about to move into a more interesting area. The final mystery makes no sense at all and, in what may be Tezuka’s biggest failed ambition, leaves the murders themselves as an odd kind of McGuffin. Quite a big ask in what is, essentially a serial killer movie with a significant lean towards giallo inflected horror. Nevertheless, though Black Kiss fails on many levels it does prove intriguing enough to maintain interest even if it ultimately loses all of the good will it accrues with its dramatically unsatisfying slide into slasher territory in the final quarter.


Unsubbed trailer:

Hatsukoi (First Love) (初恋, Yukinari Hanawa, 2006)

hatsukoiThe 300 Million Yen Affair is one of the most famous and intriguing unsolved mysteries in Japan, not least because the missing cash has been lying dormant somewhere, apparently untouched, ever since that fateful day back in 1968. Seeing as the true story has never been discovered, the crime has taken on legendary status and become the focus of many kinds of fiction. Misuzu Nakahara’s fictionalised autobiography is just one of these as she retroactively claims responsibility for the robbery as a teenage girl in love with a detached revolutionary.

Misuzu (Aoi Miyazaki) begins her tale a couple of years before the crime as she lives a lonely and introverted life in the house of her uncle, her father having died and her mother apparently absconded with her older brother in tow but leaving her behind. It’s her 16th birthday, but no one cares. Soon enough she starts hanging around a shady jazz bar before another woman convinces her to come inside and join their group of layabout beatniks – a group which is actually lead by her estranged older brother, Ryo (Masaru Miyazaki). These are the heady days of students protests – against the old order, against the ANPO treaty, against the war in Vietnam, against just about everything. Misuzu grows closer to one of their number, the quiet and mysterious Kishi (Keisuke Koide), who has a proposition for her….

Hatsukoi (AKA First Love, 初恋) is a film which is thick with period detail from the authentically smokey, sweaty jazz bar and its counterculture denizens to the nostalgic atmosphere and 1960s street scenes. However, evoking Misuzu’s own sense of ennui, director Yukinari Hanawa opts for a detached, dispassionate tone which is entirely at odds with the otherwise searing, youth on fire tension of the time period. Misuzu is always on the edges of things, younger than the other members of the group she feels as if she’s merely being permitted to stay and listen rather than invited to participate. Nevertheless, even if it’s the case that Misuzu is a by nature a passive person, the film pushes the intense nature of the social revolution going on all around her into mere background, squandering its power to bring out the sense of passion that the film feels as if it needs.

At heart, the robbery is something of a mcguffin as the real story is the true love tragedy hinted at in the title. Misuzu and Kishi grow closer through their plotting of the crime which is born of his desire to commit a different kind of revolutionary act. The money is intended to pay the bonuses of Toshiba employees and Kishi feels the best way to make a protest against economic inequality and the power of large corporations is to hit them in the finances. Misuzu plays her part well enough and the robbery comes off OK despite minor hitches allowing only a brief honeymoon period for its would be Bonnie and Clyde before history begins to move forward and eventually rips them apart. For Misuzu the robbery becomes the defining event of her youth and the birth of the love that she seemingly cannot let go. After this the jazz club is over, the protest movement dies as do some of the protestors, or else they move on to more conventional lives. Not quite a coming of age, but a death of youth before it had hardly begun.

Some injuries never heal, says the kindly old man who teaches Misuzu how to drive. A prescient remark if ever there was one. Misuzu seems locked within this brief period of her youth, before her friends died, left, or disappeared once the turbulent atmosphere of protest and revolution gave way to the consumerist 1970s and everyone forgot about the necessity for social change in the hurry to make money.

Hatsukoi becomes less a about the first love itself than about the period that surrounds it. The love was lost, but so was the bubble in which Misuzu had begun to define herself as a young woman. What Hatsukoi lacks is a sense of personal tragedy, of a soul crushing, spiritual death which locks each of the group members into their own tragic fates and seems somehow dictated despite their insistence on defining themselves in the new, youth centric world. Often beautifully photographed, Hatsukoi’s air of desolation and cold, detached tone weaken its ability to engage making its painful end of youth journey all seem rather dull.


Hatsukoi was released with English subtitles on blu-ray in Taiwan, and on DVD in Hong Kong though both editions now appear to be OOP.

