Confession (자백, Yoon Jong-seok, 2022)

An accused man and the woman sent to defend him battle over the elusive nature of objective truth in Yoon Jong-seok’s steely psychological thriller, Confession (자백, Jabaek). A remake of the Spanish film Contratiempo, Confession is nevertheless the latest in a longline of Korean films critical of expanding chaebol culture and the utter entitlement of the elite who assume they have the right to do whatever they want because their money, status, and connections protect them from any potential consequences of their actions. Then again as the lawyer tells her client, salvation is never painless. 

Min-ho (So Ji-sub) had something of a golden life. Married to the daughter of the chairman of a large corporation, he was a rising star of cybersecurity who had even been named IT businessman of the year but was about to throw it all away through a lengthy affair with a woman, Se-hee (Nana), whom he has now been accused of killing. You’d have to admit, he had a motive and the circumstantial evidence against him is convincing yet Min-ho claims that he didn’t do it and there was a third party involved in this otherwise locked room mystery. 

Much of the film takes place in a claustrophobic wooden cabin in the woods all but cut off by heavy snow in which Min-ho has chosen retreat after his chairman father-in-law managed to get his arrest warrant canceled. What emerges is a psychological battle between Ms. Yang (Kim Yunjin), the fancy lawyer hired by the chairman, and Min-ho who have somewhat opposing goals. Min-ho wants her to sign the documents confirming her as his legal counsel and therefore making anything he might have said subject to privilege while she presses him for the location of vital evidence while trying to expose the objective truth behind Min-ho’s selective testimony. 

Neither of them are reliable narrators, Ms. Yang coming up with potential scenarios and at times implying she has evidence that she does not in order to push Min-ho towards revealing the facts of the case. As she says, a lawyer can only help you if you’ve been rigorously honest because she in turn needs to construct a narrative that can undercut the prosecution’s case. The truth might in one sense be irrelevant, as she implies when advising that they frame Se-hee as the villain suggesting that she orchestrated a plot to blackmail Min-ho over their affair in a mix of vengeance and greed when he decided to end their relationship because he could no longer bear the guilt of cheating on his wife. 

Yet there are further transgressions in Min-ho’s past aside from his affair and it’s the attempt to cover them up more than the affair itself which has landed him in so much trouble. As he tells the lawyer, he doesn’t just want to avoid prison but is set on total exoneration unwilling to accept any kind of responsibility for what is currently happening to him. Because of his wealth and status he believes he is not subject to the same laws as everyone else and that even if he had killed Se-hee as his lawyer is beginning to suspect, he would still not be guilty of any crime. “What’s important is to survive” he tells the lawyer revealing his inner ruthlessness along with the complacent reckless streak which might hinder her attempts to defend him. 

There’s no denying that the film’s earliest twists are obvious and heavily foreshadowed but like a seasoned lawyer it is also laying a trap that leaves its final revelations extremely satisfying in implying a kind of justice at least is possible in this inherently corrupt society where dodgy lawyers and elite privilege go hand in hand to destroy the lives of ordinary people. Dark in its implications, the cat and mouse game between lawyer and client who each lie in an attempt to expose the truth hints at the malleability of what is considered to be “true” in the way in which we all construct the narrative of our lives to suit ourselves while denying the realities of others. There may be no such thing as objective truth, but guilt and complacency will still come for you in the end. Visually referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Yoon’s tense psychological drama is in its own way hopeful in its reeling conclusion even if as the lawyer says salvation is never painless. 


Confession screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Broken Commandment (破戒, Kazuo Maeda, 2022)

Toson Shimazaki’s 1906 novel The Broken Commandment (破戒, Hakai) has been adapted for the screen several times, each version taking a slightly different approach to the source material. A new constitution film, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Apostasy (1948) focuses more keenly in the necessity of abandoning latent feudalism to create a truly free society of social equality, while Kon Ichikawa’s The Outcast (1962) essentially tells a coming out story in which the hero finds a kind of liberation in the embrace of his identity and resolves to fight for the rights of others forced to live in shame by an oppressive social order. 

One could say that each adaptation in its way reflects the time in which it was made. Kazuo Maeda’s The Broken Commandment focuses more on the threat of rising militarism and an increasingly authoritarian social order than the hero’s internalised conflict between the necessity of keeping the promise he made to his father never to reveal his roots as a member of the burakumin class and the knowledge that not to do so is to remain complicit in the oppression of others like him. 

