The Pinkie (さまよう小指, Lisa Takeba, 2014)

the pinkie posterWhat if someone cloned you and then they liked the other you better? The “hero” of Lisa Takeba’s debut feature The Pinkie (さまよう小指, Samayou Koyubi) is about to find out when his rather depressing life takes a turn for the surreal. Winner of the Grand Prize at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, The Pinkie is an exercise in madcap fun which packs a considerable amount into its barely feature length runtime of 65 minutes. Ever cineliterate, Takeba leaps from sci-fi to romance to yakuza movie and revenge flick but then her ambitions are more grounded in the real as she explores the fallacy of infatuation, the nature of true, selfless love and the necessity of waking up from a romantic dream.

Ryosuke (Ryota Ozawa) has a lifelong problem. Ever since they were five, a girl has been stalking him. Momoko (Miwako Wagatsuma), in Ryosuke’s words, is the ugliest woman in the village. So infatuated is she, that Momoko has even undergone cosmetic surgery to adjust her face to Ryosuke’s tastes but that’s only made him dislike her more. Truth be told, Ryosuke is no great catch. He has no job and exists on the fringes of the underworld. He has, however, found love, of a kind, but unfortunately the lady in question is the paramour of a local gangster kingpin. Discovered in his illicit romance, Ryosuke is tormented by the gangsters until they eventually exact some of their trademark justice by cutting off his pinkie finger which then flies halfway across town and into the path of Momoko who uses it to create her very own Ryosuke clone.

Shifting focus somewhat, Takeba then tells the story of Momoko and the clone whom she christens “Pinkie Red String” in reference both to his origins and to the red strings which bind true lovers together. Momoko begins taking care of Pinkie, buying him clothes and teaching him to survive in the modern world, and before long the two have become a couple.

Ryosuke doesn’t quite like having a doppleganger – especially one who’s almost his polar opposite in terms of outlook and general personality. Under the gentle guidance of Momoko, Pinkie is good person who works hard, is kind to those around him, and is almost entirely selfless. Stolen away by Ryosuke, Pinkie becomes something between maid and prisoner as he takes on a purely domestic role, cooking and cleaning for his new master who later sends him out to work dressed as a woman wearing a long black wig and red dress, just to ram the point home.

Takeba’s aim is madcap fun but she also offers up a commentary on emotional repression as both Momoko and Ryosuke pursue their respective romances. Momoko has only ever wanted to express her love but her methods backfire, eventually getting her sent to a reform school which leads to the breakup of her family. Ryosuke, by contrast seems to be a fairly romantic, if sometimes cynical soul, originally asking if anyone would really sacrifice themselves for love only to attempt to do exactly that later on (though far too late). Neither Ryosuke nor Momoko is able to show their love in a straightforward way, opting for grand gestures over simple words. “Love needs a victim”, as someone later puts it, but there’s no need to run so eagerly to the gallows.

The world of The Pinkie is one of intense genre fusion as Takeba mixes references from classic cinema with the anarchic pace of anime and manga. Mad scientist sci-fi shifts to classic kung fu before cycling back to jitsuroku yakuza movie complete with on screen captions and brief sting of the iconic Battles Without Honour theme, but even if Takeba can’t always control her rate of progression her leaps are always inventive and unexpected, humorous and melancholy in equal measure. Pinkie, fulfilling his stranger in town role, begins to change his progenitor’s cynical psyche. Ryosuke is no longer the selfish loser but has learned to befriend the wounded Momoko who has also realised she can do better, abandoning her youthful fantasies for something more “real”. Then again, perhaps there is a second chance for lost love even if it is, in a sense, a synthetic solution for a very human problem.


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Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Tale of Nishino (ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険, Nami Iguchi, 2014)

tale of nishinoEvery love story is a ghost story, as the aphorism made popular (though not perhaps coined) by David Foster Wallace goes. For The Tale of Nishio (ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険, Nishino Yukihiko no Koi to Boken), adapted from the novel by Hiromi Kawakami, this is a literal truth as the hero dies not long after the film begins and then returns to visit an old lover, only to find her gone, having ghosted her own family including a now teenage daughter. The Japanese title, which is identical to Kawakami’s novel, means something more like Yukihiko Nishino’s Adventures in Love which might give more of an indication into his repeated failures to find the “normal” family life he apparently sought, but then his life is a kind of cautionary tale offered up as a fable. What looks like kindness sometimes isn’t, and things done for others can in fact be for the most selfish of reasons.

