Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Eisuke Naito, 2018)

(C)押切蓮介/双葉社 (C)2017「ミスミソウ」製作委員会

Liverleaf poster“How have things turned out this way?” Asks the heroine of Eisuke Naito’s Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Misumisou) after receiving a poignant (non)explanation for the cause of all her sufferings. Adolescence is cruel at the best of times, but when you’re stuck in a tiny no horse town with nothing to do, violence can become an easy pastime. The kids of Liverleaf take the art of bullying to all new heights, stopping not at humiliation, ostracisation, or conspiratorial acts of emotional ruin but allowing their petty games to run all the way to arson and murder.

Haruka (Anna Yamada), unlike most of her classmates, is a relatively new resident of a small rural town where she and her family have moved for her father’s job. Her only friend at school, and the only one to stand up for her against the gang of popular kids making her life a misery, is another transfer student, Aiba (Hiroya Shimizu), living alone with his grandmother for mysterious reasons. The usual high school girl tricks of making another girl feel unwelcome – stolen shoes, name calling, silent stalking etc eventually progress into direct violence at which point her father (Masahiro Toda) tries to go to the school to complain. Unfortunately, Haruka’s teacher (Aki Morita) is an almost absent, hollow source of authority who cannot control the kids and nor does she try. She tells Haruka’s dad that as the school will be closing down at the end of the academic year it’s hardly the time to make waves and she sees no need to get involved in such trivial matters. Matters come to a head when the kids, egging each other on, set fire to Haruka’s house with her mother (Reiko Kataoka), father, and little sister Shoko (Sena Tamayori) trapped inside.

It’s true enough to say Haruka reacted to her bullying in the way that society expects – she kept her head down and tried to put up with it without making a fuss. Some may read Liverleaf as a tale of vengeance, but it isn’t. As passive as she’s always been, Haruka’s acts of violence are a matter of extreme self defence. She doesn’t go looking for the ones who’ve done her wrong, but they come looking for her and thereafter pay a heavy price for their continued campaign of subjugation.

Haruka became an easy subject for bullying because she was a literal outsider – Aiba escaped this particular fate through being male, conventionally attractive, and with a confidence and maturity which set him apart from the bratty kids trying to prove their status by belittling others. Once Haruka decides to sit out the rest of the school term rather than put up with constant torment, she activates an extreme chain of events when the next likely target, a strange girl with a stammer (Rena Ohtsuka), decides to do whatever it takes to become one of the bullies rather than their latest victim. Morality goes out the window when fear takes over and some will to whatever it takes to make sure it’s someone else in the firing line rather than themselves.

Yet for all the fear and violence, there’s another, perhaps more interesting, story buried under all the senseless bloodletting. It’s not so much that teenage emotions are running wild, but that they barely have them at all and those they do have find no available outlet. Romantic jealousy spirals out of control, turning in on itself as love denied masquerades as hate. Unable to freely voice their innermost anxieties, the kids take their resentments out on each other, getting their kicks through cruel games which bind them with complicity in the absence of real feeling.

Naito attempts to lend an air of realism to the increasingly bizarre middle school warfare but cannot escape the manga origins of his source material. The violence itself is cartoonish and absurd, but there’s also an unpleasant layer of fetishisation which takes over as the blood starts flowing, almost revelling in acts of extreme cruelty as a young man exults in beating the face of a young girl to a bloody pulp. Unremittingly bleak, Liverleaf makes a bid for pathos in its closing coda as it takes us back to a case of ruined friendships and broken dreams but it can’t overcome the uneasy stylisation of all that’s gone before in swapping emptiness for wistful melancholy.


Liverleaf screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 8th July, 7pm with director Eisuke Naito in attendance for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Dual City (デュアル・シティ, Yokna Hasegawa, 2015)

dual cityCyberpunk and Japan are a match made in heaven though, it has to be said, it’s often been much more an inherited influence in international pop culture than something which has originated directly in Japan. Yokna Hasegawa’s Dual City (デュアル・シティ) puts this to rights a little with a politically infused tale of Japan in 2034 – a nation divided and engaged in a wider information war with the little guy at the mercy of evil corporate giants.

The year is 2034, following a civil war Japan has been divided in two with a north/south border located at the feet of Mount Fuji. Our protagonist, Yoriko, is a nurse and mother working in the North sector which is definitely thought of as the least advantageous place to be. When her hospital is raided by guerrilla soldiers, Yoriko finds herself in the relatively lucky position of last survivor but is then charged with assisting this “resistance movement” by taking over from the soon to be dead insurgent, Gou, and completing his mission of carting a mysterious suitcase across the border.

Once in the south, we’re introduced to the rest of the band including the dynamic Ayumi who can’t seem to forgive Yoriko for the loss of Gou. The gang’s ultimate goal is to expose the shady Nephe corporation who, aside from their business interests of arms dealing and android production, have begun building a virtual world known as “information life” which is constructed through harvesting the memories of Northern corpses. Yoriko lost her daughter to terrorist aggression and the idea that she might be able to see her again, albeit in virtual form, is one which she is unable to pass up.

Adding to the intrigue is the love story between a resistance member and an android which may or may not come to be a liability and the hacker group’s involvement with the steady stream of illegal migrants somehow making the dangerous cross border journey into the relative safe haven of the South. Many of these people have injuries or ailments that would be best served by a doctor, but having no proper papers they can’t risk a hospital and so the care that Yoriko can provide becomes another useful asset for the group.

Drawing parallels with other “divided” nations, Dual City looks at a multitude of contemporary social and philosophical problems from dealing with refugees fleeing an oppressive regime to the power of multinational corporations and the eternal quality of a mother’s love. Nephe (represented in a futuristic ad campaign starring Third Window Films’ Adam Torel as its heinous CEO) commits the very worst kind of identity theft as it steals and repurposes the very soul of those that it has killed by sucking out their memories and using them to create artificial counterparts in their online world. Are these ghosts in the machine any less “real” than their flesh counterparts were? A standard question of the cyberpunk world and one which still has no clear answer, but Dual City continues to explore it in a mature and nuanced manner.

Though an undoubtedly low budget, indie movie Dual City makes a decent job of creating its realistically grimy cyberpunk world with its interactive video screens and invisible techno warfare. Special effects, though sparse, are effectively achieved and never call attention to themselves. Dual City is actually the second part of a projected trilogy with the overarching title of Japan Year Zero (following the 2014 short Illuminations) but is perfectly intelligible even without knowledge of the previous film and manages to create a sense of a bleak, oppressive society which travels along with Yoriko from the totalitarian North to the supposedly freer South. Eventually Yoriko’s love for her daughter transforms and becomes something larger, an eternal and infinite love for all mankind that represents our last, best hope for peace. It only remains to be seen if the troubled society of 2034 can can learn to follow a similar road.


Reviewed as part of the SCI-FI London Film Festival 2016.

On a side note, Illuminations seems to be the film Hoshi Ishida was talking about when I interviewed him (for UK Anime Network) a couple of years ago. Small world! I would like to see the movie but it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere, maybe one day. Here is a trailer for Illuminations:

You can also keep up with director Yonka Hasegawa’s work via her website and twitter feed!