Set during the Russo-Japanese War of the early 1900s, the film opens with a scene in which the hero, Ushimatsu (Shotaro Mamiya), is woken by a commotion in the inn at which he is staying. Another of the guests in town to receive medical treatment has been outed as a burakumin, a member of a near untouchable class. The woman running the inn apologises profusely and explains that all the tatami mats throughout the building now need to be replaced while following the elderly gentleman ejected from the building out onto the street throwing salt on the ground to purify it from his presence. Ushimatsu’s problem is that he is himself a burakumin who has kept his heritage secret and is living an ordinary life as a teacher in a small rural town. The school which he works for is extremely conservative and aligned with the proto-militarist conservative right which is currently in ascendency with the war in full swing. Ushimatsu is already treated with a degree of suspicion not of his class background but his socialist views which advocate for peace, freedom, and equality. 

Yet it’s clear that not even he has been fully able to relinquish feudalistic thinking. Though he urges some of his pupils that it is alright to play together despite the class difference which exists between them explaining that the class system ended with the Meiji Restoration, he feels beginning a relationship with the adopted daughter of a temple where he is currently living, Shiho (Anna Ishii), would be inappropriate not just because he is a burakumin and it would be unfair to marry without telling her which he cannot do because of the commandment from his father, but because she is descended from a former samurai family. As we can see social class is largely distinct from wealth, a corrupt local politician marrying the daughter of a burakumin who has become wealthy but keeping her origins secret while the old man ejected from the inn was also someone of means dressing in elegant Western suits in contrast to most in the impoverished village who still wear kimono. Wealth did not free the burakumin from prejudice, while even in poverty Shiho and her father Kazama (Kazuya Takahashi), who is about to fired by the school so they won’t have to pay his pension, are still thought of as members of the nobility. The old ideas don’t disappear so easily even among those who know them to be mistaken. 

Yet as Ushimatsu’s mentor Inoko (Hidekazu Mashima) says, even if the burakumin were to be accepted by society prejudice itself would not die merely migrate to another minority. In Inoko, a socialist writer who proudly comes out and says he is a burakumin, or “eta” meaning pariah in the language of the time, Ushimatsu discovers a second father who grants him the courage to free himself from his feudal vision of filiality and break his father’s commandment to better help those like him and resist the mounting authoritarianism of the education system in which boys in particular are being brainwashed that they are little more than tools for imperialist expansion. In his impassioned speech to the students, Ushimatsu tells them that he wants them to grow up to be people who can think for themselves rather than blindly accept their programming, the kids seemingly getting the message in defying slimy militarist plant Katsuno to see Ushimatsu on his way when he decides he must leave the village to foster freedom elsewhere. 

Unlike previous adaptations, the film does not much go into how he plans to do that save his intention to find a position as a school teacher in the city and educate the young away from prejudice. Breaking his father’s commandment is in its own way a way of breaking with the past, refusing to be complicit with an oppressive social order still bound up with feudalistic notions of class hierarchy which all point towards the emperor and reinforce the increasing authoritarianism of the militarists. Speaking to the rising nationalism of the contemporary society, Maeda’s adaptation positions education as the best weapon against an oppressive social order but also insists that its hero must first free himself from his own internalised shame and outdated ways of thinking. 


Broken Commandment screens at Asia Society 28th July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

© 2022 BROKEN COMMANDMENT Film Partners

My Small Land (マイスモールランド, Emma Kawawada, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

Despite the nation’s relative wealth, Japan’s refugee policy is incredibly strict. In 2021, it approved the claims of just 74 asylum seekers which may seem like a small amount but is actually the highest number of people granted asylum since Japan first began recognising refugees in 1982. In fact, only 915 people (as of May 2022) have been granted refugee status in the 40 years since the policy was put in place. For a nation that prides itself on omotenashi, it’s a curiously hostile stance and one which has increasingly come under the spotlight in contemporary cinema with films such as Thomas Ash’s hard-hitting documentary Ushiku exploring the lives of asylum seekers trapped in indefinite detention, Akio Fujimoto’s Passage of Life, and briefly in Nobuhiro Suwa’s Voices in the Wind in which the heroine encounters a welcoming community of Kurdish refugees. 

Director Emma Kawawada is not from a refugee background herself but the daughter of a British father and Japanese mother and in her first feature My Small Land (マイスモールランド) explores the themes of cultural dislocation through the eyes of a young Kurdish woman who came to Japan at five years old after her father was persecuted and tortured for his political beliefs in Turkey. In the film’s opening sequence, Sarya (Lina Arashi) is visibility distressed at a community wedding when a well-meaning older woman tells her it’ll be her turn next, her father (played by Arashi’s real father) chipping in that they still have her late mother’s dress for her to wear. She looks down at the red paint on her hand which, as she later explains to convenience store workmate Sota (Daiken Okudaira), is worn by relatives at a wedding but also closely resembles the red sun of the Japanese flag. She tries to scrub to it off, but it won’t come clean and she’s eventually warned about it at work making an excuse rather than attempting to explain. 

