The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

Scythian Lamb posterSometimes life hands you two parallel crises and allows one to become the solution to the other. So it is for the bureaucrats at the centre of Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Hitsuji no Ki). The prisons are overcrowded while rural Japan faces extinction thanks to depopulation. Ergo, why not parole some of those “low risk” prisoners whose problems have perhaps been caused by urban living and lack of community support on the condition that they move to the country for a period of at least ten years and contribute to a traditional way of life. The prisoners get a fresh start where no one knows them or what they might have done in the past, and the town gets an influx of new, dynamic energy eager to make a real go of things. Of course, there might be some resistance if people knew their town was effectively importing criminality, but that’s a prejudice everyone has an interest in resisting so the project will operate in total secrecy.

Not even civil servant Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been tasked with rounding up the new recruits, was aware of their previous place of residence until he started to wonder why they were all so unusual and evasive. Tsukisue likes to think of himself as an open-minded, kind and supportive person, and so is disappointed in himself to feel some resistance to the idea of suddenly welcoming six convicts into his quiet little town, especially on learning that despite being rated “low risk” they are each convicted murderers. Thus when a “murder” suddenly happens in the middle of town, Tsukisue can’t help drawing the “obvious” conclusion even if he hates himself for it afterwards when it is revealed the murder wasn’t a murder at all but a stupid drunken accident.

The ex-cons themselves are an eccentric collection of wounded people, changed both by their crimes and their experiences inside. Many inmates released from prison find it difficult to reintegrate into society, especially as most firms will not hire people with criminal records which is one of the many reasons no one is to know where the new residents came from. Yet, there are kind and understanding people who are willing to look past the unfortunate circumstances that led to someone finding themselves convicted of a crime such as the barber (Yuji Nakamura) who reveals his own difficult past and happiness in being able to help someone else, or the woman from the dry cleaners (Tamae Ando) who is upset by other people’s reaction to her new recruit who, it has to be said, looks like something out of Battles without Honour. Tsukisue doesn’t know anything about these people save for the fact they’ve killed and has, unavoidably, made a judgement based on that fact without the full details, little knowing that one, for example, killed her abusive boyfriend after years of torture or that another’s crime was more accident than design.

Tsukisue later becomes friends with one of the convicts, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose distant yet penetrating stare makes him a rather strange presence. Miyakoshi is the happiest to find himself living in the small coastal town, enjoying the lack of stimulation rather than resenting the boredom as some of the other new residents do. Despite his obvious inability to “read the air”, Miyakoshi is quite touched by Tsukisue’s kindness and by the way he treated him as a “normal” person despite his violent criminal past, excited to have made a real “friend” at last. Trouble begins to brew when Miyakoshi joins Tsukisue’s garage band and takes a liking to another of its members – Aya (Fumino Kimura), another returnee from Tokyo with a mysterious past though this time without a prison background. Tsukisue has had a long standing crush on Aya since high school but has always been too shy to say anything. He thought now was his chance and is stunned and irritated to realise Miyakoshi might have beaten him to it and, even worse, given him another opportunity to disappoint himself though doing something unforgivable in a moment of pique.

The bureaucrat in charge of the scheme wanted it kept secret in part because he was afraid the criminals might find each other and start some sort of secret murderer’s club (betraying another kind of prejudice) which actually turns out not to be so far fetched, though the main moral of the story is that kindness, understanding, and emotional support go a long way towards keeping the peace. Meanwhile, another of the convicts has taken to “planting” dead animals inspired by a plate she finds on a refuse site featuring a decoration of a “Scythian Lamb” – a plant that grows sheep which die when severed from their roots, and the evil fish god Nororo sits atop the cliffs in reminder of the perils of the sea. The Scythian Lamb is a poignant exploration of the right to start again no matter what might have gone before or how old you are. It might not always be possible to escape the past, and for some it may be more difficult than others, but the plant withers off the vine and there’s nothing like good roots for ensuring its survival.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yocho (Foreboding) (予兆 散歩する侵略者, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2017)

