The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Shun Nakahara, 1990)

Cherry Orchard 1990 posterChekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is more about the passing of an era and the fates of those who fail to swim the tides of history than it is about transience and the ever-present tragedy of the death of every moment, but still there is a commonality in the symbolism. Shun Nakahara’s The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Sakura no Sono) is not an adaptation of Chekhov’s play but of Akimi Yoshida’s popular 1980s shojo manga which centres on a drama group at an all girls high school. Alarm bells may be ringing, but Nakahara sidesteps the usual teen angst drama for a sensitively done coming of age tale as the girls face up to their liminal status and prepare to step forward into their own new era.

The annual production of The Cherry Orchard has become a firm fixture at Oka Academy – even more so this year as it marks an important anniversary for the school. Stage manager Kaori (Miho Miyazawa) has come in extra early to prep for the performance, but also because she’s enjoying a covert assignation with her boyfriend whom she is keen to get rid of before anyone else turns up and catches them at it. Hearing the door, Kaori bundles him out the back way before the show’s director, Yuko (Hiroko Nakajima), who is also playing a maid arrives looking a little different – she’s had a giant perm.

Yuko’s hair is very much against school regulations but she figures they’ll get over it. Fortunately or unfortunately, Yuko’s hairdo is the least of their problems. Another girl who is supposed to be playing a leading role, Noriko (Miho Tsumiki), has been caught smoking and hanging out with delinquents from another school. She and her parents are currently in the headmaster’s office, and everyone is suddenly worried. The girls’ teacher, Ms. Satomi (Mai Okamoto), is going in to bat for them but it sounds like the play might be cancelled at the last-minute just because the strict school board don’t think it appropriate to associate themselves with such a disappointing student.

The drama club acts as a kind of safe space for the girls. Oka Academy is, to judge by the decor and uniforms, a fairly high-class place with strict rules and ideas about the way each of the young ladies should look, feel, and act. Their ages differ, but they’re all getting towards the age when they know whether or not those ideas are necessarily ones they wish to follow. As if to bring out the rigid nature of their school life, The Cherry Orchard is preformed every single year (classic plays get funded more easily than modern drama) but at least, as one commentator puts it, Ms. Satomi’s production is one of the most “refreshing” the school has ever seen, perhaps echoing the new-found freedoms these young women are beginning to explore.

Free they are and free they aren’t as the girls find themselves experiencing the usual teenage confusions but also finding the courage to face them. Yuko’s hair was less about self-expression than it was about catching the attention of a crush – not a boy, but a fellow student, Chiyoko (Yasuyo Shirashima). Chiyoko, by contrast is pre-occupied with her leading role in the play. Last year, in a male role, she excelled but Ranevskaya is out of her comfort zone. Tall and slim, Chiyoko has extreme hangups around her own femininity and would rather have taken any other male role than the female lead.

Yuko keeps her crush to herself but unexpectedly bonds with delinquent student Noriko who has correctly guessed the direction of Yuko’s desires. Sensitively probing the issue, using and then retreating from the “lesbian” label, Noriko draws a partial confession from her classmate but it proves a bittersweet experience. Predictably enough, Noriko’s “delinquency” is foregrounded by her own more certain sexuality. Noriko’s crush on the oblivious Yuko looks set to end in heartbreak, though Nakahara is less interested in the salaciousness of a teenage love triangle than the painfulness of unrequited, unspoken love which leaves Noriko hovering on the sidelines – wiser than the other girls, but paying heavily for it.

Chekhov’s play famously ends with the sound of falling trees, heralding the toppling of an era but with a kind of sadness for the destruction of something beautiful which could not be saved. Nakahara’s film ends with cherry blossoms blowing in through an open window in an empty room. The spectre of endings hangs heavily, neatly echoed by Ms. Satomi’s argument to the promise that the play will go ahead next year with the cry that next year these girls will be gone. This is a precious time filled with fun and friendship in which the drama club affords the opportunity to figure things out away from the otherwise strict and conformist school environment. Nakahara films with sympathetic naturalism, staying mainly within the rehearsal room with brief trips to the roof or empty school corridors capturing these late ‘80s teens for all of their natural exuberance and private sorrows.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The King (더 킹, Han Jae-rim, 2017)

the king posterAbsolute power corrupts absolutely, but such power is often a matter more of faith than actuality. Coming at an interesting point in time, Han Jae-rim’s The King (더 킹) charts twenty years of Korean history, stopping just short of its present in which a president was deposed by peaceful, democratic means following accusations of corruption. The legal system, as depicted in Korean cinema, is rarely fair or just but The King seems to hint at a broader root cause which transcends personal greed or ambition in an essential brotherhood of dishonour between men, bound by shared treacheries but forever divided by looming betrayal.