Ten years prior to his death in a traffic accident, Yukihiko Nishino (Yutaka Takenouchi) has taken a (former?) lover and her little girl out for drinks and parfait at a lovely seaside cafe. The woman, Natsumi (Kumiko Aso), declines the offer of dessert but Nishino orders two anyway – one for himself and one for the little girl, Minami, though it seems neither of them really wanted one anyway. An odd flirtation exists between the adults but Nishino laments his ability to gain exactly what this situation might look like from the outside – a “normal” family. He wants to get married, have a daughter of his own, but his relationships always end in failure. Natsumi tells him why – he always gives women exactly what they want, which sounds good, but really isn’t.

Nishino’s problem is that he’s almost irresistible to women, but sooner or later they all leave him. He believes he has an almost telepathic ability to figure out what it is women want from him coupled with an intense need to satisfy their innermost desires. Ironically enough, it’s this strange kindness that eventually leads to his death when he runs into an old friend at a crowded marketplace. Excited to see him she calls and waves, dropping her shopping and losing one of her crutches in the process. Rushing to help, Nishino does not see an oncoming van and is run over. Quite literally the story of his life.

Reappearing as a ghost he attempts to pay a visit to Natsumi, having jokingly promised to do so while they were dating. Natsumi, however, is nowhere to be found and so Nishino is left to exorcise his demons with the now teenage Minami (Yurika Nakamura) who decides to attend his funeral in case her long absent mother decides to pay her respects. It’s here that she begins to learn a little of Nishino’s sad romantic history courtesy of an older woman who became a friend and confident rather than a lover (and consequently remained in his life a little longer).

The problem is, Nishino’s desire to be eternally helpful means that he’s always pulled in more than one direction. A slow burn affair with shy and retiring superior Manami (Machiko Ono) looks as if it could be the one, but she eventually points out to him that he’s not the sort of man who can have the life he craves because he never fully commits to any one person and never truly loves anyone. His irresistibility apparently even extends to one half of the lesbian couple from next door though, notably, not the half you’d expect.

Nishino first gets to know Tama (Fumino Kimura) and Subaru (Riko Narumi) when their cat, Nau, invites himself over, after which the feline Subaru decides to do the same, flirting away with her uptight girlfriend presumably going crazy in an adjacent room. Subaru is Nishino’s opposing number, the kind of girl that gets everything done for her, but there are obvious cracks in the strained relationship between the two women and it’s the neurotic Tama he finally bonds with after an unusually perceptive conversation over convenience store ice cream. Nishino, as he later puts it, is faithful in mind if not in body but satisfying immediate desires is not always the best idea. Trying to provide comfort, Nishino adds even more confusion to a messy situation and, even if it perhaps works out for the best, Nishino is left alone once again.

A botched proposal leads Nishino to let slip the real reason for his boundless desire to please – it’s because he’s lonely. Desiring to keep these women around him, he gives them whatever it is they want to stay. Just like Tama has effectively relegated Subaru to the same level as their cat – giving in to her every demand in the terror that she will leave, Nishino loses the women he loves by embracing his selfish desire to keep them rather than acting in their best interests and recognising the true depth of love which may not always work out in his favour. The interfering spectre of old girlfriend Kanoko (Tsubasa Honda) who can’t let go even though the relationship is over is a lingering hangover of this tendency as she too cannot seem to commit and wants to keep Nishino as a backup plan, resenting his interest in other women yet not willing to make a permanent decision to stay with him.