Yocho posterBefore We Vanish, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s take on the alien invasion drama, was an oddly romantic affair which made a case for the ineffability of love as the only possible form of human salvation. Meanwhile, cheating on cinema with television, Kurosawa tells us a different story. Yocho (Foreboding) (予兆 散歩する侵略者, Yocho: Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha) was first conceived as a TV drama running as a companion piece to the big screen experience but its canvas is noticeably darker. At heart, we have the same story with a slight variation as a bold wife attempts to save her weak willed husband from alien manipulation, risking all to keep him safe him while the world burns around her. What we see this time is less the enduring power of love as a force for good, than yet another form of human weakness which encourages selfishness and creates a space into which nefarious forces may move.

In contrast to Masami Nagasawa’s conflicted, wounded wife of Before we Vanish, Etsuko (Kaho) is happily married to Tatsuo (Shota Sometani) who works at the local hospital. As she loves her husband so much, Etsuko is quick to realise there’s something not quite right in the way he’s been silently gazing off into space and walking around like a man possessed. Meanwhile, she’s accosted by a friend at work who asks to stay over because she’s too afraid to go home on account of “the ghost”. Eventually Etsuko goes investigating and discovers “the ghost” is really just her friend’s dad only her friend seems to have forgotten all about him and doesn’t quite understand what a “father” is anymore. Fearing the worst, Etsuko arranges to take her to the hospital, which is where she comes into contact with the strange and intimidating Dr. Makabe (Masahiro Higashide).

Dr. Makabe is one of the alien invaders seen in Before We Vanish who have come to Earth on a scouting mission ahead of its destruction. His mission is to steal “concepts” from people’s heads so the aliens can catalogue soon to be extinct humanity. Makabe has recruited Tatsuo to be his guide but this is a very different arrangement to that Shinji makes with his “wife” Narumi. Tatsuo is not so much an interpreter as an informant. His “job” is to select Makabe’s “victims” in return for preferential treatment when the apocalypse arrives. Increasingly conflicted in betraying his own species, Tatsuo is going slowly off the rails while the world disintegrates all around around him.

Etsuko, meanwhile, has a kind of superpower of her own in that she is apparently “immune” to alien interference. They can’t take concepts from her, they can’t manipulate her will, and they can’t break her bond with her beloved (if slightly useless) husband. The power of love still reigns supreme but this time it’s not entirely a good thing as Etsuko, who has the means to resist the evil invaders, focusses on rescuing her one true love rather than defending humanity. Love is her weakness, whereas Tatsuo’s seems to be a low lying resentment of his lack of authority. A showdown with Makabe sees him offer a grim prognosis, as long as humans lust for power there will be no escape.

Makabe, meanwhile, has experienced the opposite revelation to his Before we Vanish counterpart in learning about death and human fear of mortality. Suddenly knowing what it means to die, he understands something of human existence, realising that death is forever beside you. Love maybe be the cure for “eternal loneliness”, but Makabe’s enlightenment is born of fear and darkness rather than human warmth.

Yocho, in a sense, mirrors Before We Vanish but in a darker hue. Etsuko and Tatsuo maybe a “happier” couple than Shinji and Narumi, but Tatsuo has already crossed to the dark side, abandoning his humanity and committing heinous and unthinkable acts on behalf of his alien master out of fear and desire. Makabe, taking Tatsuo to task, points out his weakness in his need for painkilling drugs to overcome the punishment Makabe has handed down for his betrayal. Humans, he says, always choose the comforting lie over the painful truth, swallowing pain killers rather than killing the pain by dealing with its root cause. This is in a way what Etsuko has chosen to do in her quest to save Tatsuo rather than using her skills to resist the alien invasion, though Makabe remains oddly fascinated by her various unusual qualities. Foreboding fills the frame as Etsuko meditates on the various oddities of her world while the skies thunder behind her, sending curtains billowing ominously in the absence of wind. A wounded Makabe ironically remarks that he has “underestimated the power of love”, reminding us that the greatest of human strengths is also its weakness, promising destruction as much as salvation.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yamato (California) (大和(カリフォルニア, Daisuke Miyazaki, 2016)

