The Room (部屋, Sion Sono, 1993)

The roomThough the later work of Sion Sono is often noted for its cinematic excess, his earlier career saw him embracing the art of minimalism. The Room (部屋, Heya) finds him in the realms of existentialist noir as a grumpy hitman whiles away his remaining time in the search for the perfect apartment guided only by a detached estate agent.

Sono begins the film with an uncomfortably long static camera shot of a warehouse area where nothing moves until a man suddenly turns a corner and sits down on a bench. We then cut to a rear shot of the same man who’s now sitting facing a harbour filled with boats coming and going as the sun bounces of the rippling sea. We don’t know very much about him but he’s dressed in the crumpled mac and fedora familiar to every fan of hardboiled fiction and walks with the steady invisibility of the typical genre anti-hero.

Before we head into the main “narrative” such as it is, Sono presents us with another uncomfortably long shot of the title card which takes the form of a street sign simply reading The Room, over which someone is whistling a traditional Japanese tune. Eventually we catch up with the hitman as he meets a young female estate agent identified only by the extremely long number she wears on the jacket of her official looking business suit. The hitman gruffly lists his poetical demands for his new home – must be quiet, have the gentle smell of spring flowers wafting through it, and above all it must have an open, unoverlooked view from a well lit window. The estate agent reacts with dispassionate efficiency, her gaze vacantly directed at the floor or around the rundown apartments which she recommends to her client. Together, the pair travel the city looking for the elusive “Room” though perhaps that isn’t quite what they’re seeking after all.

Sono shoots the entire film in grainy black and white and in academy ratio. He largely avoids dialogue in favour of visual storytelling though what dialogue there is is direct, if poetic, almost symbolic in terms of tone and delivery. The occasional intrusion of the jazzy score coupled with the deserted streets and stark black and white photography underlines the noir atmosphere though like the best hardboiled tales this is one filled emptiness led by a man seeking the end of the world, even if he doesn’t quite know it.

In fact, the relationship between our hitman and the passive figure of the estate agent can’t help but recall Lemmy Caution and the unemotional Natasha from Godard’s Alphaville – also set in an eerily cold city. If Sono is channelling Godard for much of the film, he also brings in a little of Tarkovsky as the hitman and estate agent make an oddly arduous train journey around the city looking for this magical space much like the explorers of the Zone in Stalker. Yet for all that there’s a touch of early Fassbinder too in Sono’s deliberately theatrical staging which attempts both to alienate and to engage at the same time.

The Room’s central conceit is its use of extremely long shots filled with minimal action or movement. In a 90 minute film, Sono has given us only 44 takes, lingering on empty streets and abandoned buildings long enough to test the patience of even the most forgiving viewer. Deliberately tedious, The Room won’t counter arguments of indulgence but its increasing minimalism eventually takes on a hypnotic quality, lending to its dreamlike, etherial atmosphere.

Here the city seems strange, a half formed place made up of half remembered images and crumbling buildings. Empty trains, scattered papers, and lonely bars are its mainstays yet it’s still somehow recognisable. Leaning more towards Sono’s poetic ambitions than the anarchism of his more aggressive work, The Room is a beautifully oblique exploration of the landscape of a tired mind as it prepares to meet the end of its journey.


Original trailer (no subtitles):

The Whispering of the Gods (ゲルマニウムの夜, Tatsushi Omori, 2005)

whispering of the godsIf you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live in hell, you could enjoy this fascinating promotional video which recounts events set in an isolated rural monastery somewhere in snow covered Japan. A debut feature from Tatsushi Omori (younger brother of actor Nao Omori who also plays a small part in the film), The Whispering of the Gods (ゲルマニウムの夜, Germanium no Yoru) adapted from the 1998 novel by Mangetsu Hanamura, paints an increasingly bleak picture of human nature as the lines between man and beast become hopelessly blurred in world filled with existential despair.

Rou (Hirofumi Arai) has returned to the religious community where he was raised but his reasons for this seem to have everything and nothing to do with God. He claims that he “kind of killed some people” and also says he’s a rapist, but there’s no way to tell how much of what he says is actually the truth. After opening with a sequence of bulls trudging through snow, we see Rou listening to a priest read from the bible, but we also see that Rou is giving the priest a hand job whilst looking resolutely vacant. Later, after expending some pent-up anger by thrashing around some with junk and kicking a dog, Rou has a heart to heart with a novice nun, Kyoko, which quickly results in a forbidden sexual relationship. Forbidden sexual relationships, well – “relationships” isn’t quite the right word here, perhaps transactions or just actions might be more appropriate, are very much the name of the game in this extremely strange community of runaways and reprobates each keen to pass their own suffering down to another through a complex network of abuse and violence.

