The Enigma of Arrival (抵达之谜, Song Wen, 2018)

The Enigma of the Arrival posterChinese cinema has always had a fondness for melancholy nostalgia. Perhaps its natural enough to romanticise one’s youth and long for a simpler time of possibility, though that same desire for “innocence” has often been read as a rebuke on the “soulless” modern economy and critique of Westernising individualism of a China some feel has lost its way since the economic reforms of the ‘80s and beyond. Song Wen’s The Enigma of Arrival (抵达之谜, Dǐ Zhī Mí), seemingly borrowing a title from the novel by VS Naipaul, seems more straightforwardly personal in its universality as it locates a single fracturing point in the lives of a collection of young people forced apart yet eternally connected by tragedy and disappointment.

Song begins in the present day with his 40-ish narrator, San Pi (Liu Wei), who tells us that he is looking forward to reuniting with his old friends with whom he has largely lost touch. Falling into a reverie, he takes us back to their harbourside hometown some 15 years or so previously when he used to hang out with three friends from school – Feng Yuan (Dong Borui), Xiaolong (Li Xian), and Da Si (Lin Xiaofan). Young men, they spent their time watching “cool” Hong Kong movies like Days of Being Wild and A Better Tomorrow, which were always followed by a blue movie watched incongruously in public. The trouble starts when the guys meet local beauty Dongdong (Gu Xuan) and are all instantly smitten. Hoping to get themselves a more impressive motorbike, they make a fateful decision to steal some diesel and sell it on, only the fuel they steal belongs to gangsters which lands them in a world of trouble they are ill-equipped to deal with despite their adolescent male posturing. Dongdong disappears without trace leaving the guys wounded and confused.

As San Pi tells us in his opening monologue, things are not always as they seem, “Life is floating between fiction and reality”. It’s a particularly apt comment from him because, as we later find out, he was present only for the single climactic events not for the ones which preceded and followed them. He didn’t go with the guys when they, mistakenly, tagged along with Dongdong to an athletics tournament to which she only intended to invite Xiaolong, and as he left soon after Dongdong disappeared his memories of those times are not first hand. He invites us to assume that each of the men has their own narrative which necessarily places themselves at the centre and offers a flattering portrait of their actions which attempts to absolve them of guilt for whatever they did or did not do to lose Dongdong.

A case in point, though it seems that Dongdong favoured Xiaolong who has spent the remainder of his life pining for her, Fang Yuan always thought she fancied him while Da Si was technically dating her friend Xiaomei (Zhang Qiyuan) but seems to have developed some kind of protective sympathy towards her which may have an edge of puritanical resentment. San Pi is the only one who does not seem to have engaged in sad romance, a perpetual outsider looking on from the edges. That might be why he seems to be the one eulogising their friendship, less hung up on what happened to Dongdong than on the effect it had on the later course of his life and that of his friends. Reuniting in a Japanese-style onsen, an ironic reminder of their youthful dreams to see Japan, he wonders if they might return to their teenage intimacy but discovers that youthful innocence cannot be reclaimed once lost, some secrets must stay secret, and some betrayals are too much to bear. They will never go to Japan together, or even catch a movie in a rundown theatre. It would be embarrassing; the moment has passed.

Song frames his tale in a mix of hazy images and black and white, neatly symbolising the patchwork quality of narrative assembled from memory and wishful thinking, coloured by a single perspective that lacks the composite whole of accepting the reality of others’ perceptions. In contrast to the longing for the old China that marks many a youth drama, Song’s young guys yearn for the world – they worship Hong Kong tough guys, listen to Western music, and dream of seeing Japan, but their present life is one of settled middle-aged disappointment marked by the unresolved tragedy of their pasts which both binds them together and forces them apart. “No one is flawless” Xiaolong is reminded, but somehow that only makes it worse. A melancholy ode to ruined friendship and the nostalgia of bygone adolescent possibility, Enigma of Arrival is a suitably abstract effort from the founder of the XINING FIRST International Film Festival and signals a bold new voice on the Chinese indie scene.