yamato (california) posterWhen you think of the American military presence in Japan, your mind naturally turns to Okinawa but the largest mainland US base is actually located not so far from Tokyo in a small Japanese town called Yamato which is also the ancient name for the modern-day country. The US has been a constant presence since the end of the second world war prompting resistance of varying degrees from both left and right either in resentment at perceived complicity in American foreign policy, or the desire to reform the pacifist constitution and rebuild an independent army capable of defending Japan alone. Daisuke Miyazaki’s second feature, Yamato (California) (大和(カリフォルニア) dramatises this long-standing issue through exploring the life of hip-hop enthusiast and Yamato resident Sakura (Hanae Kan) who idolises an art form born of political oppression in a country which she also feels oppresses her as a Japanese citizen living on the other side of the fence from land which technically still belongs to the US government.

As the camera pans around a ruined landscape which turns out to be a junkyard, it eventually finds Sakura as she sits alone atop a pile of rubbish rapping about her existential misery, the hopelessness of her life, and her constant anxiety. Sakura has left high school but has no hopes, aspirations or plan. She works part-time at the eel restaurant owned by a family friend but he rarely has enough custom to need her help. Still living at home with her single mother (Reiko Kataoka) and older brother Kenzo in a cramped apartment where space is divided by a series of hanging sheets, Sakura is put out to learn that the half-Japanese daughter of her mother’s American G.I. boyfriend will be coming to stay. When Rei (Nina Endo) finally arrives, Sakura makes a point of ignoring her but the two eventually bond over a shared love of hip-hop and an awkward sense of recognition.

Tellingly, Rei’s (late) mother was from Okinawa – another reminder of the wider American presence, but her long absent father, Abby Goldman, is as distant a protector as America itself. Communicating only through handwritten letters, Abby is neither seen or heard but somehow believed in like an invisible god. Strangely, Rei asks Sakura what her father was like as if she’d never met him only for Sakura to awkwardly answer that he was somewhere between a bother, a friend, and a father but that she’s also grateful to him for introducing her to her beloved hip hop. Later she takes her mother to task on this same issue, Abby hasn’t visited in years and doesn’t even provide for them anymore yet he dispatches the daughter he rarely sees himself for them to care for instead. Abby, like America, offers little and takes much, at least in Sakura’s increasingly hotheaded assessment.

Sakura is quite clearly in a state of depression. Sullen and angry, she lashes out at all around her but is mostly at war with herself and understandably anxious about her future. Her mother and brother both understand this about her and are patient and understanding, naturally cheerful people faced with adversity. With no work to go to and the prospect of finding any slim, Sakura spends her time perfecting her rap technique and hanging out alone in an abandoned trailer in the woods. Despite dressing in the accepted rapper style of loose grey tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie Sakura is a poor fit for the world she’s chosen. Lyrical writing more suited to performance poetry or, as she later puts it, the avant-garde, doesn’t gel with the aggressive, mostly male posturing she sees from her peers yet Sakura is determined to make her way into this arena as a means of self-expression rather than any deluded idea of fame and fortune.

Rei, her American friend, eventually sparks an epiphany following a fiery argument during which she accuses Sakura of being nothing more than an American copycat, adopting a foreign art form to mask an insecurity in her own fragile identity. Rei, trying to get through to her knew friend, has pushed too deep and hit all the wrong nerves leading to a surreal sequence which finally sets Sakura off on a voyage of self discovery and results in a concerted vow of “independence” but also of rejoining the world, accepting others rather than refusing to engage, and stepping forward together but on an equal footing with no leaders and no followers.