An early scene sees Rou throw a metal pipe across his shoulders in an oddly Christ-like pose. He’s certainly no Messiah, he wants to take revenge on these people by being the very worst of them, but ultimately he does come carrying a message. Using the same tools against them as they’ve used against him all his life, he exploits the loopholes of religiosity to expose its inherent hypocrisy. He confesses sins he may or may not have committed as well as those he plans to commit. In giving him unconditional absolution for an uncommitted sin, has the priest just given him a free pass to balance the celestial books by going ahead and violating a random nun? As well as well and truly messing with the resident priest’s head, Rou’s rampant sexuality also exposes the latent longings present within the nuns themselves who are supposed to control their sexual urges, brides of Christ as they are, yet they too covertly indulge themselves in receiving satisfaction from the various kinds of strange sexual behaviour currently on offer.

Life on the farm is nature red in tooth and claw as one particularly brutal scene sees a male pig castrated with a pair of garden shears during a failed act of copulation. Later a pig will lie in neatly dissected pieces, dripping with blood and fluid. There’s no romance here, just flesh and impulse. Forming a kind of friendship with a younger boy, Toru, who is also being abused by the priests at the compound, Rou offers to take revenge for him but it seems the boy just wanted to confide in someone, to begin with. Later, Rou will take a kind of action and Toru offers to repay him by continuing the behaviours he has learned through a system of perpetual manipulation, unwittingly drawing Rou even more deeply into the spiral of abuse and hypocrisy that he set out to destroy.

Omori opts for a straightforward arthouse aesthetic which matches the bleakness of the environment and barrenness of spirituality found in this supposedly Christian commune. In fact, Omori had to go a roundabout route to get this film shown given its controversial nature which saw him set up a temporary marquee theatre to avoid having the film cut to get an Eirin certificate before getting it into more mainstream cinemas in his desired version. What it has to say about the base essence of humanity is extremely hard to take, though no less valid, and its picture of a hellish world filled with nothing but despair punctuated by guilt filled sexual episodes and violence in which there is nothing left to do but continue shovelling shit until you die is an uncomfortably apt metaphor for contemporary society.


Mangetsu Hanamura’s source novel does not appear to be available in English but actually seems to be even more disturbing than this extremely depressing film – more info over at Books From Japan.

Unsubbed trailer:

Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏, Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

b97b89932bReview of Takeshi Kitano’s 1999 masterpiece Kikujiro AKA Kikujiro’s Summer (菊次郎の夏, Kikujiro no Natsu) first published by UK Anime Network.


When thinking about the career of iconoclastic Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, “cute” is not a word which immediately springs to mind. Nevertheless, it’s a fairly apt one for describing the bittersweet tale of one summer in the life of a lonely little boy and the roughhousing ex-yakuza who becomes his reluctant guardian.

Masao is a mournful looking schoolboy who lives alone with his grandmother. It’s almost the school summer holidays and all the other kids are excited about family trips and activities but Masao’s grandmother still has to work so they won’t be doing anything and he’ll have to entertain himself throughout all of the long, hot break. Seeing as all of his friends have gone away, and after finding a photograph of his parents and another of his mother and grandmother with him as an infant, Masao decides to take off for an adventure of his own to track down his long absent mum. However, he doesn’t get very far before some bigger boys have taken all his money and actually seem annoyed he doesn’t have more. Luckily, a former neighbour and her husband turn up and get the money back for him but they explain the town where Masao’s mother lives is too far for a little boy to travel all on his lonesome. The wife makes her husband, Kikujiro (Kitano) take the boy on summer trip of their own but what they find there isn’t exactly what either of them had been expecting.

In many ways, Kikujiro is in the best tradition of odd couple road trips. Kikujiro didn’t really want to escort this sad little boy on a strange family holiday but his wife insisted (and she gave him quite a lot of spending money) so he reluctantly takes Masao on a journey but introduces him to some of his favourite pursuits such as gambling on bicycle races and hanging out in hostess bars. Little by little he starts to warm to the boy and the pair go on to have several strange encounters throughout their trip, largely down to Kikujiro now being broke after losing all the money gambling at the beginning.

Sending a little boy off with a total stranger doesn’t seem like the best idea in retrospect, even if it’s preferable to letting Masao head off alone. Kikujiro is very much not an appropriate baby sitter which makes for a lot of comedic scenes from an outsider’s view though perhaps Masao’s grandmother might not find it so funny if anyone ever decides to tell her about any of this. There is only one scene in the film where something very untoward threatens to befall Masao involving a “scary man” in a park but luckily Kikujiro turns up just in the nick of time. This episode is, in truth, a little hard to take alongside the otherwise fun encounters which showcase Kikujiro’s own clownish, immature qualities.

The film is seen more or less through the innocent viewpoint of Masao and broken up into chapters seemingly taken from his “what I did on my holidays” scrapbook project. Perhaps not having the material to complete this inevitable post-summer assignment was one of the motives for Masao finally taking off on his own to solve the mystery of his absent mother but what his teacher’s going to make of this strange collection adventures is anyone’s guess (perhaps if he’s lucky no one will believe it anyway).