A whimsical fable of a man looking for love in all the wrong places, The Tale of Nishino is a long, melancholy journey through modern relationships in which not just romantic but platonic and familial love find themselves under the microscope. As Manami points out, you can’t share loneliness – Nishino’s need to be needed eventually drives a wedge between himself and everything he wanted. Natsumi’s words of wisdom for her injured daughter offer only that romantic love necessarily ends, whereas a mother’s love for her child is ever lasting even if it does not necessarily look that way. Iguchi’s style is typical of the “quirkier” end of Japanese indie, shooting with a deadpan abstraction, but the slight feeling of alienation works well with Nishino’s ultimate refusal to bare his heart in a more “straightforward” manner. A bittersweet story of love lost and found, Nishino may have given up the ghost but perhaps he did find that family after all, in a way, even if it was not his own.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tazza: The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Kang Hyung-Chul, 2014)

tazza posterYou gotta know how to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run. Apparently these rules of the table are just as important in the cutthroat world of the Korean card game Hwatu as they are in the rootinest tootinest saloon bar. Like most card games, having the winning hand is less important than the ability to play your opponent and so it’s more a question of who can cheat the best (without actually breaking the rules, or at least being caught doing so) than it is of skill or luck. A second generation sequel to 2006’s Tazza: The High Rollers, The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Tajja: Shinui Son) is a slick, if overlong, journey into the dark, underground world of gambling addicted card players which turns out to be much more shady than the shiny suits and cheesy grins would suggest.

Wisecracking kid Dae-gil (T.O.P) comes into contact with the first film’s fast talking hustler Go (Yu Hae-Jin) and realises he has a talent for trickery. As a young man he gets himself into trouble trying to save a family member from a gangster whom he winds up stabbing meaning he has to go on the run and leave the girl he’s fallen head over heels for, Mina (Shin Se-Kyung), far behind him with only the promise to come back for her when he’s made something of himself. With nothing to fall back on Dae-gil ends up working for cardsharping gangsters in what is really a series of high level con operations. His first problem occurs when he temporarily forsakes the memory of Mina for the attentions of the alluring Mrs. Woo (Lee Honey) who becomes both his secret girlfriend and the gang’s latest mark.

Things do not go to plan and Dae-gil is left carrying the can for the gang’s heavy losses. Getting into trouble with another mark who turns out to be a high level gangster himself, Dae-gil finds out Mina has been sold into prostitution as payment for a family debt but also winds up losing a kidney as recompense for his mounting gambling debts. Now Dae-gil is out for revenge against pretty much everyone, hoping to rescue Mina and win her heart in the process but his adversaries are old hands at this sort of thing and it’s going to take more than a rigged deck to beat them at their own game.

Taking over from the first film’s Choi Dong-hoon, Kang Hyung-chul opts for a slick and charming Oceans 11 inspired aesthetic full of quirky humour and tricky slight of hand photography. With retro musical choices from a smooth cover of Spooky to the ‘80s synth pop kicking in for an exciting car chase, Kang piles on the nostalgia as Dae-gil rides high as a wisecracking conflicted member of this underhanded outfit. Taking inspiration from its manwha roots, The Hidden Card maintains its breezy tone even whilst the atmosphere darkens as Dae-gil taps out with this gangster credit, beaten up, drugged and waking up in a filthy room with a bandaged hand and a crude scar across his abdomen where his kidney used to be. Apparently making a quick recovery from serious surgery, Dae-gil’s discovery of Mina’s fate is likewise another addition to his quest narrative rather than more evidence of the savagery of this trick or be tricked world.

The Hidden Card’s biggest problem is an unavoidable one given its genre – the sheer structural repetitiveness of moving from one card game to another. Lack of familiarity with Hwatu itself is not exactly a problem even if mildly frustrating, but the nature of the way the game is played means that a great deal of screen time is occupied with watching people watching each other, moodily, only to be left unsure of what’s going on or who’s won at the end of it. This is all the more true of the film’s final showdown which brings back a major player from the first instalment in which the stakes have been raised supposedly to “prevent” cheating, but only really aim to make it more “challenging”. Still, away from the gaming table there are enough high octane fist fights and a lengthy car chase to break up the more cerebral thrills.