Miyazaki’s balanced view does not shy away from the less pleasant aspects of his own society from the protest group which wanders through the frame carrying banners calling for the immediate expulsion of migrants from Asia, to a group of yankees throwing rocks at the homeless, and Kenzo’s straightforward remark that he’s only interested in meeting Rei if she’s pretty – according to him mixed-race Japanese girls often aren’t. Grey mixes with green as brutalist shopping malls break through the vegetation leaving even an errant pagoda entirely intact in the central square. Like Sakura’s own soul this is a land of contradictions and uneasy cross-pollinations but it doesn’t need to be as defeatist and unimaginative as a dated shopping mall, wasei hip-hop just might be the next big thing.


Yamato (California) was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Shuichi Okita, 2009)

If there’s one thing which unites the universes present in the films of Shuichi Okita, aside from their warm and humorous atmosphere, it’s their tendency to take a generally genial, calm and laid back protagonist and throw them into an inhospitable environment which they don’t quite understand. When it comes to “inhospitable”, the hero of The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Nankyoku Ryourinin) couldn’t have it much worse, unfairly transferred to a polar research station where the air temperature is so cold nothing, not even bacteria, can survive outside. Still, like all of Okita’s laid back guys, he handles his difficult circumstances with a kind of stoical resignation until, of course, the situation can be handled no more!

Separated from his wife and children, Jun Nishimura (Masato Sakai) previously worked for the Japanese coastguard but has now been transferred (not altogether of his own volition) to a polar research station where he is responsible for all the culinary needs of the seven men who will be working together during the expedition which is intended to last one year. Each of the other men has his own part to play in the scientific endeavours but cooped up as they are, the greater issue is downtime as the guys revert to a kind of high school camp, divided into various groups and activities from the “Chinese Research Club” to a bar being run by the doctor who is also training for a triathlon. 365 days in the freezing cold does eventually begin to take its toll but all of the crazy only serves to remind people how important it is that they all get on and make it through this together.

Based on the autobiographical writings of the real Jun Nishimura, Okita’s isolation experiment has a pleasantly authentic feeling as the titular chef laments the difficulties of the conditions but continues to churn out beautifully presented culinary treats despite the hostile environment. Resources are also strictly limited as the original provisions are intended to last the entire expedition – hence why most of the foodstuffs are canned, vacuum packed or frozen but there are a few luxuries on offer including some prize shrimp apparently left behind, uneaten, by a previous team which proves an additional occasion for celebration just as despair is beginning to set it in. Seeing as the men are all here for more than a year, celebratory occasions do present themselves with regularity from birthdays to “mid winter holiday” and even a good go at the Japanese festival of Setsubun with peanuts instead of beans.

Despite these brief moments of respite, being completely cut off from the outside world for such a long time with little natural light and hardly anything to do outside of research places its own kind of pressure on the minds of these top scientists. As their hair gets shaggier and their beards progressively less kempt, sanity also begins to slip. Each of the guys has their own particular marker, something they’re missing that’s playing on their minds until they eventually break completely. For some this could be realising they’ve eaten all of the ramen which exists in their tiny world and now have nothing left to live for, missing their kids, or realising that their girlfriend might have met someone else while they’ve been busy devoting themselves to science, but this being an Okita film even if an axe is raised it rarely falls where intended and the only cure for mass hysteria is guilt ridden kindness and a willingness to work together to put everything right again.

Of course, the other thing the guys have to put up with is the attitude of the outside world as everyone is very keen to ask them about the cute penguins and seals which they are sure must be everywhere at the South Pole, only to have to explain that it’s just too cold for cuteness though it does lead them to the epiphany that they are the only living creatures in this desolate place and so share a special kind of kinship. Filled with Okita’s usual brand of off the wall humour and gentle humanity, The Chef of South Polar is another warm and friendly tale of nice people triumphing over adversity through cooperation, mutual understanding and sustained belief in the healing power of ramen.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Creepy (クリーピー 偽りの隣人, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016)

creepyHow well do you know your neighbours? Perhaps you have one that seems a little bit strange to you, “creepy”, even. Then again, everyone has their quirks, so you leave things at nodding at your “probably harmless” fellow suburbanites and walking away as quickly as possible. The central couple at the centre of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s return to genre filmmaking Creepy (クリーピー 偽りの隣人, Creepy Itsuwari no Rinjin), based on the novel by Yutaka Maekawa, may have wished they’d better heeded their initial instincts when it comes to dealing with their decidedly odd new neighbours considering the extremely dark territory they’re about to move in to…