Tae-soo (Jo In-sung) is the classic poor boy made good. His mother abandoned the family when he was only six because she couldn’t cope with his father’s rampant criminality. Do bad things and you’ll go to hell, she told her son but perhaps Tae-soo already feels himself to be there and so doesn’t worry so much about those “bad things” that are a normal part of his life. The top fighter at his school, Tae-soo finds his calling when he sees his tough as nails father kneeling on the ground, pleading furiously in front of a skinny bespectacled man wearing a fancy suit. The man is a prosecutor and walks with the swagger of someone whose every action is government backed, his authority is absolute.

Tae-soo knuckles down, starts studying and gets into Seoul University. An accidental brush with the pro-democracy protest movement lands him in the army but thanks to lying about his hometown on his registration form he gets an easy posting meaning he has even more time to study for the bar. Everything seems to fall into place – he qualifies, gets his dream job, even marries a beautiful, intelligent, feisty woman who also happens to come from a wealthy elite family. The poor boy from Mokpo has made it, but prosecuting isn’t all he thought it would be. Tae-soo is a civil servant which means, like it does the world over, that he’s overworked and underpaid. When he rubs up against a dodgy case he’s made an offer he can’t refuse – drop it, and get a promotion to the big leagues where celebrity prosecutors enjoy lavish lifestyles filled with parties, drinks, and pretty girls. He knows it’s not right, but this is what he’s always wanted and Tae-soo is soon seduced.

Tae-soo’s seduction causes him a few pangs of conscience, but he was, as he was assumed to be, easy pickings. The case in question is a sickening if ordinary one – a teacher has molested a pupil but as the teacher is the son of an influential man and the single mother of the girl in question has learning difficulties, the case has been made to go away. Tae-soo is outraged, hauls the man back in, re-opens the case and obtains additional evidence and witness testimonies which confirm the girl’s story and will have the teacher sent to jail. His seduction is easy – they simply offer to make him one of them, and Tae-soo agrees, sacrificing not only this little girl but potentially many others for his own greed and satisfaction.

Tae-soo is redeemed, in a sense, thanks to his association with a childhood friend who helps him out by taking care of the teacher through “unofficial” means. Choi Du-il (Ryu Jun-yeol) is Tae-soo’s flip side, another poor boy done good but this time on the other side of the law. An ambitious gangster, Du-il is also loyal, just, and honourable – at least within a gangster code. The “errand boy” for this group of thuggish lawyers who behave like gangsters while the gangsters act like politicians with literal rather than metaphorical attack dogs, Du-il senses he’s walking a dangerous path to nowhere at all and has only his friendship with Tae-soo to believe in.

The genuine bond between the two men is one of the few redeeming features of Tae-soo’s increasingly compromised existence in which he sells his soul for the false approval of the man he regards as a “King” in the figure of all powerful, amoral chief prosecutor Han (Jung Woo-Sung). Tae-soo’s story is a conventional one of a basically good yet weak man struggling with a choice he’s made against his better judgement yet it’s not until it’s cost him everything he holds dear that he starts to reconsider.

Han Jae-rim weaves in archive footage and musical cues to evoke the changing eras which will be more obvious to Korean audiences – a case in point being the dramatic positioning of the suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun in 2009. Roh had been a progressive president, often unpopular during his time in office thanks to his inability to pass his policies, and was later tarnished with a corruption scandal but found his reputation posthumously reappraised following his death which was seen both as a declaration of innocence and as a symbol of his deep love for his country and its people. Tae-soo’s change of heart seems to accelerate after Roh’s suicide which drew vast crowds of mourning (and knowing smirks from sleazy prosecutors Han and his sidekick Yang) as his own run in with death prompts a re-evaluation of his place in the grand scheme of things.