The story doesn’t finish once Masao and Kikujiro have reached the furthest point of the journey but carries on through their way back too as Kikujiro tries to cheer the boy up and begins to reflect on his troubled relationship with his own mother. The true reason for film’s name becomes apparent towards the end as Kikujiro mournfully watches Masao run off back home perhaps feeling sorry for him but also a little wistful that his own summer adventure is over and he might never have such a fun trip again.

Warm and funny, Kikujiro employs a hearty dose of sardonic black humour for its tale of a childlike gangster’s growth process as he morphs into the figure of a guardian angel for a sad little boy. Aided by Joe Hisaishi’s wistful score and the beautiful landscape of a Japanese summer by the sea, Kikujiro proves a slightly unusual entry in Kitano’s filmography (though only up to a point) and an often underrated one though it ranks among his highest achievements for its sheer poetic power alone.


Kikujiro is re-released on blu-ray today in the UK courtesy of Third Window Films who will shortly also be re-releasing Dolls and, it’s recently been announced, Kids Return and A Scene at the Sea.

This is the only trailer I could find and it’s from the original US VHS release so it’s extremely irritating (sorry), film is not this annoying (promise).

The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Masato Harada, 2015)

bbc56b4fff657dfc4fcc0499f8be9741How exactly do you lose a war? It’s not as if you can simply telephone your opponents and say “so sorry, I’m a little busy today so perhaps we could agree not to kill each other for bit? Talk later, tata.” The Emperor in August examines the last few days in the summer of 1945 as Japan attempts to convince itself to end the conflict. Previously recounted by Kihachi Okamoto in 1967 under the title Japan’s Longest Day, The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi) proves that stately events are not always as gracefully carried off as they may appear on the surface.

By the summer of 1945, it’s clear that the situation as deteriorated significantly and Japan can no longer cling to any kind of hope of victory in the wider scale. Tokyo has been firebombed almost out of existence leaving only the Imperial Palace untouched – even the Emperor and his wife have been reduced to eating gruel. Everyone knows it’s time for a solution, but no one is quite ready to say it. In the wake of the atomic bomb, the situation becomes ever more desperate and even if the Emperor himself advocates a surrender, he needs the approval of his advisors. The Prime Minister, Navy and other officials are in favour but the Army, represented by General Anami, is committed to fighting on to the last man. Eventually, Anami comes around to the Emperor’s point of view but some of his men prove much harder to convince…

It might seem like a strange time to make a film about grace in the face of defeat given the recent political troubles stemming back to Japan’s wartime activities, but director Masato Harada is not lamenting the course of the war or trying to advocate for any rightwing agenda so much as trying to make plain the final absurdity of recognising when the battle is over. The civilians and even the Navy might be in favour of accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and ending the war as quickly as possible but a soldier is a soldier and the Army wants to go down fighting. They aren’t alone, of course, there are ordinary people who feel this way too but the writing is well and truly on the wall here.

The bulk of the film takes place within the palace, debating halls or army buildings all of which have escaped major damaged but every time we venture outside we’re shown a scene of utter desolation. A great, gaping hole where once there was a city. Anami’s wife undertakes a four hour walk to try and get in contact with a man who knew their son and can tell them how it was that he fell somewhere in Manchuria. She sees people fleeing, some thinking the enemy are about to descend any minute or that Tokyo will be the next target for an atomic bomb, and walks on through a barren, eerie landscape emerging soot covered and, finally, too late.

Closer to home, the situation among the soldiers is reaching boiling point. Originally committed to rejecting the terms of the treaty, Anami is now in favour of a surrender (with a few caveats) and is desperately working against the threat of an internal coup. Though the top brass have seen enough of warfare to know when it’s time to put down your weapons, the young hotheads have not yet learned the value of pragmatism. Seeing themselves as a second incarnation of the February 26th rebels, a cadre of young officers breaks ranks to try and stop the Emperor’s message of surrender from hitting the airwaves, hoping instead to spread the false message that the Russians have invaded and it’s all hands on deck. Needless to say, they don’t fare any better than the young officers of 1936 and if anything their bullheaded refusal to see sense becomes a microcosmic allegory for the years of militarism as a whole.

In the midst of all this chaos, the real heart of the film is Koji Yakusho’s conflicted general who feels his era passing right in front of him. Grieving for his fallen son yet also clinging to his military duty which dictates no surrender, no retreat he finally sees each of his ideals crumbling and comes to the realisation that the only way to save Japan is to abandon the military. Making a sacrifice of himself, he ensures the safe passage of his nation along a road on which he cannot travel.