In fact, Sarya has most been telling people that she’s German following an incident in primary school in which she wanted to say she was supporting Japan in the World Cup like everyone else but felt awkward about it and said Germany instead leading her classmates to assume that’s where she was from. When she tries to explain to Sota that she’s actually Kurdish, he hasn’t even heard of Kurds before and is confused later given a small lecture by Sarya’s father Mazlum explaining that the Kurds are an ethnic group divided by irrational borders and have no country of their own. His explanation echoes Sarya’s sense of rootlessness as a young woman with no clear homeland torn between two competing cultures. Though she has become an unofficial translator for the Kurdish community and her father keeps them immersed in Kurdish traditions she does not feel completely comfortable stating that she is a Kurd while on another level bothered by the community’s constant joking that she will one day wed construction worker Welat.

Sarya is bright and on track for a scholarship to university in Tokyo hoping to become a primary school teacher in tribute to the teacher who helped her when she first arrived in Japan with no language skills, but all that goes out of the window when Mazlum’s asylum claim is refused and the family lose their visas. Given a provisional release, they are not permitted to work and cannot leave Saitama, the prefecture where they are registered, without permission from the authorities. Saitama is directly adjacent to Tokyo, its borders as arbitrary as any other as demonstrated by the sign halfway along a bridge demarcating its boundaries. This is quite inconvenient for Sarya as her secret part-time job is technically in Tokyo, while it also means she has to explain to Sota why she can’t accompany him to Osaka where he hopes to look at art schools and is now technically working illegally. When Mazlum is caught working his construction job, he is put into indefinite detention and advised by the family’s sympathetic lawyer to reapply for asylum. If he is sent back to Turkey, he will be immediately arrested and his life will be in danger. 

The family’s situation lays bare how vulnerable asylum seekers are in the contemporary society. They are told they can’t work and can’t leave yet are provided no financial support leaving them with little option other than to break the rules or appeal to friends and family, if they have them, for immediate help. Left in charge of her two younger siblings who barely remember any Kurdish and know only Japan, Sarya finds herself resorting to compensated dating, pushed into potentially dangerous ways to earn money now that her route to legal employment has been taken away. Meanwhile, as her father is detained in a kind of “prison” and she has lost her visa, she is viewed as an “illegal” immigrant leading even those who had otherwise been sympathetic towards her such as Sota’s warmhearted mother (Chizuru Ikewaki) distancing themselves from the stigma of illegality. Sota wants to help, but he’s just a teenage boy and is unable to offer much beyond his savings which Sarya is understandably reluctant to accept. Even so, despite the bureaucratic cruelty at its centre, My Small Land has an otherwise hopeful outlook as Sarya begins to find the strength to define her own borders and boundaries while taking care of her family in a sometimes hostile society. 


My Small Land screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン, Shinji Higuchi, 2022)

The classic tokusatsu hero rises again to rescue kaiju-plagued Japan from geopolitical tensions and internal bureaucracy in Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン). Scripted by Hideaki Anno, Shin Ultraman shares much in common with Shin Godzilla which the pair co-directed but is also a much more obvious homage to the world of classic tokusatsu or “special effects” franchises which became cult TV hits from the 1960s onwards and have remained popular with children and adults alike throughout Asia. 

This new iteration takes place in a world in which kaiju attacks have become commonplace, so much so that there is a specialised government department, the SSSP, dedicated to dealing with them. Led by determined veteran Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the team do not engage with the giant monsters directly but are responsible for research and strategy quickly trying to work out what kind of kaiju they’re dealing with, what the dangers associated with it may be, and where it’s weaknesses lie so they can figure out a way to stop it. Just when it looks like an electricity-guzzling lizard monster is about to do some serious damage, a robot-like giant humanoid arrives and saves the day. The team are very grateful to the heroic defender they name Ultraman, but are puzzled that he seems to be aware of all their research while otherwise missing the connection that their near silent colleague Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh) always seems to be mysteriously absent every time Ultraman arrives.  

At heart, Shin Godzilla had been a satire on government bureaucracy and a mediation on the response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Shin Ultraman might not be so pointed but still has a few bones to pick with the political machine as the team’s boss at HQ moans about the need to keep buying fancy weapons from the Americans (and making sure it’s the Defence Ministry that foots the bill) while cynically suggesting that the government is keen to use the kaiju crisis as leverage to further its policy goal of nuclear re-armament. Meanwhile, it’s also clear that for some reason kaiju attacks only happen in Japan and the International community largely sees them as a Japanese issue which they have to deal with alone, but as soon as Ultraman turns up and is thought to be extraterrestrial everyone is suddenly interested. 