The Enigma of Arrival screens in Chicago on Sept. 19 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where director Song Wen will be present for an intro and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Crimes That Bind (祈りの幕が下りる時, Katsuo Fukuzawa, 2018)

Crimes that bind posterDetective Kyoichiro Kaga has become a familiar screen presence over the last decade or so in a series of films and TV dramas starring popular actor Hiroshi Abe which might make it something of a surprise that The Crimes That Bind (祈りの幕が下りる時, Inori no Maku ga Oriru toki) is, after a fashion, a kind of origin story and touted as the culmination of the long running franchise. Another of prolific author Keigo Higashino’s key detectives, Kaga’s stalking ground has always been Nihonbashi where he has managed to make himself a friendly neighbourhood cop but, as it turns out, dedication is not the only reason he’s refused promotions and transfers to stay in what is, professionally at least, something of a backwater.

In fact, the film begins way back in 1983 when a young woman, Yuriko (Ran Ito), ran away from her husband and son to become a bar hostess in Sendai offering only the explanation that she felt herself unworthy of being a wife and mother. Some years later in 1997, she met a nice man – Watabe, but died of natural causes in 2001 at which point we discover that she is none other than the long lost mother of our master detective whom she abandoned when he was only eight years old. Being a compassionate man, Kyoichiro Kaga is not angry with his mother only sorry he did not get to see her before she passed and eager to meet the man who made her last years a little happier. Only, it appears, Watabe has also disappeared without trace. The only thing the Mama-san at the bar where Yuriko worked can remember about him is that he once said he often went to Nihonbashi. Kaga searches for the next 16 years with no leads, which is when the main case kicks into gear with the discovery of a badly decomposed body of a woman in a rundown Tokyo flat.

Of course, the two cases will turn out to be connected, giving Kaga an opportunity to investigate himself and come to terms with his difficult family circumstances including his strained relationship with his late father whose coldness he blames for driving his mother away. Parents and children will indeed develop into a theme as Kaga digs into why his mother might have done the things she did while also trying to reverse engineer his clues to figure out why he seems to be at the centre of an otherwise completely unrelated case.

Meanwhile, pieces of the puzzle seem to drop into place at random such as the fortuitous discovery of an old woman claiming to have lost her memory so that she can stay in hospital who may or may not be linked to one of the prime suspects – a top theatre director also known to Kaga thanks to a chance encounter some years earlier. In a neat twist, the theatre production she is currently trying to put on is Love Suicides at Sonezaki – a sad tale of young lovers, an adopted son of a merchant and a courtesan, who realise that they have no freedom to pursue their desires and so decide that their only solution is double suicide. The truth that Kaga uncovers leads him in much the same direction only the love at stake is familial rather than romantic and built on the strange filial interplay of the connection between a parent and a child.

It is quite literally “crimes that bind”, but Kaga’s repeated mantra that lies are the shadow of truth, illuminating as much as they conceal, does not quite fit with the incident he has been investigating which largely hinges on coincidences which place him, improbably, at the centre and tip him off to the hidden connections which will crack the case. Which is to say, the solution lies in the killer overplaying their hand (though for reasons unrelated to crime) and thereby undermining their carefully won subterfuge. Torn between solving the murder and exploring Kaga’s melancholy backstory, The Crimes That Bind finds itself falling between two stools even as its twin plot strands begin to dovetail as neatly as one assumes they eventually will, laying bare the central themes of parental sacrifice and belated filial gratitude. Playing best to those already invested in the Kaga franchise, Katsuo Fukuzawa’s adaptation may serve as a fitting conclusion (to this arc at least) but cannot quite overcome its over-reliance on confessional flashback as method of investigation or the improbable qualities of its admittedly twist filled central mystery.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Ode to the Goose (군산: 거위를 노래하다, Zhang Lü, 2018)

