The Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Akira Ikeda, 2021)

“Just shoot where you’re told and you’ll be fine” a veteran advises an unusually curious newbie when asked who exactly it is they’re shooting at, beginning to question for the first time everything he’s been told. Continuing in the same vein as his 2017 surrealist drama Ambiguous Places, Akira Ikeda’s Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Kimajime Gakutai no Bonyari Senso) follows a more linear though meandering path in its timely anti-war message as the brainwashed hero comes to contemplate the tenets of his society thanks to a naive young man and the healing power of music. 

The small town of Tsuhiramachi has been at war with Tawaramachi across the river for so long no one can remember why it is that they’re fighting, least of all perpetually absent-minded mayor Natsume (Renji Ishibashi) who can’t even remember his own son’s name. Soldier Tsuyuki (Kou Maehara) is woken every day by a marching band, meeting friend and colleague Fujima (Hiroki Konno) in the street and walking over to the barracks where he changes into his uniform and then spends all day firing a rifle across the river. His identical days are disrupted when former thief Mito (Hiroki Nakajima) is conscripted into their group and Fujima is injured in seemingly the only instance of returned fire. Tsuyuki is then transferred to the marching band and begins practicing his trumpet by the water only to be surprised when he begins hearing someone joining him from the other side. 

Everyone in Tsuhiramachi walks with automaton rigidity and talks with an almost ritualistic austerity in which dialogue is repeated endlessly and conversation loops are common. The townspeople dress as if they were stuck in the 1940s though the uniforms are more European than Japanese while Tsuyuki and Fujima wear identical blue suits when travelling to and from their homes. The thief, Mito, meanwhile dresses in a less formal brown shirt and trousers, apparently engaging in stealing from the local simmered food stand for reasons of poverty while his friend, mayor’s son Heiichi (Naoya Shimizu), does so because he can. When the stall owner’s wife catches them, Heiichi allows his father to think he valiantly chased a thief and is made a police officer for his pains continuing to extort food and generally abuse his authority largely conferred through feudal dynastic privilege. 

There is certainly something in Mito’s tendency to frame each of his statements as a questions, asking “Am I a soldier now?” Or “My name is Mito?” when questioned. The lady who runs the diner where Tsuyuki frequently lunches is extremely proud of her son away fighting up river and resents being questioned by Mito, shovelling extra rice into the men’s bowls when impressed by something they’ve said and then taking it back when disappointed. Mito wants to know why it is they’re fighting and who the people across the river really are. Shiroko (Hairi Katagiri) doesn’t approve of asking such taboo questions and affirms that she doesn’t need to meet the residents of Tawaramachi to know that they’re “barbaric”, “horrible” people. Even the owner of the simmered food stall who insists he knows “everything” insists he’s no interest in knowing about Tawaramachi. 

Yet they’re always being told that the “threat” from across the river is increasing even if the mayor has forgotten what the threat exactly is. Meanwhile, an elite troop will soon be arriving to take part in the trials for a brand new super weapon. A disapproving Shirako asks Tsuyuki how music is useful for the war, but he doesn’t know, he’s merely following orders. Music however, along with Mito’s awkward questions, begins to open his eyes as he contemplates whether the trumpeter from across the water can really be so different from himself. He disapproves of Heiichi’s abuse of his authority, of civil servant Kawajiri’s apparent replacing of his wife with another woman because he believes she cannot bear children, and of the army’s treatment of a friend now struggling to find employment having lost his arm for the good of the town. Shiroko insists that dying in war is better than being injured, but the young universally agree that no, it isn’t. In this strangely Kafka-esque world of crypto-militarism and the feudal mentality, Tsuyuki finds freedom and escape in his trumpet but not even these it seems are enough to call the “meaningless” and internecine violence to a halt. Filled with a strangely poignant poetry, Ikeda’s absurdist drama takes aim at lingering authoritarianism but suggests that music may be panacea for human conflict if only we’d stop a little and listen. 


The Blue Danube streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ambiguous Places (うろんなところ, Akira Ikeda, 2017)

Ambiguous places posterThe world is quite a strange place at the best of times, but for a small collection of people living in between some Ambiguous Places (うろんなところ, Uronna Tokoro) everything seems pretty much normal. Akira Ikeda whose Anatomy of a Paperclip won a Tiger Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam, returns with another surreal tale inspired by the land of dreams. 

Konoko (lit. “this girl”) washes up on a beach trapped in a net and tries to sing but the other people on the beach tell her to stop, because she’s rubbish. Konoko’s other problem is that she’s got a bug stuck in her hair and will need to find a barber to take it out. Travelling with a man whom a strange lady looking for “nuts” on a beach assures her is her dad, Konoko wanders off to look for a hairdresser only to sell her “dad” to a couple of near silent dango makers and then discover that the only barber’s in town is actually a soba shop (which serves udon) and she needs to go the pharmacy only the pharmacist is out at the moment because he had to get some gloves made in celebration of his wife’s pregnancy…

Ambiguous Places is actually a cyclical collection of three stories running more or less concurrently in which the same collection of strange people reappear in different stages of their own adventures. Konoko’s “Meeting Nyoraga” segues into the pharmacist’s odyssey of glove making and forced marriage “Celebrate with Gloves”, and that in turn leads into “Get My Hair Washed” which pops out of the pharmacist’s dream about a girl with foamy hair and features a quest to rid one’s home of scary blue ghosts only to end with everyone sitting down and having dinner together instead.

To begin with everything seems very strange but like the best of dreams it eventually starts to make sense and though there is more than a little violence and hostility, broadly everyone seems to accept things just the way they are. Still, from our point of view this is all terribly surreal. At one point the pharmacist, who has just spent ages having gloves knitted around his hands in a bizarre ritual encounters the man who will later own the dango shop just as he’s carting his wife around covered by a sheet and sitting in a wheel barrow filled with vegetables. The man explains that this is his people’s way of celebrating. The pharmacist looks him dead in the eye and remarks “strange custom”. Well, quite. Mozart’s The Magic Flute also plays a large role in the proceedings in somewhat mangled German with bits of Japanese creeping in until a young lady is forced to have a go after criticising Konoko’s singing and finds she is able to sing the Queen of the Night aria complete with coloratura almost faultlessly.

The atmosphere is indeed dreamlike as the various tales weave in and out of each other with a kind of surreal logic that has its own internal consistency even if it’s quite hard to pin down. Absurd in the extreme, Ikeda opts for deadpan delivery that adds to the bizarre humour and ethereal quality of the strange “ambiguous places” which seem to exist in this odd little seaside town. Yet also like dreams the deeper meaning (if there is any) is hard to discern. Nevertheless, even if it is all random and essentially meaningless, Ambiguous Places is unexpectedly warm and filled with enough zany humour to keep things ticking along even when wondering if one needs to be afraid of the postman or if Nyoraga is really as dangerous as they say…


Streamed via Festival Scope as part of their International Film Festival Rotterdam tie-up.

Original trailer (English subtitles)