Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High (帝一の國, Akira Nagai, 2017)

teiichiBack in the real world, politics has never felt so unfunny. This latest slice of unlikely political satire from Japan may feel a little close to home, at least to those of us who hail from nations where it seems perfectly normal that the older men who make up the political elite all attended the same school and fully expected to grow up and walk directly into high office, never needing to worry about anything so ordinary as a career. Taking this idea to its extreme, elite teenager Teiichi is not only determined to take over Japan by becoming its Prime Minister, but to start his very own nation. In Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High (帝一の國, Teiichi no Kuni) teenage flirtations with fascism, homoeroticism, factionalism, extremism – in fact just about every “ism” you can think of (aside from altruism) vie for the top spot among the boys at Supreme High but who, or what, will finally win out in Teiichi’s fledging, mental little nation?

Taking after his mother rather than his austere father, little Teiichi (Masaki Suda) wanted nothing more than to become a top concert pianist. Sadly, his father finds music frivolous and forces his son towards the path he failed to follow in becoming a member of the country’s political elite. Thus Teiichi has found himself at Supreme High where attendance is more or less a guaranteed path to Japan’s political centre. If one wants to be the PM, one needs to become student council president at Supreme High and Teiichi is forging his path early by building alliances with the most likely candidates for this year’s top spot. The contest is evenly split between left and right. Okuto Morizono (Yudai Chiba) – a nerdy, bespectacled shogi champ proposes democratic reforms to the school’s political system which will benefit all but those currently enjoying an unfair advantage. Rorando Himuro (Shotaro Mamiya), by contrast, is the classically alluring hero of the right with his good looks, long blond hair and descent from a long line of previous winners.

Teiichi follows his “natual” inclinations and sides with Rorando but a new challenger threatens to change everything. Dan Otaka (Ryoma Takeuchi) is not your usual Supreme High student. A scholarship boy, Dan comes from a single parent family where he helps out at home taking care of his numerous younger siblings. From another world entirely, Dan is a good natured sort who isn’t particularly interested in politics or in the increasingly tribal atmosphere of Supreme High. What he cares about is his friends and family. Principled, he will do what seems right and just at the expense of the most politically useful.

For all of its posturing and petty fascist satire, there’s something quite refreshing about the way Teiichi posits genuine niceness as an unlikely victor. Teiichi, a politician through and through, has few real principles and is willing to do or say whatever it takes to play each and every situation for its maximum gain. Finding Morizono’s old fashioned socialism naive and wishy washy, he gravitates towards Rorando’s obviously charismatic cult of personality but Dan’s straightforward goodness eventually starts to scratch away at Teiichi’s attempt to put up a front of amorality.

The fascist overtones, however, run deep from the naval school uniforms to the enthusiastic singing of the school song and highly militarised atmosphere. Played for laughs as it is, the school’s defining characteristic is one of intense homoerotism as pretty boys in shiny uniforms flirt with each other in increasingly over the top ways. Teiichi does have a girlfriend (of sorts) who protects, defends, and comforts him even while able to see through his megalomaniacal posturing to the little boy who just wanted to play piano but he’s not above exploiting the obvious attraction his underling, Komei (Jun Shison), feels for him as part of his grand plan.

Teiichi has its silliness, but its satire is all too convincing as these posh boys vie for the top spots, reliving the petty conflicts of their fathers and grandfathers as they do so. No one one has much of a plan or desire to change the world, this is all a grand game where the winner gets to sit on the throne feeling smug, but then Teiichi’s nimble machinations hopping from one front runner to the next rarely pay off even if he generally manages to keep himself out of the line of fire. Rather than cold and calculating politics, the force most likely to succeed becomes simple sincerity and the unexpected warmth of a “natural” leader.


Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2016)

destruction-babiesPost-golden age, Japanese cinema has arguably had a preoccupation with the angry young man. From the ever present tension of the seishun eiga to the frustrations of ‘70s art films and the punk nihilism of the 1980s which only seemed to deepen after the bubble burst, the young men of Japanese cinema have most often gone to war with themselves in violent intensity, prepared to burn the world which they feel holds no place for them. Tetsuya Mariko’s Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ) is a fine addition to this tradition but also an urgent one. Stepping somehow beyond nihilism, Mariko’s vision of his country’s future is a bleak one in which young, fatherless men inherit the traditions of their ancestors all the while desperately trying to destroy them. Devoid of hope, of purpose, and of human connection the youth of the day get their kicks vicariously, so busy sharing their experiences online that reality has become an obsolete concept and the physical sensation of violence the only remaining truth.

The rundown port towns of Shikoku are an apt place to stage this battle. Panning over the depressingly quiet harbour, urgent, thrumming electric guitars bring tension to the air as the younger of two brothers, Shota (Nijiro Murakami), catches sight of his only remaining family member, older brother Taira (Yuya Yagira). Currently in the middle of getting a beating from local thugs, Taira signals his intention to leave town, which he does after his boss breaks up the fight and tells him to get lost.

By the time Shota has crossed the river, his brother is already lost to him. A vengeful, crazed demon with strange, burning eyes, Taira has taken the same path as many an angry young man and headed into town spoiling for a fight. Driven by rage, Taira fights back but only to be fought with – he craves pain, is energised by it, and rises again with every fall stronger but a little less human.

As he says, he has his rules (as mysterious as they may be), but Taira’s violent exploits eventually find a disciple in previously cowardly high school boy Yuya (Masaki Suda) who discovers the potential violence has to create power from fear in witnessing Taira’s one man war of stubbornness with the local yakuza. Yuya, a coward at heart, is without code, fears pain, and seeks only domination to ease his lack of self confidence. Taira, random as his violence is, attacks only other males capable of giving him what he needs but Yuya makes a point of attacking those least likely to offer resistance. Proclaiming that he always wanted to hit a woman, Yuya drop kicks schoolgirls and sends middle aged housewives and their shopping flying.

The sole female voice, Nana (Nana Komatsu) – a kleptomaniac yakuza moll who finds her validation though shoplifting unneeded items selected for the pleasure of stealing them, originally finds the ongoing violence exciting as she watches the viral videos but feels very differently when confronted with its real, physical presence and each of the implied threats to her person it presents. Tough and wily, Nana is a survivor. Where Taira staked his life on violence and Yuya on the threat of it, Nana survives through cunning. The victory is hers, as hollow as it may turn out to be.

Mariko’s chilling vision paints the ongoing crime spree as a natural result of a series of long standing cultural norms in which contradictory notions of masculinity compete with a conformist, constraining society. The entire founding principle of the small town in which the film takes place is that men come of age through violence, though the older man who has (or claims to have) provided the bulk of parental input for these parentless brothers describes Taira as if he were the very demon such festivals are often created to expel. Men of 18 years carry the portable shrines, he repeatedly says, but 18 year old Taira is a “troublemaker” and “troublemakers” must leave the town altogether.

If Taira sought connection through violence, Shota continues to seek it through human emotions – searching for his brother, hanging out with his friends, and drawing closer to his brother’s boss who offers him differing degrees of fatherly input. In contrast to his peers, Shota seems to disapprove of the way his cocksure (false) friend Kenji (Takumi Kitamura) treats women though it is also true that Kenji is actively frustrating his attempts to find his brother whilst dangling a clue right before his eyes. Nevertheless, the harshness of this unforgiving world seems determined to turn Shota into the same rage filled creature of despair as his older brother as injustice piles on injustice with no hope of respite.

Destruction Babies is apt name for the current society – born of chaos, trapped in perpetual childhood, and thriving on violence. Taira and Shota were always outsiders in a world which organises itself entirely around the family unit but the force which drives their world is not love but pain, this world is one underpinned by the physical at the expense of the spiritual. Metaphorically or literally, the lives of the young men of today will entail repeated blows to the face while those of the young women will require ingenious sideward motions to avoid them. Oblique, ambiguous, and soaked in blood, Destruction Babies is a rebel yell for a forlorn hope, as raw as it is disturbing.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017 and set for UK release from Third Window Films later in the year.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Seto and Utsumi (セトウツミ, Tatsushi Omori, 2016)