15eeddc21a2c46f3992b2b459ee3ceb3Past and present flow as one in Zhang Lü’s elliptical Ode to the Goose (군산: 거위를 노래하다, Gunsan: Geowileul Nolaehada). Making a perhaps controversial point, Zhang sets the majority of his tale in the harbour town of Gunsan which echoes ‘30s Korea when the nation was still brutally oppressed by the Japanese to which the many graphic photographs and monuments on display stand testament. Yet Zhang seems to ask, returning to his favourite theme, if they’re all Koreans no matter where they were born, why are some more oppressed than others?

The film opens with the hero, struggling poet Yoon-young (Park Hae-il), standing in front of a street map, lost in his mother’s home town. He is then joined by a slightly older woman, Song-hyun (Moon So-ri), whom he has apparently asked to accompany him to Gunsan on a whim without really explaining why. Still hung over from the night before, they stop off at an odd little noodle joint run by an elegant older woman (Moon Sook) who seems oddly fascinated by their strange chemistry. Yoon-young, innocently enough, makes conversation by asking about her home town only for her to shut him down. “What home town?” she fires back, “home is where you settle”.

Later we discover she speaks fluent Japanese, cheerfully conversing with the autistic daughter of the inn owner (Park So-dam) where the couple eventually stay after being judged “lucky” enough to be allowed in. The daughter of Japanese-Korean parents apparently “returned” from Fukuoka, the girl rarely speaks to strangers and only ever in Japanese, though she seems to take a liking to Yoon-young and is keen to try and connect with him, making sure he is always well taken care of while Song-hyun has turned her attentions to the girl’s father, melancholy widower Mr. Lee (Jung Jin-young) who likes to take photographs but only ever of landscapes and not of people.

The Lees are Korean too, even if one of them only speaks Japanese and they run a Japanese-style inn in the middle of a moribund museum to colonial horror (the local shrine even has a comfort woman statue standing in the back). Meanwhile, a passerby mistakes Song-hyun for a Chinese-Korean woman she once knew and insists on speaking to her in Yanbian dialect which Song-hyun, as we later learn, is unable to understand even if there is a Chinese-Korean connection in her family history. Song-hyun muses that had her grandfather, like his brother, chosen to stay in Manchuria after the war then she’d be Chinese-Korean too, as would famed poet of the colonial era Yun Dong-ju if he hadn’t died a political prisoner in a Japanese jail in Fukuoka which is, coincidentally, where the Lees were “from”. It is all “coincidental”.

So why does Yoon-young’s “right wing nut job” (as Song-hyun calls him) father hate Chinese-Koreans so much, blaming them for all the faults of the modern nation and decrying those who left for Shanghai with the Independence Movement as traitorous communist collaborators? A whimsical prequel (or a kind of re-imagining) of the Gunsan incident sees Yoon-young walking through his own “hometown” while a man who probably is not actually Chinese-Korean himself and may just be out to claim a buck or two, holds a rally for the rights of “foreign” Koreans in order to avoid exploitative employment practices and affirm that Koreans from other parts are the same as Koreans from Korea. Are “native” Koreans perhaps oppressing “non-native” ones in the same way that they were oppressed by the Japanese? In practical terms no, obviously not – there are no essential horrors here, but there is deeply ingrained prejudice and wilful exploitation. Interestingly enough, despite his conservatism, Yoon-young’s dad had him attend Chinese language classes, if ones that were run by the Taiwanese who are obviously not “communist” but were also formerly a Japanese colony.