As it transpires these geopolitical divisions are incredibly useful to another extraterrestrial visitor, Zarab (Kenjiro Tsuda), who plans to sow discord among nations so that humanity will destroy itself thereby, ironically, preventing an intergalactic war between planets who may be tempted to fight amongst themselves over the potential enslavement of humanity as valuable bioweapons. Aware of Zarab’s power, the government is manipulated into signing an uneven treaty with him in order to be first out of the gate and gain an advantage over other nations who, for reasons of self preservation, are also keen to ensure no one has sole access to new alien technologies and emissaries. Asked why he picked Japan, all Zarab can come up with it that he happened to land there which is quite a coincidence though he also has a vested interest in taking out Ultraman, the only force capable of resisting him. 

Even so, according to Zarab, the kaiju plague is humanity’s doing in having awakened sleeping monsters through environmental destruction. Hailing from the Planet of Light which has strict rules about what he’s supposed to be doing, Ultraman longs to understand humanity having merged with a human he accidentally killed who had dedicated his life to saving others. What he gains is a sense of communal responsibility along with a desire to care for what he sees as, essentially, babies someway behind his own planet in terms of evolution and in need of guidance. What he doesn’t want to do is endanger their “autonomous progression” by solving all their problems for them, so in grand tokusatsu fashion its up to the team to engineer their own solution in addition to deciding what they will do with this new technology using it for good or ill. Being buddies is all about trust, after all. Higuchi’s composition borders on the avant-garde recalling both that of the legendary Akio Jissoji and those more often associated with anime and manga rather than live action while the effects, even those utilising CGI, are pleasantly nostalgic with retro mono explosions and the iconic ringing of laser beams. Heading in a melancholy philosophical direction in its final moments, Shin Ultraman does at least suggest that the best weapons against a kaiju attack are teamwork and mutual trust especially if one of your friends is an all powerful being from another galaxy. 


Shin Ultraman screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS CO., LTD. / TOHO CO., LTD. / khara, Inc. © TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS

Chorokbam (초록밤, Yoon Seo-jin, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A small family contends with the persistent unfairness of contemporary Korean society in Yoon Seo-jin’s slow burn indie drama, Chorokbam (초록밤). Translated literally, the title means “green night”, the family often bathed in a neon green that seems to reflect their sense of despair and anguish unable to envisage much of a future for themselves in a world ruled by greed and envy which leaves them little option other than to become insensitive to the joy and pain of others. 

As the film opens, the nightwatchman patriarch is busy giving out parking tickets when he suddenly spots a cat hanging from from a children’s climbing frame. Shocked and feeling pity for the small creature, he cuts it down and buries it by the green light of the moon but finds little sympathy when relating his traumatic discovery to his wife. The nightwatchman’s wife is preoccupied with more practical affairs, irritated by her husband’s annoying habits such as leaving the bathroom door open and not washing his hands after finishing his business, while their grown-up son Won-hyung wants to get married but can’t afford a place to live on his salary as a care worker. When it comes to that, they’re soon to be turfed out themselves because their landlord wants to tear the building down. 

Matters come to a head when the grandfather passes away, the nightwatchman’s sisters getting into an actual physical altercation at the wake while loudly complaining about who did or didn’t pay for the funeral. Totting up the condolence money they accuse supposedly cheapskate guests of freeloading, implying they only turned up for a free meal that they have in a sense stolen. Meanwhile, the sisters also want to ensure that their father’s house is sold quickly so they can divvy up the inheritance. What they realise, however, is that there were things about their father’s life they may not have known which raise questions about moral responsibility when it comes to dealing with the affairs of someone who has died. 

The nightwatchman comes to identify with the strangled cat, though the spectre of hanging seems to loom over the rest of the picture with even the nightwatchman’s wife eventually discovering the body of someone whose death she may unwittingly have contributed to. She complains about her husband’s fecklessness, that he, who barely talks at all, makes her deal with anything unpleasant including his hotheaded sisters. She tells him that she regrets marrying into his “horrible” family and is thoroughly sick of dealing with them only to be pursued by a wounded dog with whom she perhaps also identifies. The nightwatchman’s wife is often excluded from the frame, a disembodied voice from behind a wall as she is as she feeds her husband breakfast and again when he asks her to deal with an emotionally difficult situation in a cafe. The nightwatchman simply smokes by a widow as if physically removing himself from the scene. 

Won-hyung meanwhile becomes increasingly resentful with his friends’ wedding coming up, unable to escape the feeling of belittlement in being unable to marry or move forward with his life with little prospect that anything will change. Yoon frames the family’s dilemmas with a deadpan realism, bathing the everyday grimness of their lives in an putrescent green that suggests there may be no escape from this maddening society where all relationships are built on transaction. The family are doing their best but are also estranged from each other, the nightwatchman barely speaking while his wife is left to deal with the uncertainty of their lives alone. She even laments they’ll likely not see the sisters again until the next person dies because their familial connection is essentially hollow and valueless in a society ruled by money. 