Undeniably slick and filled with a host of likeable characters offering snappy dialogue and silly humour, Tazza: The Hidden Card is far too long at two and a half hours. Uneven pacing does not help the feeling of scale and a similarly unbalanced plot structure produces a misleading sense of progression. Still, keeping one step ahead of the card sharks is fun in itself and even if the action drags here and there, there is enough character driven drama and ironic comedy to keep things moving right up until the consciously cool finale.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Manhole (맨홀, Shin Jae-young, 2014)

manhole posterFinding the sinister in the commonplace is the key to creating a chilling horror experience, but “finding” it is the key. Attempting to graft something untoward onto a place it can’t take hold is more likely to raise eyebrows than hair or goosebumps. The creators of Korean horror exercise Manhole (맨홀) have decided to make those ubiquitous round discs the subject of their enquiries. They are kind of worrying really aren’t they? Where do they go, what are they for? Only the municipal authorities really know. In this case they go to the lair of a weird serial killer who lives in the shadows and occasionally pulls in pretty girls from above like one of those itazura bank cats after your loose change.

Of course, it’s sort of our first victim’s fault because she’s dared to go out late at night on her own and committed the cardinal sin of shouting at her over protective father on the phone shortly before realising she’s wandered into a horror movie by mistake. The lights start flickering, everything goes wavy and then you’re being pulled down a manhole. Not cool.

Anyway, the real story is about two sisters. Yeon-seo (Jung Yu-Mi) is now the sole guardian of Soo-jeong (Kim Sae-Ron) following the death of their parents and also seems to be harbouring some kind of guilt over an accident that left Soo-jeong permanently deaf. Perhaps a little over protective as a consequence, Yeon-seo instructs Soo-jeong to stay in their apartment and wait for her to get back. Soo-jeong, however, is old enough to push the boundaries and ventures out alone to meet her sister on her way home with an umbrella. Unfortunately, she catches sight of the killer along the way and is soon trapped in the sewer like everyone else, apparently. Yeon-soo tries to call the police but they aren’t interested so she has little choice but to track her sister’s phone and journey underground herself. She’s joined (well, they’re there at the same time) by the father of the first victim (Choi Duk-Moon) who happens to be a former policeman, now in possession of a gun stolen from a friend also set to make a fateful descent at a later point.

Manhole is a very confused film. Unable to decide who its protagonist(s) is (are), it meanders freely between its disparate plot strands without ever managing to build coherent connections between them. Though the sisters are posited as the main element of the story, they take quite a long time to arrive and are then frequently sidelined in favour of other ongoing developments. Their story is undoubtedly the most interesting as it presents an unusual plot device in which they remain unable to communicate verbally during their attempts to escape from the sewers and it’s nice to see sign language used so ordinarily in a genre film, yet even their meagre backstory is painted in broad strokes and through flashbacks once again making it difficult to fully connect with them as they battle the threat in the shadows.

The role of the killer, Soo-chul (Jung Kyoung-Ho), is also a difficult one as he is neither protagonist nor generic threat but given a small amount of flashback backstory delivered in monologue to his victims which only serves to make him a frustrating presence. Manhole seems as if it has a point to make about families in that Soo-chul is a damaged child of a broken home, both trying to avenge himself and regain what he’s lost by, in a sense, “recreating” a family through his kidnappings. Frequent glances towards the prominently displayed portrait of the ideal family contrast with the other relationships in the film – Jong-ho and his hunt for his missing daughter, and the bond between the two sisters. Both of these family units are also missing elements – the sisters who’ve lost their parents and Jong-ho as a lone father. Neither of the parental figures in the film is fully able to protect their charges despite appearing controlling and over protective prior to the incident though no particular reason seems to be offered for this other than praising parental sacrifice in allowing both to fight all out to protect those closest to them.

What Manhole tries to be is a chase film, confining itself to the sewer environment as its crazed killer crawls around it like the literal beast in the shadows, cocooning victims in clingfilm and wearing bug-like bright red night vision goggles. Though exciting enough the frequent cutaways and over reliance on shaky cam disrupt the claustrophobic atmosphere as do the stereotypical jump scares and framing which feel as predictable as the final sequence of a video game in which the idea is to dodge the falling axes. Muddled and inexpertly photographed, Manhole is a disappointing genre exercise which even the generally strong performances of its cast can’t mask. Still, hardcore genre fans may find more to admire in the gore stained darkness of the oddly accessible sewer network and its lizard-like psycho killer.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Crows Explode (クローズ EXPLODE, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2014)