The King ends on a rather trite message – that every man is his own king and in the end the choices are all yours (though it seems to hope the choices made will be more altruistic than those of Han, Yang, and the earlier Tae-soo). The power wielded by men like Han is fragile – they need lackies, and if they can’t get them the system crumbles, but they’re also hollow, frightened opportunists who are so desperate they’re even bringing in shady seeming shamans to avoid having to make difficult policy decisions. Tae-soo turns their own tricks back on them with masterstrokes of irony, vowing revenge and perhaps getting it, along with self respect and a re-orientated moral compass but then again, power abhors a vacuum.


Screened as part of a season of teaser screenings for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Crazy Family (逆噴射家族, Sogo Ishii, 1984)

crazy family posterThe family drama went through something of a transformation at the beginning of the 1980s. Gone are the picturesque, sometimes melancholy evocations of the transience of family life, these families are fake, dysfunctional, or unreliable even if trying their best. Morita’s The Family Game, released in 1983, kick started this re-examination of the primary social unit through attacking it Teorema-style as the family’s tutor rips through their generic middle-class existence by adopting each of their pre-defined social roles in turn. One year later Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family (逆噴射家族, Gyakufunsha Kazoku) turns the director’s punk aesthetic to a similar theme but this time the family destroys itself in its earnestness to live the Japanese dream in the increasing economic possibility of the pre-bubble era. The Kobayashis are the perfect example of the “typical” aspiring family, but what is the “sickness” that the family patriarch is so afraid of, who (or what) is it that is sick, and if it is possible to be “cured” what would such a cure look like?

Mr and Mrs Kobayashi have achieved their dream – getting out of the danchi and into a suburban house that they own (or will own, once the mortgage is paid off) outright. Mr. Kobayashi, Katsukuni (Katsuya Kobayashi), is a typical salaryman while his wife Saeko (Mitsuko Baisho) stays at home to look after their two children – middle schooler Erika (Yuki Kudo) and her older brother Masaki (Yoshiki Arizono), currently a “ronin” studying to retake his university entrance exams determined to get into the prestigious Tokyo University.

Blissfully happy, the family are adapting well enough to their new home but there’s always that lingering feeling of impending doom, as if all this is too good to be true. Sure enough, Masaki’s adoption of a stray dog alerts the family to a more serious problem – termites. Suddenly terrified that something is literally trying to eat his house out from under him, Katsukuni goes on a fumigating rampage but the termites are not the only source of tension. Turning up right on time, grandpa arrives for a visit after falling out with Katsukuni’s older brother with whom he’d been living. The Kobayashis moved so that the kids could finally have their own rooms (and mum and dad some privacy) but grandpa shows no signs of leaving meaning Katsukuni is sharing with his dad and Saeko has been relegated to Erika’s room.

The house is what the family has always dreamed of – owning one’s own home is no mean feat for those raised in the post-war era, but it’s still a small environment for five people even if much nicer than their tiny city flat. More than just a structure it represents everything the ordinary family dreams of – peace, prosperity, harmony and a life lived in tune with the social order. Katsukuni’s fears that a mysterious “sickness” is plaguing his loved ones is a sign of his discomfort with this ordered way of living. Despite their stereotypical qualities, there is something not exactly right about each of his “ordinary” family members – mum stripteases for grandad’s friends, precocious teenage daughter Erika is not sure if she wants to be a pro-wrestler or an idol and spends all of her time “idolising” her favourite stars, and son Masaki has become a proto-hikikomori so obsessed with studying that he’s taken to stabbing himself in the leg every time he starts to nod off so that he can keep hitting the books rather than the hay.

Yet for all that it’s Katsukuni himself who is the most “sick” in his inability to reconcile himself to social conformity. Despite being apparently successful, he has deep seated feelings of inadequacy which convince him that something is going to go wrong with the family he feels a duty to protect. Wanting to be a good husband and father, Katsukuni thinks he has to “cure” his family of their strange behaviours and make them the sort of people who live in nice houses in the suburbs, but only succeeds in driving himself out of his mind.