The nightwatchman comes to think of himself as a strangled cat, finding himself facing a noose during a poetic dream sequence that encourages him to think of suicide as the only possible escape from his impossible situation. Bleak in the extreme, Kim’s slow burn drama paints an unflattering portrait of the contemporary society as one in which all hope has long been lost leaving only dread and despair in its wake. 


Chorokbam screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Grown-ups (わたし達はおとな, Takuya Kato, 2022)

“You’re a grown-up. If something’s wrong you gotta handle it” the passive aggressively condescending hero of Takuya Kato’s Grown-ups (わたし達はおとな, Watashitachi wa Otona) chastises, but what even really is being “grown-up” when you find yourself in a situation which is emotionally difficult and will define the future course of your life. Shot in a claustrophobic 4:3 and told in a non-linear fashion, Kato’s intense drama lays bare the inequalities of a patriarchal society in which in a sense there are no real grown-ups because no one is ever comfortable enough with anyone else to be able to speak their real feelings honestly. 

This becomes a particular problem for college student Yumi (Mai Kiryu) who discovers that she is pregnant but is uncertain as to who the father might be having had a one night stand during the time her live-in boyfriend Naoya (Kisetsu Fujiwara) had broken up with her. Yumi immediately tells Naoya that there’s a chance the baby isn’t his, but remains otherwise reticent unwilling to talk about what might have happened while filled with an internal panic. Naoya thinks he’s being grown-up about the situation by deciding to accept responsibility given the probability that he is the father but despite pledging that he would accept the baby even if it turned out he wasn’t can’t stop trying to pressure Yumi into a DNA test for peace of mind. 

The irony is that even Naoya, who was Yumi’s first sexual partner, refused to wear a condom and joked about contraception before making her go on the pill when he moved in with her. Later we learn that the one night stand violated her consent by again refusing to wear a condom and ignoring her objections, later joking about it that the chances of conception are incredibly small while making it clear that men in general don’t consider pregnancy as something that happens to them and because, as one of Yumi’s friends puts it, they only chase “innocent” girls they don’t seem to worry about the possibility of contracting an STI. Meanwhile, Yumi is constantly stalked by a fellow student she briefly dated who presents her with a memory book of their relationship and is always creepily hanging around waiting to give her gifts, but all her friends can seem to talk about is boyfriends implying that a bad boyfriend might be better than none. 

Yet Yumi seems to have intimacy issues that run even deeper, for some reason not even telling Naoya that her mother has passed away leaving him to think she has run away from their problems by returning home just when he’s ready to tell her his decision about their future. When her father asks about boyfriends she brushes the question off though perhaps partly because she’s not quite sure about her relationship status with Naoya or what she’s going to do about the baby. She calls her friend to hear a friendly voice after hearing her mother has died but gets little sympathy, the same friend later abruptly hanging up on her after getting a boyfriend of her own while knowing of Yumi’s romantic troubles. 

Then again, it’s hard to know whether Naoya was really interested in her or in her lovely duplex apartment. When they started dating he was still living with his ex and it’s obvious that Yumi fully conforms to the feminine ideal taking care of all the domestic tasks while it isn’t even clear if Naoya is contributing in any way to the household. The film both begins and ends with Yumi making breakfast, firstly toasting the last slice of bread for Naoya while suffering with what turns out to be morning sickness, and finally making herself something to eat in the early light of dawn. Naoya says he’s give up on his dreams of working in theatre to get a regular job, again conforming to an outdated patriarchal ideal, but of course resents it particularly because he doubts the child is his while Yumi isn’t really sure she wants to go through with it either for some of the same reasons but is swayed by Naoya’s determination to make all their decisions for them unable to say out loud that she might not be ready to become a mother. 

Naoya is always trying to be grown-up about everything, but more often than not his understanding approach is partway towards passive aggressive control in insisting that Yumi is being childish in her anxiety and confusion while simultaneously avoiding having to admit that he isn’t really ready either. Early in their relationship he breaks up with her by simply returning her apartment key and refusing to elaborate, failing to treat her with respect or maturity and once again leaving her to deal with the fallout of their relationship all alone. Then again, Yumi’s determination to convince him that green peas are good may signal that the relationship was always doomed when they couldn’t even reach a grown-up understanding over something as trivial as taste in veg. A raw examination of what it is to be young and faced with a decision that will define the rest of your life, Kato’s naturalistic drama perhaps suggests that it never really gets any easier to say how you really feel when you feel that someone is judging you all the way. 