seto-and-utsumiThere are two very distinct sides to the career of Tatsushi Omori. Brother of the well known actor, Nao, Omori may be best known to certain audiences for his hard hitting, often gloomy and pessimistic dramas of human misery such as festival favourite Ravine of Goodbye or the little seen The Whispering of the Gods which proved so controversial that his only option of screening the film involved erecting a tent where he could show it himself. However, a closer look at his filmography discovers a steady strain of laid-back comedy such as the Tada’s Do It All House series in which two brothers played by Eita and Ryuhei Matsuda act as bumbling handymen-cum-detectives-cum-whatever-you-need-them-to-be. It might be less surprising therefore that his latest effort is an adaptation of Kazuya Konomoto’s comedy manga Seto and Utsumi (セトウツミ, Setoutsumi) which revels in the everyday absurdity of teenage life in Southern Japan.

Seto (Masaki Suda) and Utsumi (Sosuke Ikematsu) are ordinary high school boys heading into their final year with the exam season and the end of their youthful, carefree days looming. Utsumi is a quiet, serious sort who generally doesn’t like a lot of company. Seto, by contrast, is a real live wire and not exactly a top student. Nevertheless, they found each other by a river one day and have been more or less inseparable ever since. Every day after school they meet and hang out in the same spot over looking the water where they shoot the breeze about various ordinary things from a non-argument over a girl to venus fly traps, Buddhist terminology, and ghosts.

Like many teenagers, Seto and Utsumi kill time doing nothing in particular and their conversations are generally inconsequential. Yet for all of their inherent randomness and absurdity, there’s a layer of poignancy underpinning each of them as the boys let slip various aspects of their private, interior lives. Seto’s big life drama involves the possible separation of his parents following the illness of the family cat which everyone in the family decided to indulge seeing as the poor thing didn’t have long left, but against expectation it’s two years later, the cat is still alive and Seto’s father is growing ever more resentful at spending so much money on luxury cat food. Seto’s family are a rowdy bunch, just as prone to drama as he is yet for all their complaining they seem fairly close – close enough for Seto to complain about the constant random text updates from his mother (a trait which Seto seems to have inherited himself).

Utsumi, by contrast, is much more aloof and keeps himself to himself. When Seto complains after his mother spots the boys at the river with bags full of shopping in her hands he remarks sadly that he rarely eats at home, implying it must be nice to have someone cook you a meal everyday. His approach to life is cerebral, calculating odds and planning angles, as he reveals to Seto in a piece of possibly not very helpful dating advice. Utsumi’s unseen parents are, presumably, just as aloof as he is, austere and religious. Nevertheless, in Seto he’s found a true sparring partner and someone he can waste time with amiably.

Utsumi’s parents are useful for one thing, they belong to the temple in which Seto’s crush, Kashimura (Ayami Nakajo), lives. Seto has been secretly trying to brush up on Buddhist terminology to impress her, but predictably she prefers the cool indifference of Utsumi to his friend’s energetic banter. Utsumi isn’t interested in Kashimura in any case, but not even this possible subject of conflict is big enough to seriously risk damaging the two boys’ friendship. As one character remarks towards the end of the film, it really is a once in a lifetime connection.

Omori keeps things simple, mostly sticking to static shots of the boys sitting on the steps near the river but he makes the stillness add to the sense of the absurd running through the quiet backwater town. After beginning with accordion music and ride through the canals, Seto and Utsumi’s first conversation takes place in front of an unintentional audience of a perfectly motionless older man, staring vacantly out at the river. The man turns out to have a valid (if sad) reason for being where he is, but the presence of the balloon animal vending clown from Eastern Europe (called Mr. Balloon) is a little harder to explain given that other than Seto, Utsumi, the aforementioned man, a high school bully, Seto’s mum, and a senile grandpa, no one else comes anywhere near this tranquil spot for the entire film. Using occasional dissolves and superimpositions to create a fleeting, dreamlike atmosphere with a handful of cutaways and flashbacks for comedic context, Seto and Utsumi is a truly charming ode to teenage friendship in all its pleasantly ridiculous absurdity.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

There are also a few bonus web episodes of Seto and Utsumi enjoying even more pointless conversations:

No. 1 – Kendama (a kind of Japanese cup and ball game) (English subtitles)

No. 2: Timing (English subtitles)

3. Standing Ovation (no subtitles but you don’t really need them)

My Little Sweet Pea (麦子さんと, Keisuke Yoshida, 2013)

My Little Sweet PeaHow many times were you told as a child, someday you will understand this? There are so many things you don’t see until it’s too late, and children being as they are, are almost programmed to see things from a self directed tunnel vision. Such is the case for Mugiko – a young woman with dreams of becoming an anime voice actress who is suddenly reunited with her estranged mother of whom she has almost no memory.

Mugiko (Maki Horikita) has a part time job in a manga store and is saving money to go to voice actress school. Raised by her father who has since passed on, she lives in a small flat with her older brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda) who also has a low wage job in a pachinko parlour. The pair’s lives change entirely when their long absent mother, Saiko (Kimiko Yo), arrives on their doorstep one day and begs to live in with them. Norio is dead against it but eventually Mugiko is persuaded and Saiko moves in. However, right after, Norio moves out to live with his girlfriend leaving Mugiko alone with the virtual stranger who is also her mother. Mugiko has a difficult time adjusting to living with a maternal figure and harsh words follow frequent misunderstandings until Saiko suddenly dies. Mugiko then travels back to Saiko’s hometown to inter her ashes and begins to forge a connection with the mother she barely knew.

The “haha mono” or “mother movie” is a subset of Japanese melodrama which focuses on the pain and heartbreak inherent in being a mother. Making countless sacrifices, the often saintly mothers do everything they can to ensure the best for their children even if their efforts cause nothing but suffering for themselves. My Little Sweet Pea (麦子さんと, Mugiko-san to) turns the genre on its side to look at things from the point of view of one of the “ungrateful” children, Mugiko, who is filled with resentment over having been “abandoned” only to have her mother suddenly return as if expecting to forget all the years of absence with one home cooked meal.

On journeying back to her mother’s remote rural town, Mugiko begins realise they weren’t so different from each other after all. Everyone in the village is stunned by Mugiko’s appearance which turns out to be the spitting image of her mother at around the same age. Saiko had also been something of a local celebrity thanks to her beauty, charm and popular presence. She left the town for the city with dreams of becoming a famous singer just like Seiko Matsuda and her rendition of the singer’s famous song Akai Sweet Pea is fondly remembered by the older generation.

Saiko’s dreams of hitting it big in the music business were never fulfilled though we know almost nothing about what happened to her between the end of her marriage and reappearance in her children’s lives save that she obviously had enough financial security to be able to send them money every month. Through meeting her mother’s old friends (and more than a few admirers), Mugiko comes to see something of herself in the distant figure of her mother as a young woman. Even if she couldn’t be there for reasons which are never fully explained, it wasn’t because she didn’t want to be or because she’d forgotten about or rejected her children, she suffered everyday thinking of and missing them and was tragically unable to rebuild that connection even at the very end.

Mugiko has been a little unsettled in her life, floating from one dream to the next and who really knows if voice acting is really the thing that she was meant to do. Saiko may have been more certain in her objective but whatever happened later it seems she found fulfilment in being a mother even if her dream of becoming a singer didn’t work out. Having been able to meet her mother even if vicariously, Mugiko is able to understand something about herself and perhaps repair a relationship that never quite took place. Striding out boldly with her mother in spirit beside her, Mugiko is finally able to step into the adult world and everything that is waiting out there for her with a new found confidence that comes with embracing the beauty of a distant scar.


Trailer (with English subtitles)

and here is the hit song from Seiko Matsuda – Akai Sweet Pea (1982)

Chokolietta (チョコリエッタ, Kazama Shiori, 2014)

ChokoliettaWhen examining the influences of classic European cinema on Japanese filmmaking, you rarely end up with Fellini. Nevertheless, Fellini looms large over the indie comedy Choklietta (チョコリエッタ) and the director, Shiori Kazama, even leaves a post-credits dedication to Italy’s master of the surreal as a thank you for inspiring the fifteen year old her to make movies. Full of knowing nods to the world of classic cinema, Chokolietta is a charming, if over long, coming of age drama which becomes a meditation on both personal and national notions of loss.