Meanwhile, Yoon-young’s life takes him on a curious symmetry in which everything reminds him of something else. He repeatedly asks the women he meets if they’ve met before, experiences eerily similar moments in Gunsan and at home, and continues to look for connections between himself and a world of universal poetry stretching from the classical Chinese of the film’s title to the melancholy odes of Yun Dong-ju, writing in his “native” language in defiance of colonial authority. Dualities predominate – beauty/horror, attraction/indifference, silence/language, here/there, then/now, but through it all there is commonality. Yoon-young’s failure to communicate leaves him feeling defeated and depressed, trapped in a self-imposed exile while the gregarious Song-hyun gleefully moves forward little caring of the costs. Whimsical and “ambiguous”, Zhang’s playful poetry is difficult to parse but nevertheless carries an essential warmth in its reassuring familiarities and openhearted commitment to the universality of human connections.


Ode to the Goose was screened as the latest teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. Tickets are already on sale for the next and final teaser screening, Kokdu, which will take place at Regent Street Cinema on 16th September.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Moon in the Hidden Woods (숲에 숨은 달, Takahiro Umehara, 2018) [Fantasia 2019]

The Moon in the Hidden Woods posterNight is dark, but when you have the moon to light the way there is always the hope of a better tomorrow. When all hope is gone, how are you supposed go on? For a small group of villagers, the answer is to do the best they can, staving off the darkness with determination and guile. Directed by Japan’s Takahiro Umehara making his directorial debut, The Moon in the Hidden Woods (숲에 숨은 달, sup-e sum-eun dal) is a story about learning how to survive the darkness but also an oblique allegory about authoritarian corruption and the power that comes with embracing your essential identity. 

As the wise old granny tells us at the beginning, long ago the Moon watched over the villagers, protecting them from the terror of night, but then it suddenly disappeared. A terrifying monster, Muju, wrapped the night sky in red, devouring misfortunes and sending fearsome minions to plague mankind. Warriors set out to look for the Moon, but none returned. Meanwhile others learned how to profit from the new world and saw no need for a return to the past until gradually people forgot there had ever been a Moon to begin with.

One such profiteer was the evil Count Tar, who is determined to marry the Princess Navillera very much against her will. Escaping to the city, Navillera finds herself coming to the rescue of a musical trio caught up in an unfair competition to win some mystic water to use in their harvest festival, and making use of her telepathic super powers and natural musical ability at the same time. The Nova Folk Band are a small group of illegal meteor hunters from the village who are more interested in survival than they are in intrigue, but are nevertheless some of the only people still looking for the Moon. In any case, they end up taking Navillera with them as they flee, not quite believing that she is a princess and the intended bride of their tyrannical ruler.

While in the village, Navillera gets a crash course in class conflict, never having left the palace before and spent her entire life in a lavish comfort she assumed was available to all. This quickly puts her into conflict with musician Janggu who deeply resents the “spoiled” entitlement that sees her asking for extravagant luxuries like meat, fruit, and honey, while being entirely unused to farm work. She does, however, try her best even mucking in with the other villagers where she can but is obviously unable to contribute to the same degree given that she has never had to do a day’s work in all her life. Meanwhile, as Janggu points out, the gang have gone out hunting meteors full in the knowledge that it’s illegal because they need them to survive. The princess objects to their reckless lawbreaking, affirming that the kingdom will protect them with ore only for Janggu to point out an ore is worth half the year’s harvest and the only reason you’re not allowed to hunt meteors is so that the unscrupulous powers that be can sell you an alternative and thereby keep a grip on their power by keeping the poor in their place. Suddenly, Muju isn’t looking so much like a scary red monster but an eerie metaphor for late stage capitalism.

Meanwhile, the Navillera is also busy trying to escape an oppression she wasn’t even quite aware of in her attempt to reject the intentions of Tar. Through her time in the village, Navillera begins to lose heart, fearing that her cosseted life has left her powerless without skills or talents. What she discovers, however, is that she has a natural ability for dance that finds a perfect home in the cheerful village where such things are praised and becomes the key both to restoring her essential identity and defeating Muju to rediscover the Moon.