Grown-ups screens at Lincoln Center 23d July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2022“Grown-ups” Production Committee

Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

“So you say you’re under a curse? So what? So’s the whole damn world.” The world is indeed cursed in Hayao Miyazaki’s landmark 1997 animation Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, Mononoke-hime). As the greedy monk insists, “there are angry ghosts all around us. Dead from wars, sickness, starvation. And no one cares”. Yet as an impassioned parable as it is about the destructive forces of industrialisation, Miyazaki’s mystical drama is really about balance and duality along with the necessity of harmony and co-existence with nature red in tooth and claw. 

Young prince Ashitaka (Yoji Matsuda) already lives in what seems to be perfect harmony with the natural world, but his idyllic existence in an ancient clan long exiled by the emperor is disturbed one day by a marauding giant boar chased out of the forest having been turned into a demon consumed with hate and resentment. Ashitaka first tries reasoning with the beast, but is finally forced to put it out of its misery to protect the village and is infected himself in the process. Now unable to stay lest he endanger his community, Ashitaka ventures West in search of the corruption which sent the boar hurtling towards his home. 

What he eventually comes to is an industrial settlement, Irontown, ruled by Lady Eboshi (Yuko Tanaka) who ought by all rights to be a villain in her casual disregard of or active hostility towards unruly nature which her industrialisation pollutes. But then as we can see Lady Eboshi is a good and compassionate leader who has erected a community of the marginalised buying out the contracts of indentured sex workers and freeing them to labour in her ironworks while taking in lepers to manufacture her futuristic firearms. Uncharitably, one could also say that she’s chosen these people because they have little power and will be more likely to put up with hardship and exploitation without complaint because it’s better than the lives they lived before, but it does it does seem that she has her heart in the right place as far as her people are concerned determined to build a community of mutual solidarity between workers. 

Conversely, the titular Princess Mononoke, San (Yuriko Ishida), ought by rights to be the heroine but she and the wolf deities she lives with are also violent and unforgiving in their hatred of humans as determined to wipe out the threat presented by Lady Eboshi as she is them. Ashitaka was dispatched to be a peacemaker, to see with eyes unclouded by hate, in an attempt to find common ground and a way that the forest and humanity can live together because in reality one cannot survive without the other. He is by turns disappointed with each of them but holds compassion for both while a tertiary political threat lingers on the horizon in the machinations of shady priest Jigo (Kaoru Kobayashi) and the emperor who wants the head the of the Forest Spirit because he believes it will confer immortality. Lady Eboshi, who otherwise appears to reject the feudal order, intends to give the emperor the head in order to gain protection from overreaching lord Asano who hopes to capture the capitalistic potential of Irontown for himself. 

Jigo is an embodiment of humanity’s greed and its destructive potential, not caring that severing the Forest Spirit’s head will cause untold destruction in which any financial gain he might make would be all but irrelevant. His role is even more ironic given that he is a priest who has supposedly rejected material desire describing himself as a monk just trying to get by while seemingly willing to manipulate and betray almost anyone in his quest for gold. Lady Eboshi wants to improve conditions for her community while San essentially wants the same but Jigo just wants to improve things for Jigo and no one else. 

What Ashitaka wants is to cure his curse by restoring the balance between the human world and the natural in the creation of a society in which neither need be a threat to the other. Thus he pledges to help rebuild Irontown along less destructive lines while entrusting the forest to San to protect though she finds herself unable to forgive humanity for the destruction it has already wrought and may do again. Even so, as Ashitaka says, “it’s time for us both to live” hinting at a kind of rebirth and a new beginning free from the old authority be it the Forest Spirit or the emperor and the feudal order in a new world of freedom and equality. 


Princess Mononoke screens on 35mm at Japan Society New York on July 22.

Trailer (english subtitles)

The Fish Tale (さかなのこ, Shuichi Okita, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

Shuichi Okita has made a career for himself exploring the lives of eccentric people and The Fish Tale (さかなのこ, Sakana no kKo) is certainly no exception. Based on the memoirs of the real life “Sakana-kun”, the film is a testament to the ways in which true enthusiasm can become an infectious source for good while even subjects which might seem esoteric can have universal appeal when delivered in the right way. Meebo (Non) is not like everyone else but sees nothing wrong in that nor do they see anything wrong in the way others live their lives (save for thinking edamame are better than fish). 

Later a TV personality, best-selling author, and YouTuber, Meebo has been totally obsessed with fish all their life. They draw pictures of fish, edit a fish-themed newspaper in middle school, and talk about fish all day long but they still eat fish and find how good it tastes just another thing that makes fish the best thing ever. Though Meebo’s mother (Haruka Igawa) is ever supportive, their father (Hiroki Miyake) has his doubts worried that Meebo isn’t like the other children and is going to struggle later in life. When Meebo meets a strange man with a fish hat on his head (a cameo from the real life Sakana-kun) whom most of the other children avoid, their mother says it’s alright to go to his house to see his aquarium but their father disagrees for obvious reasons later calling the police when Meebo fails to return home at the agreed time. Mr. Fish Head is the only person with whom the young Meebo can truly bond in their shared love of sea life but he also bears out their father’s sense of disapproval in admitting that he came from a wealthy family but is now low on funds because like Meebo he wasn’t suited to conventional schooling and has never been able to hold down a steady job. 