Grandpa’s antics have the other family members well and truly fed up but Katsukuni feels just as much filial piety as he does responsibility towards his own children and cannot bring himself to tell his father to go and so he hits on an extreme solution – he’s going to dig a basement, by hacking up the living room floor and pushing downwards, towards hell. Surprise, surprise, his dream home is atop a nest of termites, the bugs are literally working their way in but, ironically enough, Katsukuni is the biggest termite of them all as his very own “hill” begins to appear just in front of the sofa while he tries to find a space for the older generation in a modern home.

Grandpa is an unwelcome manifestation of the inescapable past. When everything goes to hell and the house becomes a battlefield, grandpa manages to dig out his wartime uniform complete with a sword and attempts to assume command by dividing the house into sectors before capturing and trussing his own granddaughter whom he then threatens to rape and torture, apparently eager to revisit his Manchurian military service and all of its implied cruelties. When Katsukuni believes that all is lost and his family can’t be saved he opts for the most culturally appropriate solution – group suicide, but his family won’t play along. Paranoid and delusional, they turn on each other, defending themselves with icons of their respective roles, venting their frustrations and long held grudges in one prolonged battle of violent madness.

When the air finally clears there is only one solution – the house has to go. The desire for a “conventional life” or the feeling of not achieving it is, in that sense, “the sickness” which has infected the Kobayashi family. The finale sees them finally living happily once again but literally “outside” of the mainstream, in a totally open world where there is space for everyone – all quirks embraced, all extremes born. Everyone has their place but the family remains whole, freed from the burden of chasing an unrealisable dream.


A short musical clip from the film

Dynamite Wolf (おっさんのケーフェイ, Kohei Taniguchi, 2017)

dynamite wolf posterBack in the day, lucha libre-style wrestling was hugely popular in Japan. Tiger Mask, a manga set in the world of Japanese pro-wrestling remains a firm favourite and its eponymous hero has also become a byword for altruistic philanthropy as well-meaning anonymous donors donate expensive gifts such as Japanese school backpacks to orphanages in Tiger Mask’s name. Sadly, pro-wrestling is no longer as high-profile as it once was and has left mainstream television screens far behind even if it still maintains a small but dedicated fanbase. Kohei Taniguchi’s Dynamite Wolf (おっさんのケーフェイ, Ossan no Kefei) is out to change all that by shining a spotlight on this almost forgotten phenomenon of crazy outfits, killer moves, and camp showmanship.

Middle schooler Hiroto is the most ordinary of little boys. He has two good friends, but no particular, hopes, dreams, talents, or aspirations. When his teacher assigns the class a special project in which they are supposed to come up with some kind of act they can do before the class to showcase a special skill, Hiroto is at a loss. His friend Takuto is going to whilstle whilst recent transfer student from Tokyo, Naoya, is going to show off his English but neither of them have any suggestions to help Hiroto figure out what his special talent is. Things only get worse when his mother catches sight of another boy, Teruo, on television being showcased on the news because of his dedication to dance, and insists Hiroto go to dance classes too which he is not really interested in. On the way back however his life changes when he spots a man in a strange shiny suit standing outside smoking. Invited inside, Hiroto witnesses the last ever fight of the legendary wrestler Dynamite Wolf and becomes instantly hooked on Japanese pro-wrestling.

Times being what they are, pro-wrestling is not the coolest of hobbies but Hiroto is undeterred. Running into an old man he thinks might by the real Dynamite Wolf, Hiroto starts training to become a wrestler and roping Takuto and Naoya in to practice too. As Naoya points out, anyone seeing three young kids wrestling around with a 50-year-old man would probably call the police but Mr. Sakata really is just interested in spreading the love of wrestling to the younger generation.

Despite the anti-wrestling sentiment, there’s something quite refreshing about the boys who like boyband-style dancing being the bullies and not the bullied. Teruo is a nasty piece of work and a spoilt brat thanks to the fact his dad is the head of the PTA but his love of dance is never questioned or mocked and is even favoured over the comparatively more “manly” hobby of wrestling.