In opposition to the “nothingness” that Muju represents, Navillera draws strength from the camaraderie of the villagers as they adopt her as one of their own, urging her not to give in and marry the evil Tar but to join them in their rebellion, choosing the “path of life” as the joyous music of the villagers finally breaks the stronghold of Muju’s austerity. Finally seeing the light of a better tomorrow, the villagers look back on the past with stoical eyes, recognising that mankind’s greed gave rise to Muju and resolving to forgive those who were merely weak rather than actively evil in order to live on in the light of a new world. A perfect blend of Korean fantasy and Nausicaa-esque steampunk, The Moon in the Hidden Woods is a cheerful ode to the importance of hope and the pure joy of musical expression in a sometimes harsh existence.


The Moon in the Hidden Woods was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English/korean/Japanese captions)

The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Leo Sato, 2018)

Kamagasaki couldron warAs far as Japanese cinema has been concerned, the city of Osaka is renowned for two very specific things – gangsters and comedy. The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Tsukiyo no Kamagassen), the debut narrative feature from Leo Sato, neatly brings them both together in an anarchic tale of social inequalities and the pettiness of organised crime. A warmhearted exploration of the eponymous “invisible slum”, Kamagasaki Cauldron War delights in everyday resistance as its ordinary citizens attempt to live their ordinary lives all but forgotten in a society intent on swallowing them whole.

The drama begins with drifter Henmi – a casual labourer with a young son, Kantaro (Tumugi Monko), who dreams of joining the local yakuza gang Kamitari but is rudely rejected by its foot soldiers. In revenge, he steals their precious “kama” sake bowl which is the symbol of their clan and essential for carrying out the succession ritual. This is all the more embarrassing because the elderly boss is thinking of retiring now that his son, Tamao (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), has been released from a 20-year prison stretch. Tamao, however, is secretly pleased because he doesn’t much fancy taking over while the petty yakuza who’s been running the show all this time is also quite happy because he doesn’t really want to give up control. Nevertheless, the precious Kama must be recovered at all costs or the gang will continue to face a significant loss of street cred.

Meanwhile, a bigger drama is underway. Kamagasaki is home to a significant proportion of “homeless” people, many of whom congregate around Sankaku Park where a regular soup kitchen runs next to the giant symbolic Kama cauldron in the park’s centre. It also the last remaining undeveloped post-war area and is therefore rich pickings for unscrupulous property developers such as Capital Beat who are primed to bulldoze the welfare centre to build more housing and therefore need to clear the park of the homeless in order to make the area seem attractive. Already trying to prevent the homeless from settling, the city has put up a series of insidious barriers including floral centrepieces and more obvious metal barriers but is nervous of taking direct action such as physical evictions. Which is where the yakuza come in. Working with Capital Beat and corrupt police, the yakuza take clubs to the soup kitchen and get vulnerable people to commit arson by setting fire to live rats and having them run into “derelict” buildings.

At the centre of events, orphan Nikichi (Yota Kawase) tries to keep himself afloat when the only gigs going are transfers to Turkish nuclear power plants by taking advantage of the Kama crisis and getting his hands on as many as possible little knowing that he is actually in possession of the Kamitari sake bowl thanks to little Kantaro whom he has been persuaded to adopt with his sex worker girlfriend Mei (Naori Ota) who grew up with him in the same orphanage. Coincidentally, the pair were also childhood friends with Tamao who has apparently been holding a torch for Mei all these years as well as grudge against Nikichi for an embarrassing injury caused during a sports contest at school. While they’re busy scrapping it out, the local area decides to fight back against Capital Beat by protesting the city’s treatment of the homeless leaving Nikichi an accidental figurehead for a campaign he doesn’t quite believe in and is only tangentially involved with.