Unsubtitled trailer:

The Letter (手紙, Jiro Shono, 2006)

The Letter PosterWhen it comes to cinematic adaptations of popular novelists, Keigo Higashino seems to have received more attention than most. Perhaps this is because he works in so many different genres from detective fiction (including his all powerful Galileo franchise) to family melodrama but it has to be said that his work manages to home in on the kind of films which have the potential to become a box office smash. The Letter (手紙, Tegami) finds him in the familiar territory of sentimental drama as its put upon protagonist battles unfairness and discrimination based on a set of rigid social codes.

Nao (Takayuki Yamada) is a bright young man who had the chance to go to university and progress into a normal middle class life but is now slumming it as a blue collar worker at a factory. It transpires that his dismal circumstances began when he and his brother were orphaned meaning that his older brother Takashi (Tetsuji Tamayama) left school to get the money for Nao’s education. Working himself to the bone, Takashi was injured in a workplace accident and subsequently laid off. Desperate to provide for his brother, he turned to crime and unfortunately ended up killing an elderly woman during a burglary gone wrong and will spend the rest of his life in prison. The once close brothers now communicate through letters alone. With his university dreams shattered, Nao moves from place to place, forced out of employment and friendship groups each time someone finds out about his brother. Increasingly he comes to resent Takashi for the shadow his foolish actions continue cast over his life.

It is sadly true that this kind of social stigma towards the relatives of criminals is more prevalent in a society like Japan’s which prizes the overall harmony of the group (though I wouldn’t say it’s entirely absent here either). Every time Nao thinks he’s about to get somewhere, a background check throws up his imprisoned brother and it’s all over. Especially considering that his brother’s crime is a violent one perpetrated against an elderly lady, nobody is prepared to extend an understanding hand to Nao even though the crime itself has nothing to do with him (save being committed in his name) and its price should not be hanging on his shoulders.

It’s unsurprising then that Nao tries to conceal his brother’s existence, often claiming to be an only child with no living family. Though originally communicating warmly with Takashi in the letters, his growing resentment leads to a decline in their frequency and he rarely visits in person. The desire to hide his problematic past becomes a trigger in itself which leads to his having to give up on a dream of becoming a TV comedian just when it looked like his career was about to take off, and failure to tell a fiancée that he lied about being an only child also presents a serious crack in the couple’s relationship. Had he been more upfront and faced out the resulting reaction, he might have been able to work through it but once you’ve tried to lie sympathy dissipates entirely.

At the end of the day Nao is a young man with no one to guide him. He’s angry and he’s ambitious so he’s filled with resentment that he can’t have everything he thinks he deserves simply because of a series of things which happened to him none of which were his fault. Because of this, he makes a series of poor choices failing to see the things that are right in front of him. The dowdy girl next-door type from the factory is clearly in love with Nao but he isn’t interested – she doesn’t fit his slightly arrogant view of himself with her plainness and straightforward goodness. On the other hand, he’s immediately captivated by a beautiful and wealthy socialite who’s way out of his league. Of course, this is likely to end in tears – even if Nao didn’t already have skeletons in the closet the girl’s father has other plans for her which don’t include a marriage to a jumped up poor boy comedian.

The Letter suffers slightly in its focus on Nao and his troubles rather than being evenly split between the brothers. Takashi has paid a heavy price for his crime – he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life and the bright future he tried to buy for his brother has been ruined forever precisely because of the actions he was taking to ensure it. His only lifeline is the letters and the news he gets of Nao’s prospering in the outside world. Nao’s final decision to stop writing and not even tell his brother his new address so that the letters will no longer reach him is therefore a doubly cruel and selfish one. However, Takashi is only presented in relationship to his brother and his own pain and struggle becomes an undeveloped facet of the film.

As in all of Keigo Higashino’s work, secrets are the great enemy. The film only partially addresses the extreme unfairness of Nao’s plight as he’s continually persecuted for something that’s nothing to do with him. Guilty by association only, he is also in prison with no parole board to consider his case. The film even states that this kind of stigma is a perfectly natural thing which just has to be accepted – accept the truth, it says, and the world will open up to you. On balance this is a good message, but the idea that prejudice and social discrimination are things which just have to be endured is an uncomfortable one which sits at odds with the film’s otherwise positive messages of personal redemption and the importance of familial bonds. Uneven and occasionally tipping over into sentimentality, The Letter is something of a missed opportunity but nevertheless offers a thought provoking and emotionally satisfying melodrama in the best traditions of the genre.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.