Meebo’s mother meanwhile is more relaxed, calmly telling Meebo’s teacher that having good grades isn’t necessarily important for everyone and she doesn’t want to force Meebo to make themselves unhappy by giving up fish to get them. In any case employment is something Meebo struggles with, fired from the aquarium for spending too much time admiring the fish and then later let go from a sushi bar. Meebo is hired to create an aquatic display for a dentist with an extremely gaudy office but fails to correctly interpret the brief unable to understand the dentist just wanted something flashy and superficial (like himself), but is finally offered a job at a pet shop with a sympathetic boss who appreciates their deep knowledge of and love for fish. 

As Meebo says, they don’t understand what “normal” is save for a vague sense that they may not be but continues to live their life happily no matter what others might think. When they’re targeted by delinquents in high school, Meebo ends up simply inviting them to come fishing with them and is generally able to win over those who don’t understand or approve of their obsessive interest with the force of their enthusiasm. Then again, there are those who are simply too conventional such as the young woman childhood friend Hiyo (Yuya Yagira) tries to introduce her to who rudely laughs at Meebo’s “childish” determination to become a “fish expert” as if such a thing were inherently ridiculous. Time and again its these special connections often made in childhood which continue to help Meebo on their way, engineering a friendship between the leaders of two rival high school gangs who later hire them to help decorate the interior of a new sushi bar. 

That’s not to say their life is not sometimes difficult, but their love for fish always seems to carry them through while the joy and enthusiasm they bring with them makes others happy and more curious about the world in which they live. Their love of sea life eventually trickles down to the next generation with childhood friend Momo (Kaho) taking her daughter to the aquarium just like Meebo’s mother had them and buying her an encyclopaedia of fish which Meebo themselves had written. A quirky, warmhearted tale of total self-acceptance, Fish Tale is also testament to the positive influence of “obsessive” passion which far from dark or introverted can help to illuminate the lives of those who might also be afraid of their differences and love for that which others may deride as niche.


The Fish Tale screened as part of this year’s Fantasia.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Lesson in Murder (死刑にいたる病, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2022)

Parental disconnection and the legacy of abuse come under the microscope in a dark psychological thriller from Kazuya Shiraishi, Lesson in Murder (死刑にいたる病, Shikei ni Itaru Yamai). Adapted from the novel by Riu Kushiki, the film’s ironic Japanese title means something more like Sickness Unto Death Sentence and hints at an almost spiritual infection that spreads violence and cruelty as embodied by the moral vacuum at the film’s centre, a genial serial killer of stereotypically “good” kids chillingly played comic actor Sadao Abe. 

The psychodrama is played out, however, in the mind of young legal student Masaya (Kenshi Okada) who once frequented the popular bakery owned by Yamato (Sadao Abe) before he was exposed as the killer of 23 teens and one adult woman. On returning home for his grandmother’s funeral, Masaya is surprised to receive a letter from Yamato asking for his help. He admits killing the 23 teens (and perhaps more) but claims that he is not responsible for the death of the adult woman who after all does not fit his pattern. As he reveals, Yamato killed teens in their last year of high school and the grooming process which may have started even years before was central to his M.O. He delighted in winning their trust and then betraying it by torturing them to death in a smokehouse on the grounds of his isolated farmhouse. 

In court, Yamato explains that killing is simply “essential” to his being while insisting that he was caught because he became complacent rather than as a result of efficient policing. Yet he tells Masaya that it annoyed him that he never fell under suspicion, people always trusted him without question and he wanted to challenge that level of social complacency. In any case what’s clear is that he is and has always been a manipulative narcissist attributing those personality traits to his childhood abuse implying that they were a part of an abandoned child’s defence mechanism. He praised others to make them love and protect him, becoming drunk on the power he held over them. At first it seems as if his killings stem from resentment towards these “perfect” children who were well behaved and studied well in school but in fact the reason the children behaved in that way was often born of a desire for parental approval which made them vulnerable to Yamato’s grooming. “Repressed children have low self-esteem” he tells Masaya, an abused child himself, claiming that he wanted to help them grow in confidence through his persistent love bombing. 