Decrying that there is “no place to rest in the whole world” some enterprising homeless guys have built a tunnel under the giant Kama while others attempt to repurpose their penury by declaring that “garbage is the weapon of the people”. Recalling the anarchic spirit of the student protests (including a surprising cameo by Masao Adachi), the residents of Kamagasaki rise up against social intransigence by taking on the yakuza armed with pots and pans before the police stick their oar in and end up becoming a mutual point of irritation. Filmed on retro 16mm, Kamagasaki Cauldron War offers no real solutions to its various problems but delights in the everyday anarchism of its workaday world in which its scrappy residents do their best to get by in an often hostile environment, finding whatever ways they can to resist societal oppression while maintaining a sense of humour and world weary hope for the future.


The Kamagasaki Cauldron War was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Go Gaga, My Dear (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。, Naoko Nobutomo, 2018)

I go gaga posterWith the population ageing at unprecedented levels, Japanese society is facing a series of interconnected social issues as it contemplates the best way of caring for large numbers of elderly people often living away from family members who, in the past, might have been expected to bear responsibility. What sometimes gets forgotten, however, is the human dimension as older people go on living their everyday lives sometimes surrounded by family and sometimes not. Veteran TV director Naoko Nobutomo’s first feature I Go Gaga, My Dear (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。, Bokemasukara, Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu) follows her ageing parents from her own perspective as their daughter as they continue supporting each other into old age.

Nobutomo begins her story on New Year’s Day 2014 as she begins to notice a change in her sprightly, independent mother Fumiko and decides to take her to a doctor where they discover she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Over the next three years, Fumiko’s condition intensifies while her husband of 60 years, Yoshinori, does his best to care for her though he himself is already over 90.

Flashing back to home video taken in earlier years, Nobutomo recalls her difficulty dealing with breast cancer at 45 throughout which her mother had been there to look after her. Having looked after her family for all of her life, there is an especial irony that now it’s Fumiko who needs looking after and it is perhaps these small moments of change that force her to acknowledge a gradual decline in her living standards even if she cannot clearly process them. Though Yoshinori bravely starts taking more domestic responsibility at 95, losing the ability to cook for herself is an obvious blow to Fumiko who nevertheless determines to keep her kitchen spotlessly clean.

Luckily, Fumiko and Yoshinori have a generous health insurance policy which entitles them to assistance in the home though that is something they obviously feel ambivalent about accessing. Fumiko, in particular, remains confused about the presence and role of their new helper, believing she is something to do with the insurance company, and is a little resentful of her offer to help with physically difficult housework such as cleaning the bath and emptying the washing machine. Likewise, she is originally reluctant to attend the daycare centre but noticeably perks up after being given a valuable opportunity to socialise rather than staying home all day with relatively little stimulation.

Seeing that her parents are struggling to manage on their own, Nobutomo wonders if she should give up her job in Tokyo and come home to Kure to look after them but is assured by her father that they’d prefer her to go on living her own life. Yoshinori, born in 1920, wanted to study literature at university but the war got in the way. Perhaps for this reason, he was determined that his daughter follow her dreams and is profoundly happy that she’s been able to make a career doing something she loves in the big city. Fumiko too, marrying at the comparatively late age of 30, had been a career woman, graduating from a woman’s school and working as an accountant before her marriage. A notably progressive pair, perhaps usually for the times in which they lived, they were content to let their daughter live the life she wanted to live and never placed any particular pressure on her to conform by getting married and having children.

Married for over 60 years, Fumiko and Yoshinori are determined to go on living independently and managing on their own as best they can. Fumiko, however, has brief painful moments of anxiety in which she is acutely aware of her declining condition and implications for her future. Some days she refuses to get out of bed, either resigned to the fact that “life isn’t always happy”, or lamenting that her life “miserable”. Neither of them want to be a “burden”, but find it increasingly difficult to continue managing on their own as much as they prefer to be as independent as possible. Nevertheless, they go on supporting each other much as they always have living together in hope and happiness while Nobutomo watches warmly from the sidelines supporting them in the same way they supported her, gently and with compassionate understanding.