crows explodeToshiaki Toyoda made an auteurst name for himself at the tail end of the ‘90s with a series of artfully composed youth dramas centring on male alienation and cultural displacement. Attempting to move beyond the world of adolescent rage by embracing Japan’s most representative genre, the family drama, in the literary adaptation Hanging Garden, Toyoda’s career hit a snag. Despite the film’s favourable reception with critics, a public drugs scandal cost Toyoda his career in Japan’s extremely strict entertainment industry. Since his return to filmmaking in 2009 Toyoda has continued to branch out but 2014’s Crows Explode (クローズ EXPLODE) throws him back into that early world of repressed male energy as internalised rage and frustration produce externalised violence. Picking up the Crows franchise where Takashi Miike left off, Toyoda brings his unique visual sensiblilty to the material, swapping Miike’s irony for something with more grit but losing the deadpan depth of its adolescent posturing in the process.

The old gods have fallen and new ones must rise. Tough guys graduate, but the battlefields of Suzuran High endure eternally. Suzuran is the ultimate in delinquent schools. None of the boys here are under any misapprehension that the adult world holds any promise for them. Many will drop out without completing high school, condemning themselves to a precarious life of continually uncertain, low paid employment, but even those who do manage to leave with a certificate will be heading into another competition to find a steady job in economically straightened times.

That is, those of them who don’t end up in a gang. The thing at Suzuran is that your fate is determined by your fists. Boys roam the halls looking for a fight, each vowing to become the top dog and de facto leader by proving themselves the best and the strongest of the strapping young men all vying for the title. A new challenger arrives in the form of transfer student, Kaburagi (Masahiro Higashide), whose intense energy upsets the dynamic between presumed number one Goura (Yuya Yagira) and his challenger Takagi (Kenzo) but Kagami (Taichi Saotome), the loner son of a fallen yakuza, seems further set to pose a threat in this knife edge environment.

Toyoda has some interesting points to make about the legacy of violence and the importance of father son relationships as each of these young men is reacting in some sense against a father or just his father’s world. Kaburagi, the film’s protagonist, is nursing a deep wound of double abandonment after witnessing his father’s death and then being deposited in a foster home by his sorrowful mother who promises to return for him soon but makes do with occasional visits and monetary gifts. Kaburagi is an angry young man and like many angry young men, he is eager not to become his father – a situation complicated by the fact that his father was a prize fighter who died in the ring.

His “mirror” Kagami, has a similar problem only his father died in a yakuza turf war. A surrogate presents himself in the form of former Suzuran scrapper “Jarhead Ken” (Kyosuke Yabe), now an ex-yakuza helping out at a friend’s second hand car dealership but unable to escape gangland troubles when it emerges Kagami’s clan are intent on acquiring it in order to turn the place into some kind of “entertainment complex”. Ken, a tough guy but soft hearted, has a talent for paternalism which he turns on the fatherless little boy of the car dealership’s owner to whom he teaches the importance of a hefty punch but also of friendship and loyalty.

Miike’s world was a surreal one, inflected with a wry middle aged eye which sees all of this teenage rambunctiousness for the ridiculous posturing it really is. Toyoda’s attempts to be more in the moment, experiencing the adolescent angst with all of its immediate force but unlike his early protagonists the boys of Suzuran are forced to “explode” rendering that central tenet of repressed anger redundant. Externalising the internal war somehow makes it much less interesting as boys trade blows, mindlessly trying to work out a mental struggle which their ill drawn backgrounds will not support.