Masaya is also on some level being groomed and may at times even be aware of it, but is so consumed with resentment towards his own father that he longs for a more sympathetic father figure and is even willing to accept to a serial killer as a potential paternal mentor. He becomes desperate to prove Yamato didn’t kill Kaoru (Ryo Sato), a 26-year-old office worker, almost forgetting that the killing of the 23 teens is not in dispute. His father resents him because the family run a prestigious school but Masaya was not academically gifted, bullying and beating both Masaya and his mother who is also an underconfident survivor of childhood neglect. She constantly asks for Masaya’s help making decisions, as do other survivors that he meets, while Yamato ironically tells him that the choice to investigate Kaoru’s death is entirely his own while wilfully manipulating him. Even so under his influence, Masaya’s own feelings of resentment towards the conservative society as mediated through middle-aged salarymen eventually bubble to the surface leading him on a dark path towards a potentially murderous destiny. 

Then again, as much as Yamato tries to take control of the narrative Kaoru’s death would still have been as a result of his actions no matter who it was who actually killed her. In another uncomfortabe irony what he’s doing while clearly grooming Masaya is in a sense as he claimed to be doing with his victims restoring his self-confidence in forcing him to face his dysfunctional family situation while proving that he is capable of solving this crime and perhaps in the end solving it a little better than intended. A killer final twist lends an additional layer of insanity to Yamato’s banal evil while Shiraishi’s cool direction at times superimposing the faces of the two men one over another in the glass that divides them at the prison with the faces of the victims projected behind may suggest that darkness hangs all around us and more to the point within. 


Lesson in Murder screens at Lincoln Center 21st July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2022 ”Lesson in Murder” Film Partners

Ox-Head Village (牛首村, Takashi Shimizu, 2022)

“A story about nothing” is how one middle-aged man jokingly dismisses a local legend about an ox-headed woman. Are urban legends just one big dad joke? Everybody who hears this story dies, so they say, which is obviously true whichever way you look at it though if it really were a curse it would have to move quickly or there’d be no-one to pass it on. As the heroine of Takashi Shimizu’s summer adventure horror movie Ox-Head Village (牛首村, Ushikubi Mura) discovers, however, there may be something to it after all in uncovering the dark history behind the local folklore. 

In her last year of high school, teenager Kanon (Koki) is beginning to experience strange events such as a series of mysterious scratches on her arm, odd bangs and noises at home, and her phone constantly playing a message about bad pennies and their tendency to keep turning up. Her friend Ren (Riku Hagiwara), who has a crush on her, shows her a viral video of some girls on paranormal live stream that goes wrong leading one, who looks exactly like her, to fall down a lift shaft and then mysteriously disappear. To find out what’s going on the pair head out into the country to the abandoned hotel where the shoot took place but end up battling supernatural malevolence born of the cruelty of previous eras. 

Like the previous two films in the “Village” trilogy, Ox-Head Village revolves around rural folkloric beliefs this time focussing on the suspicion cast against twins which in this village at least seems to have continued until the late 1960s. The root of the curse is the unnatural act of dividing something that should be one into two in attempting to separate pairs of twins leaving the one left behind, lonely, burdened with the residual stigma of being one of multiple births, and perhaps experiencing a little survivor’s guilt. In the film’s second sequence, bathed in yellow and shot with a 70s-style soft focus, two little girls kill a butterfly and bury it with its friends because it would just be lonely on its own. The resolution is that that which has been divided must be reunited in life or in death in order to end the curse, though as we later see that may not quite be the end of it. 

Meanwhile, though a supernatural horror film, Ox-Head Village is also part of a grand tradition of teen summer adventure movies. Kanon and Ren are about to embark on the last summer as high schoolers, the trip they take together as so many are is also about self-discovery as Kanon answers a few lingering questions about her past while searching for her doppelgänger. Her quest is also in its way about rescuing herself and laying to rest the sense of loneliness which has always plagued her. Along for the ride, Ren is perhaps more curious while obviously smitten hoping to cement his romance through a romantic road trip only to be blindsided by supernatural intrigue and country superstition. 

Nevertheless, there is something truly creepy about the innocent flowers the little girls draw along with the pre-modern superstition that informs life in the village. Though the sinister presence may in this case be firmly rooted in the past, they are able to mediate their curse through modern technology such as manipulating Kanon’s phone as a means of communication while using lift shafts to mimic the well which becomes the repository for the darkness of the village. As an old man puts it, a prejudice against twins might have been intellectually understandable in a time of famine, though morally indefensible and obviously absurd and out of place in the modern society. Even so, old beliefs have a way of persisting even if they are no longer clearly understood. 

Along with all the folk horror of ox-headed women, headless buddhist statues and “stories about nothing” there is the lingering dread of the lonely incompleteness visited on the little girls in yellow because of the outdated superstitions of an earlier era. Overcoming the curse requires both self-knowledge and self-sacrifice in order to heal the unnatural act of division which has been carried out but even this may not be enough to repair the damage of centuries of cruelty and prejudice. 


Ox-Head Village screens at Lincoln Center 19th July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 OX-HEAD VILLAGE Production Committee