Like any good kids movie, Dynamite Wolf is equally about the power of friendship as it is about reviving pro-wrestling. Teruo starts out as a little thug, behaving with impunity and making Hiroto’s life a nightmare simply because he’s not quite like them. However, once he learns some unpleasant stuff about his dad his world crumbles and he reforms to become a wrestling ally and all round better person.

Hiroto proves far more mature than his mentor who has repeatedly failed to achieve his dreams and now exists in a strange kind of perpetual childhood, trapped inside his own delusions. Unfairly branded a liar, Sakata does like a few tall tales and remains embittered about his lack of his success. His life has been about wrestling, but the ring has never accepted him and now he spends all his time beating up a blow-up doll on the beach and visiting sex workers for lucha libre workouts. His desire to mentor the boys is a noble one in the service of wrestling, but then again are wrestling skills really worth anything when outsiders simply ignore the rules and go for a one punch knock out?

Taking on a Rocky vibe, the question stops being about winning or losing but about finding your passion and then giving it your all even if it doesn’t end in the predictable fashion. Pro-wrestling might be over the top and campy, more about showmanship and ritual than signature moves technical skill but the friendships, loyalties, and sense of fair play are values which deserve to be fought for – mask on or off.


Dynamite Wolf was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mr. Long (ミスター・ロン, SABU, 2017)

Mr. LongTaiwan and Japan have a complicated history, but in SABU’s latest slice of cross-cultural interplay each place becomes a kind of refuge from the other. Working largely in Mandarin and with Taiwanese star Chang Chen, SABU returns to a familiar story – the lonely hitman tempted by a normal family life filled with peace and simplicity only to have his dreams taken from him by the spectre of his past. Only this time it isn’t just his past but that of others too. Despite the melancholy air, Mr. Long (ミスター・ロン) is a testament to the power of simple human kindness but also a condemnation of underworld cruelty and its vicelike grip on all who enter its grasp.

Mr. Long (Chen Chang) is the best hitman in the Taiwanese underground. A part-time cook, he’s known for his knife skills and fearless action, entering a room full of gangsters and instantly eviscerating them before they can even reach for their weapons. Sent to Japan to take out a prominent yakuza, Mr. Long finds his usual methods ineffective owing to the fact his target is wearing a stab vest. Captured, beaten and driven out into the middle of nowhere, Mr. Long is beginning to think this is the end of his story when the gangsters are attacked by another knife wielding assailant repeatedly asking them to free his girl. Mr. Long escapes in the ensuing chaos but has no money or way back home.

Marooned and bleeding in a rundown area, Mr. Long is saved by quiet little boy who brings him first medical supplies and then some probably stolen vegetables. Mr. Long manages to find an abandoned house which still has running water and cooking facilities and shares his improbably tasty soup with the little boy whose name is Jun. Surprisingly, Jun can speak fluent Mandarin because his mother, Lily, is also from Taiwan. Soon enough, other people in the area start to hear about the mysterious stranger and his wondrous cooking. Before he knows what’s happening, the tiny town has adopted him and built a stall on a cart where he can sell Taiwanese beef noodles.

SABU embraces his absurd sense of humour as Mr. Long’s capture becomes a cartoonish slapstick affair which ultimately sees him running off into the night with a sack on his head before regaining his quintessential cool. Mr. Long is the archetypal movie hitman – the major reason why he doesn’t say much is firstly that he doesn’t know any Japanese but  his conversations with the boy are pretty one sided and he doesn’t seem to be the chattiest even in Taiwan. Confused as to why all of this is happening Mr. Long asks Jun for guidance only for him to point out that it’s his own fault for acting so cool and never saying anything.

Yet for all the comedy there’s an underlying sadness as Mr. Long comes to care for this strangely friendly village which has more or less adopted him, providing him with food, clothing, and even an occupation in his brand new beef noodle stand. Even though he’s been in contact with his bosses and is supposed to get a boat to Taiwan in just a few days, Mr. Long doesn’t quite want to go home and let all of these nice people down. Especially as he’s begun to bond with the boy and grow closer to his mother.