The environment which the boys inhabit is a grey and hopeless one. Toyoda paints it with his characteristic visual flair, returning to his trademark sequences of slow motion coupled with indie music, but his energy is very different from Miike’s and its more contemplative rhythm never quite gels with the pugilistic fury of the source material even as it gives way to his more expressionistic imagery. The franchise is feeling a little punch drunk by this point, and Toyoda finds it in a particular puddle of teenage malaise. Still, the fists fly and the boys of Suzuran rise and fall as always providing enough self consciously cool action to sustain interest despite the otherwise insubstantial quality.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Twilight: Saya in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2014)

Japanese cinema has its fare share of ghosts. From Ugetsu to Ringu, scorned women have emerged from wells and creepy, fog hidden mansions bearing grudges since time immemorial but departed spirits have generally had very little positive to offer in their post-mortal lives. Twilight: Saga in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや,  Twilight Sasara Saya) is an oddity in more ways than one – firstly in its recently deceased narrator’s comic approach to his sad life story, and secondly in its partial rejection of the tearjerking melodrama usually common to its genre.

Unsuccessful Rakugo performer Yutaro (Yo Oizumi) met the love of his life during one of his sparsely attended recitations. Saya (Yui Aragaki) was the only one laughing but even she didn’t think he was very funny, she just liked him because he was trying so hard. Eventually, he married her and they had a lovely baby boy but before little Yusuke was even a year old, Yutaro got himself killed in a random traffic accident. Such is life. Still, knowing that Saya had no family of her own and having grown up without a father himself Yutaro feels even worse about leaving his wife and son all alone in such a stupid way. Therefore he decides to delay going to heaven so that he can stick around to help Saya in whatever way he can.

A crisis occurs when Yutaro’s estranged father (Ryo Ishibashi) suddenly turns up at the funeral laying claim to little Yusuke with no thought to the additional emotional ramifications of trying to snatch a baby from a grieving mother right over the coffin of her husband. Possessing the body of another guest, Yutaro manages to convince Saya to run leading her to retreat to her late aunt’s house in the peaceful rural village of Sasara.

Though the premise is a familiar one, Fukagawa neatly sidesteps the more maudlin aspects for a broadly comic approach in which Yutaro recounts the story of his death as if it were a rakugo tale. Possessing various people along the way, Yutaro does indeed help Saya adjust to her new life but eventually discovers that perhaps the reason he hasn’t passed over was one of the past rather than one of the future.

Saya’s arrival in Sasara gets off to a bad start – essentially forced out of the city to escape Yutaro’s father Saya causes unexpected trouble when it emerges that the corrupt local estate agent has been letting out her aunt’s house without telling her. If that weren’t enough, some of her valuables are almost stolen by a local delivery boy but, this being an ageing village, children are a rarity and so little Yusuke quickly captures the hearts of the neighbourhood grannies who eventually become Saya’s friends and staunch supporters. Familial problems are the name of the day from childlessness to children (hopefully) writing down possible signs of dementia or just leaving town and not coming back. Yutaro also helps Saya improve the life of another young woman with a son who doesn’t speak by allowing him to finally voice what he really feels, adding to the circle of female help and support which becomes the family Saya had always longed for.

Orphaned at a young age, raised by her grandmother until she died and having lost her only living relative in her aunt a few years previously, Saya had always wondered what it felt like to have a real family of her own. Yutaro had also lost his mother at a young age through illness and was estranged from his father who refused to visit her even on her deathbed. Yutaro’s untimely death adds to Saya’s ongoing sorrows but also ends the beginnings of the happy family they’d begun to build with each other. As it turns out, Yotaro’s limbo is less about his son and more about his father as he gets a last opportunity to bond with his outwardly harsh and cruel dad and come to a kind of understanding about fatherhood in hearing his side of the story. Life is too short for grudges, and even spirits sometimes need to give up the ghost so that the air can rest a little lighter.

Though there are the expected moments of sadness as Yotaro realises the number of people he can possess is dwindling and his time with Saya will be limited, Fukagawa keeps things light and whimsical with a kind of small town quirkiness aided by Oizumi’s spirited delivery. Adding in frequent rakugo references complete with painted backdrops and sound effects as well as a repeated motif which sees the little town remade as a diorama model, Twilight: Saya in Sarasa has a pleasantly old fashioned feeling which only adds to its wholesome emphasis on an extended family of community coupled with the continuing presence of Yutaro watching from somewhere on high. Warm and funny if a little lacking in impact, Twilight: Saya in Sasara is a rare instance of a ghost bringing people together in love and harmony through helping them get closer to their true emotions but one that is also keen to emphasise that we’re all only here for an unspecified time – better not to waste it with silly things like grudges.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Masayuki Suo, 2014)