The Emperor is a sympathetic figure here, gentle, soft, wanting the suffering to end for everyone but being more or less powerless to effect it despite his title. All he can do is advocate and try to convince his council that surrender is the right course of action as his country burns all around him.

Harada manages to keep the tension high even though a lot of the film comes down to a group of men discussing the proper wording for a treaty. A timely and beautifully photographed exploration of the last days of a war, The Emperor in August is another much needed reminder that decisions which will affect millions of lives are made by handfuls of men in tiny, closed up rooms that most people will never get to see.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD release of The Emperor in August includes English subtitles.

Unsubtitled trailer:

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Masato Harada, 2015)

166028_02The world of the classical “jidaigeki” or period film often paints an idealised portrait of Japan’s historical Edo era with its brave samurai who live for nothing outside of their lord and their code. Even when examining something as traumatic as forbidden love and double suicide, the jidaigeki generally presents them in terms of theatrical tragedy rather than naturalistic drama. Whatever the cinematic case may be, life in Edo era Japan could be harsh – especially if you’re a woman. Enjoying relatively few individual rights, a woman was legally the property of her husband or his clan and could not petition for divorce on her own behalf (though a man could simply divorce his wife with little more than words). The Tokeiji Temple exists for just this reason, as a refuge for women who need to escape a dangerous situation and have nowhere else to go.

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Kakekomi Onna to Kakedashi Otoko) places this important institution at its centre as it focuses on the stories of a number of women who’ve each ended up at the temple after a series of difficult circumstances. Jogo (Erika Toda) is married to a womanising drunkard who forces her to run his iron smelting business from the front lines (hence the painful looking blisters on her face) while he enjoys his life of debauchery. When the staff complains about his attitude and their subsequent fears for their jobs and Jogo raises their concerns with him he simply beats her before returning to his mistress. She then faces a decision – Tokeiji, death, or endurance. During her flight, she runs into O-Gin (Hikari Mitsushima), a mysterious wealthy woman who’s sprained her ankle after fighting off bandits in the woods. The pair bond on their quest to reach Tokeiji where they hope to find refuge from their turbulent home lives.

Before you can enter Tokeiji you’re held at one of the receiving inns where they hear your story, assess the possibility of being able to reconcile with a husband and, if deemed necessary, allowed to travel to the temple where you’ll live as a Buddhist nun for two years at which time your husband must legally sign the divorce papers. The inn adheres to strict Buddhist principles – no men are allowed near the temple (even the outside helpers wear bells so the ladies can hear them coming), you eat only temple cuisine (no meat or stimulants like garlic and onions), and have to abide by the word of the head nun. There are also three different classes of resident starting with the most expensive court lady lifestyle, then one of sewing and making repairs, and finally the lowest class which does all the day to day cooking, cleaning and other menial tasks.

The other pivot around which the film turns is the one time medical student Shinjiro (Yo Oizumi) who has literary dreams but has had to beat a quick retreat from Edo after defiantly breaking its ridiculous “no singing in the streets” law (amongst other things). At this period Edo and the surrounding area is undergoing its own mini cultural revolution as the current authorities advocate a period of austerity which sees things like literature, music and even sushi outlawed. Perceiving threats everywhere, the powers at be are also looking for a way to close down Tokeiji by any underhanded means necessary.

Shinjiro is a fast talking wise guy who can generally talk his way out of anything though he is also a keen student and a promising young doctor. As a relative of the Tokeiji inn owners, he’s seeking refuge too but also hoping to make use of their extensive archives for his writing career. As a doctor he’s immediately fascinated by the burns on Jogo’s face which he believes he can treat though in her frightened state she’s alarmed by his direct manner and refuses. After hearing his more reasoned arguments she finally submits and in turn becomes interested in his medical knowledge assisting him to gather herbs in the forest before starting her own herb garden in the temple.

Of course, the two develop a growing romantic attachment though frustrated by Jogo’s position as a married woman and the temple’s prohibition against male contact. Their romance is never played for melodrama, more as a simple and natural course of events though it’s well played by both Toda and Oizumi. At heart, Kakekomi is an ensemble drama which encompasses the often sad stories of its female cast who are each at the mercy of the cruel and rigid Edo era social system. O-Gin’s reasons for fleeing to Tokeiji turn out to be a little different from everyone else’s though she too is still suffering for love.

A humorous look at this untold story, Kakekomi proves an engaging ensemble drama anchored by the committed performances of its cast. Toda takes Jogo from a frightened and abused woman to a confident and learned scholar who is perfectly capable of taking charge of things on her own and her transformation is the true heart of the film. Apparently, director Masato Harada shot nearly four hours of footage before cutting the film down to the more manageable two and a half which may explain why it sometimes feels a little abrupt but nevertheless Kakekomi proves one of the most enjoyable mainstream Japanese movies of recent times.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD of Kakekomi includes English subtitles.