The Takakuras, Koichi (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi), have just relocated to the suburbs where Koichi will be taking a position at a local university teaching criminal psychology. A year previously, Koichi had been a member of the police force working on serial murder cases but after a serious miscalculation on his part during a negotiation with an escaped prisoner leaves an innocent woman dead and himself in the hospital, Koichi comes to the conclusion that he’s not quite cut out for the force after all.

Having just moved into the neighbourhood, Koichi and Yasuko attempt to make the expected visit to announce their presence to their neighbours only to find that the locals aren’t exactly friendly. After one neighbour slams the door in her face, Yasuko pays a visit to the other one, Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), but the way in which be begins talking to her is very strange indeed. Though unsettled, Yasuko just can’t let the idea drop and becomes intent on building up a more conventional relationship with her hard to read neighbour, ignoring all of her better instincts in the process.

Meanwhile, Koichi has become intrigued by a six year old cold case in which three members of a family abruptly disappeared leaving their young daughter, Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi), behind. Working with a former colleague, Nogami (Masahiro Higashide), Koichi tracks down the abandoned little girl (now a teenager) and attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Japanese films are full of the parasitic interloper who wheedles his way into a family only to usurp control for himself and eventually colonise it. Generally, such families go back to normal once the interloper has had his fun but for the families of Creepy that would be quite difficult. In the modern world when the family unit has become so fractured and insecure that it renders once permanent communities only temporary, a chasm has been opened in human interactions which makes it easier for extreme horror to locate itself right next door to you. Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors, and in a sense no one wants to know. Koichi attempts to use his scientific knowledge to reassure Yasuko that, as psychopaths are usually very good neighbours, Nishino must be fine, but this only goes to show superficial the couple’s interest in their environment really is.

Koichi has a mild obsession with serial killers. His desire to spend more time with a real life psycho contributed to this fall from grace at the beginning, but his investigative abilities leave a lot to be desired. Yasuko may have suggested that Nishino is the kind of person who “has no social skills” but Koichi is the archetypal interrogator – only interested in the facts and blind to the emotional subtext. After Koichi puts too much pressure on the traumatised Saki, she accuses him of tearing into people’s emotions as if dissecting a rat, and later asks him if he has any kind of heart or real human empathy at all. For all his highly prized science, most of Koichi’s clues are based on his intuition – he just “feels” the house seems like a crime scene, that Nishino is a bad guy, and that something strange is going on.

This almost supernatural “feeling” becomes the central spine of the film as creepiness travels through the air in invisible waves. Kurosawa adopts a swirling, floating approach to camera movement in the early part of the film which gives it a drunken, ethereal atmosphere, preventing any concrete attempt to grasp the reality. Playing with lighting levels Kurosawa emphasises and isolates the characters but also adds a note of uncertainty that hints at the darkness lingering at the edges of the frame. This sense of the ever present evil that exists within otherwise pleasant environments contributes to the Lynchian sense of the absurd which is also echoed by the anxiety inducing lingering camera shots of banal objects such as room thermostat or closed gates.

Despite the eeriness of the general tone, Kurosawa encourages a strain of black humour which helps to cover some of the more outlandish plot elements. The final conclusion perhaps strains credulity and is never fully explained but then the lack of concrete details adds to the already overwhelming creepiness of the events in play. Wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully photographed, and filled with a spirit of absurdism, Creepy is a very modern horror story though one not unafraid to step into the realms of the senses.


Reviewed at 2016 BFI London Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)