lady-maikoWhen Japan does musicals, even Hollywood style musicals, it tends to go for the backstage variety or a kind of hybrid form in which the idol/singing star protagonist gets a few snazzy numbers which somehow blur into the real world. Masayuki Suo’s previous big hit, Shall We Dance, took its title from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song featured in the King and I but it’s Lerner and Loewe he turns to for an American style song and dance fiesta relocating My Fair Lady to the world of Kyoto geisha, Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Maiko wa Lady) . My Fair Lady was itself inspired by Shaw’s Pygmalion though replaces much of its class conscious, feminist questioning with genial romance. Suo’s take leans the same way but suffers somewhat in the inefficacy of its half hearted love story seeing as its heroine is only 15 years old.

Country bumpkin Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) arrives in the elegant Kyoto geisha quarters with only one hope – to become a maiko! However, despite the scarcity of young girls wanting to train, Haruko’s hopes are dashed by the head geisha who finds it impossible to understand anything she’s saying thanks to her extraordinarily rare accent which is an odd mix of north and south country dialects. Luckily for her, a linguistics professor who has an unhealthy obsession with rare dialectical forms overhears her speech patterns and is instantly fascinated. Striking up a bet with another tea house patron, Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa) takes on the challenge of training Haruko to master the elegant Kyoto geisha accent in just six months.

The teahouses and the culture which goes with them are a part of the old world just barely hanging on in the bright new modern era. Haruko first became infatuated with all things maiko thanks to an online blog kept by the teahouse’s only current star, Momoko (Tomoko Tabata) – the daughter of the proprietor still only a maiko at age thirty precisely because of the lack of candidates to succeed her. Despite this intrusion of the modern, the way of the geisha remains essentially the same as it has for centuries with all of the unfairness and exploitation it entails. Hence, most of the women working in the teahouses are part-timers brought in for big events with only rudimentary training and even those who have spent a significant amount of time learning their craft lament that they don’t get paid a real salary and even their kimono and accessories technically belong to the teahouse.

Despite being on the fringes of the sex trade, as the professor’s assistant takes care to warn Haruko, there’s still something glamorous about the the arcane teahouse world bound up in ancient traditions and complicated rituals of elegance. Haruko faces a steep learning curve as a clumsy country girl who doesn’t even know how to sit “seiza” without her legs going numb. Learning to speak like a Kyoto native may be the least of her worries seeing as she has to learn how to dress in kimono, play a taiko drum and shamisen, and perform the traditional dances to perfection.

This is a musical after all and so the maiko dance routines eventually give way to more conventional choreography and large scale broadway numbers. The title song is particularly catchy and resurfaces at several points though the score as a whole is cheerful and inventive, incorporating a classic broadway sound with modern twist fused with the traditional music of the teahouse. Naoto Takenaka makes a typically creepy appearance displaying a fine voice for a comic number dedicated to the art of being a male maid to a geisha house but the big set piece is reserved for a comic take on the “Rain in Spain” in which the linguistics professor oddly wonders where all the water goes when it’s “pissing it down in Kyoto”. Unfortunately much of this revolves around linguistic jokes which are impossible to translate though the scene as a whole does its job well enough in introducing us to Haruko’s travails in the world of elocution. Other routines featuring the backstories of some of the minor characters also have a pleasantly retro quality inspired by period cinema complete with painted backdrops and old fashioned studio bound cinematography.

Though charming enough, Haruko’s progress is perhaps too conventional to move Lady Maiko far beyond the realms of cheerful fluff. Though Suo wisely keeps the romance to a minimum, Haruko’s growing feelings for the professor as well as a possible connection with his assistant are a little uncomfortable given her youth and the age differences involved even if the professor remains completely unaware. Unlike the source material Haruko’s passage is otherwise presented without complication (save for brief forays into the darkside of the geisha trade) as the country girl makes good, achieving her goals through hard work, perseverance, and the support of the community. In the end it’s all just far too nice, but then that’s not such a bad problem to have and there are enough pretty dance routines and warmhearted comedy to charm even the most jaded of viewers.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)