The story begins in the summer of 2010 when five year old Chiyoko (Aoi Morikawa) is involved in a car accident that results in the death of her mother. Flash forward ten years and Chiyoko is a slightly strange high school girl and a member of the film club. Her parents, as far as she knows, were both big fans of Federico Fellini – in fact the family dog is named “Giulietta” after Fellini’s muse and later wife Giuletta Masina. As a child, Chiyoko also received the strange nickname of “Chokolietta” from her mother which also seems to be inspired by the star. Sadly, their Giulietta has also recently passed away removing Chiyoko’s final link to her late mother and once again forcing her to address the lingering feelings of grief and confusion which have continued to plague her all these years.

At this point Chiyoko goes looking for the DVD of La Strada they watched in film club last year which leads her to the now graduated Masamura Masaoka (Masaki Suda). Masaoka is an equally strange boy with possible sociopathic tendencies though he does own a large collection of classic DVDs and the pair settle down to return to the world of Fellini. Eventually Masaoka convinces “Chokolietta” to star in a movie for him and the two take off on a crazy road trip recreating La Strada where Masaoka stands in for the strong man Zampanò and Chiyoko plays the fragile Gelsomina.

Thankfully, the partnership between Chiyoko and Masaoka is not quite as doom laden and filled with cruelty as that between Gelsomina and Zampanò. Though Masaoka often talks of the desire to kill and Chiyoko the desire to die, both appear superficial and are never presented as actual choices either will seriously act on. Masaoka is cast in the role of the strong man but he more closely resembles The Fool as he gently guides Chiyoko onto a path of self realisation that will help her finally learn to reach a tentative acceptance with the past and begin to move forward rather than futilely trying to remain static. Of course, he’s also forcing himself into a realisation that he doesn’t have to play the role he’s been cast in either and so it doesn’t follow that one has to behave in the way people have come to expect simply because they expect it.

Technically speaking the bulk of the story takes place in a putative future – around 2020, or ten years or so after the death of Chiyoko’s mother in 2010. 2010 is also a significant date as it’s the summer before the earthquake and tsunami struck the Japan the following March causing much devastation and loss of life as well as the resultant nuclear meltdown which has continued to become a cultural as well as physical scar. The journey the pair make takes them on a fairly desolate route past no entry signs into ghostly abandoned shopping arcades still strewn with the remnants of a former, bustling city life but now peopled only by a trio of silent, stick bearing men. This is a land of ghosts, both literal and figural but like most things, the only way out is through.

Taking a cue from Fellini, Chiyoko has frequent visions of her her deceased mother and fantastical sequences such as boarding a whale bus like the whale in Casanova or suddenly seeing Gelsomina and an entourage of dwarfs trailing past her. Her world is a fantastical one in which her daydreams have equal, or perhaps greater, weight to the reality. Her now empty indoor dog house comes to take on a symbolic dimension that represents an entirety of her past her life as if she herself, or the dog she claimed to want to become, had been hiding inside it all along. The film returns to La Strada in its final sequence only to subvert that film’s famous ending as where Zampanò’s animalistic, foetal howling spoke of an ultimate desolation and the discovery of a truth it may be better not to acknowledge, here there is a least hope for a brighter future with the past remaining where it belongs.

However, Chokolietta runs to a mammoth 159 minutes and proves far too meandering to justify its lengthy running time. Truth be told, the pace is refreshingly brisk yet the central road trip doesn’t start until 90 minutes in and there are another 30 minutes after it ends. It’s cutesy and fun but runs out of steam long before the credits roll and ultimately lacks the necessary focus to make the desired impact. That said there are some pretty nice moments and a cineliterate tone that remains endearing rather than irritating all of which add up to make Chokolietta an uneven, if broadly enjoyable, experience though one which never quite reaches its potential.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Bonus – here’s an unsubtitled trailer for La Strada (which is possibly the most heartbreaking film ever made).

Also the other two Fellini movies mentioned in the film:

Casanova

and Amacord (original US release trailer)