Both Mr. Long and Lily are people who’ve had their lives ruined by proximity to the underworld – his by being trapped into a profession of killing with no possibility of escape, and hers by losing the love of her life to men who claimed to own her. Lily’s story is a sad one which eventually sees her fall into prostitution as a means of caring for her son only to be exploited by a duplicitous customer who gets her hooked on heroine as a means of control. Mr. Long frees her from this particular demon and the three begin to look as if they could make a go of things together only for the past to suddenly reappear and ruin everything.

Unexpectedly dark, Mr. Long veers between whimsical comedy and heartbreaking tragedy as its hero begins to long for another life which he knows he will be denied. Filled with SABU’s typically absurd world view mixed with balletic yet horrifying violence as the lonely hitman becomes the dragon spelt out in his name, Mr. Long is a familiar gangland tale in which a man cannot escape his past or his nature and risks rejection from those who’ve come to love him when they discover who he really is, but even if there can be no escape for some there is hope of redemption in human kindness and genuine connection.


Mr. Long was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Parks (PARKS パークス, Natsuki Seta, 2017)

parks posterParks are a common feature of modern city life – a stretch of green among the grey, but it’s important to remember that there has not always been such beautiful shared space set aside for public use. Natsuki Seta’s light and breezy youth comedy, Parks (PARKS パークス), was commissioned in celebration of the centenary of the Tokyo park where the majority of the action takes place, Inokashira. Mixing early Godardian whimsy with new wave voice over and the kind of innocent adventure not seen since the Kadokawa idol days, Parks is a sometimes melancholy, wistful tribute to a place where chance meetings can define lifetimes as well as to brief yet memorable summers spent with gone but not forgotten friends doing something which seems important but which in retrospect may be trivial.

Student Jun (Ai Hashimoto) begins the story with a meta voiceover declaring her intention to begin among the cherry blossoms – letting us know right away that this will be an ephemeral sort of tale. She’s young, in love, and carefree – too carefree, actually, she’s already got a job lined up for after uni but has forgotten to do any of the work needed to graduate. Then, disaster strikes. Dumped by her boyfriend, Jun finds a letter from the university reminding her that she’s way behind and in a lot of trouble (the letter is dated six months previously).

On top of all of this, she bumps into the strange and dreamlike Haru (Mei Nagano) who barges into her apartment which apparently was once home to the lost love of her late father in the 1960s (he was evidently quite an aged dad). Chasing the leads they find in a collection of love letters and photographs the girls track down some of the pair’s old friends and eventually the grandson of the woman in question, Tokio (Shota Sometani), who discovers a reel-to-reel tape among his late grandmother’s effects which contains the remnants of the love song Haru’s father and Tokio’s grandmother were creating together. Seeing as the tape is damaged the trio decide to finish the song which will also form a part of the thesis Jun is supposed to be writing to graduate university.

Light, bright, and breezy like a spring day in a beautiful park, Parks is necessarily slight but filled with all the whimsical nostalgia of the no longer young. Celebrating the park’s 100th birthday, Seta apparently wanted create something which tied the various ages together – hence the 1960s focus, though her 1960s is much more French New Wave and postmodern silliness than it is student protests or economic anxiety. Romance is in the air as lovers meet in the park vowing never to part, only they do for reasons which Haru is desperate to know even if no one else particularly cares about the background to their ongoing project.

The interplay between the three accidental friends is the heart of the drama as they find themselves pulled in various different directions. Shota Sometani’s oddly spirited Tokio with his city boy accent and nerdy attempt at cool wants more Twitter followers and has his eyes set on musical fame where as poor Jun just wants to be left alone to finish Uni while Haru is swept up in the romantic love story of her much missed father.

Or is she? Seta throws in a few meta gags leaving us unsure of who or what Haru really is or if any of this is real. Taking a decidedly Lynchian detour with strange and surreal scenes focussing on a mysterious door, she lends this world an odd sort of charm through, like her New Wave inspiration, often refuses to follow the trail to its conclusion. Flitting between past and future, allowing the two to mingle and overlap and Haru to become a friend of her father as a young man, Parks is a sweet summer daydream filled with gentle music and warm air fit to blow away on the breeze.