I Go Gaga, My Dear was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Chaplain (教誨師, Dai Sako, 2018)

The Chaplian posterJapan is one of the few developed nations which still maintains the death penalty, though in practice infrequently. The sentence of death is handed down almost exclusively to mass or serial murderers, child killers, or those whose crimes are judged to be of extraordinary barbarity. Unlike other nations, Japan houses those on death row not in prisons but in detention centres, denying them the rights that are afforded to regular prisoners such as visitation, exercise, and entertainment. Execution must be carried out within five days of the judgement being handed down. The prisoner themselves is informed on the morning of their death and given a choice of last meal, but their family members, legal team, and the general public are only informed once it has taken place preventing any last minute attempts for a stay.

In what would be his final screen role (and his first as a producer), Ren Osugi stars as a prison chaplain, Saeki, attempting to guide a series of Death Row prisoners towards spiritual peace as they prepare to accept their judgement. Though none of the prisoners he visits protests their innocence, some are more repentant than others and not all of them have fully internalised the fact they will never leave the facility even when no further legal attempts to commute their sentences seem to be underway. Some might say there is an element of exploitation in sending a chaplain in at all seeing as this is literally a captive audience. The crimes which lead to being on Death Row are necessarily extreme, many prisoners either have no remaining family members or have been abandoned by them out of shame, leaving them intensely lonely and devoid of human contact (not even televisions or radios are permitted). They are therefore much more interested in conversation than they are in The Bible or accepting Jesus into their hearts.

Then again, Saeki’s first visit is to a man who says nothing at all, allowing him to fill the silence with some of his own backstory which hints at a personal trauma possibly informing his desire to save the souls of these unfortunate people. Another prisoner, by contrast, is all too eager to convert but, as Saeki soon realises, is almost entirely illiterate and therefore struggling to hear the word of God through being unable to read. Saeki does his best to help them, gently listening to their fears and worries but encounters a familiar series of social problems which made their fates inevitable stemming from entrenched poverty and social inequality.

Only six months into the job, he wonders if he’s really getting through and if his efforts are worthwhile. His most challenging prisoner is a young man convicted of a mass killing of those with learning difficulties (inspired by a real life case), whom he deemed to be a drain on national resources. A hyper-rational sociopath, Takamiya (Leo Tamaoki) baits Saeki with unassailable, coldhearted logic which asks why, if he’s happy enough to kill and eat “stupid” animals like cows and pigs, but not “clever” ones like dolphins, his application of the same logic to the human world can be wrong? If all creatures have an equal right to life, then killing for food is as wrong as any other kind of killing and the death penalty nothing more than state sanctioned murder. There is no rational answer for Takamiya’s philosophy and aside from his abhorrent, unfeeling rationality he may have a point when it comes to social hypocrisy. All Saeki can do is ask him to stand with the people that he killed, and acknowledge that God or no God, Saeki too will be with him until the very end.

If Takamiya begins to question the terrifying rationalism which led him to his truly barbaric act, he does so probably not because of Saeki’s ministrations but because of his proximity to death. Meanwhile, another prisoner, Suzuki (Kanji Furutachi), convicted of a stalker murder, seems to have picked up entirely the wrong message in coming to blame just about everyone else for his crime and absolving himself of responsibility. He might have found peace, but it is not the kind of peace he was supposed to find. Noguchi (Setsuko Karasuma), meanwhile, the only female prisoner, continues to talk about the future as if she really thinks she’s getting out. Only Shoichi (Takeo Gozu), an elderly man, seems to truly accept Saeki’s teachings though it is perhaps enough to make him feel as if he really is making a difference.

Sako opts for subtlety in pointing out the inherent hypocritical immorality of the death penalty and particularly in the context of the Japanese legal system which relies heavily on confessions often extracted under duress. Battling his own sense of guilt, Saeki tries to save himself by saving the souls of others but finds his work an uphill battle in a society which prefers not to speak of unpleasant matters and thereby renders itself absolute and unaccountable in the rigidity of its justice.


The Chaplain (教誨師, Kyoukaishi) was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)