The song itself, a characteristically whimsical composition by Tokumaru Shugo (who also has a brief cameo in the film), is a beautifully innocent ‘60s folktune which is then corrupted by the conflicting modern dreams of the easily swayed realists Tokio and Jun while the idealistically romantic Haru listens in horror before Jun finally remembers what all of this was about and tries to fix things before they get any more broken. Some songs are intended to float away on the breeze, like summer adventures and casual friendships and Parks is such a one, though a pleasant way to dream away a warm afternoon.


Parks was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles available by clicking subtitle button)

Dawn of the Felines (牝猫たち, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2017)

dawn of the felines poster largerTowards the end of the 60s and faced with the same problems as any other studio of the day – namely declining receipts as cinema audiences embraced television, Nikkatsu decided to spice up their already racy youth orientated output with a steady stream of sex and violence. The Roman Porno line took a loftier approach to the “pink film” – mainstream softcore pornography played in dedicated cinemas and created to a specific formula, by putting the resources of a bigger studio behind it with greater production values and acting talent. 40 years on Roman Porno is back. Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines (牝猫たち, Mesunekotachi) takes inspiration from Night of the Felines by the Roman Porno master Noboru Tanaka but where Tanaka’s film is a raucous comedy following the humorous adventures of its three working girl protagonists, Shiraishi’s is a much less joyous affair as he casts his three lonely heroines adrift in Tokyo’s red light district.

Masako (Juri Ihata), Rie (Michie), and Yui (Satsuki Maue) are best friends, though they don’t even know each other’s real names. They each work for a shady escort agency in Tokyo’s red light district where they’re ordered and dispatched by their two-bit hustler of a manager Nonaka (Takuma Otoo) and driven around by the assistant who it turns out has been secretly filming them and posting the videos on YouTube as a kind of exposé on the sex trade.

Each of the women “has their tale to tell” as one puts it but none of them are particularly unhappy in their work, prostitution is simply their way of life and to that extent completely normalised. It does, however, interfere with their ability to form relationships, not just practically but emotionally. For unclear reasons possibly connected to debt collection Masako is technically homeless despite the large amounts of money she can earn, sleeping in cheap motels or all night manga cafes and carting all of her worldly possessions around with her in a tiny carry on size suitcase on wheels. One of her regulars, a millionaire shut in (Tomohiro Kaku), offers to let her stay with him but their relationship is strange and strained – somewhere between business and pleasure with the lines permanently unclear.

Rei, by contrast, is saddled with an elderly client who usually just wants to talk but eventually takes things in an extreme direction. Her path into prostitution is in a sense more positive even if it stems from a kind of vengeance in that the feeling of being needed and providing a valuable service gives her life meaning.

Yui looks for meaning through romance but rarely finds it thanks to the various potential mates she meets through her work. Yui’s young son Kenta has worrying bruises on his face, arms and torso, rarely speaks, and is frequently abandoned by his mother who pays a shady guy to look after him while she spends her time looking for love.

Working for a lenient agency the girls are more or less free agents rather than abused street walkers trapped by debt-bondage and could quit any time they wanted. Yui and Masako may be looking for an escape from this dead-end world – Yui at least is conscious of her age and the declining bookings, but neither names that as something that they are actively pursuing. Rei, by contrast, has made her escape already but has travelled in the opposite direction – from stifling bourgeois life to Belle du Jour liberation, but her eventual destination may be a much darker one than she’d anticipated.

This darkness hovers round the edges as the threat of violence is only ever indirectly expressed or fetishised as in a sequence led by Yui’s possible new partner and the bondage club he works at as one half of a warmup manzai act. Only towards the end does its reality finally surface, making plain how vulnerable and unprotected the women remain whilst on the job. Far from the liberated laughter of Night of the Felines, Shiraishi’s film traps its women with their own despairs as they wallow in an inescapable well of loneliness, satisfying the needs of others but unable to satisfy their own. Bleak but subtly ironic, Dawn of the Felines finds no joy in the sun rising, only the relief of the end of a working day as its three stray cats wander the streets looking for their place to belong.


Dawn of the Felines was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)