Memoirs of a Murderer (22年目の告白―私が殺人犯です―, Yu Irie, 2017)

Memoirs of a MurdererJung Byung-gil’s Confession of Murder may have been a slightly ridiculous revenge drama, but it had at its heart the necessity of dealing with the traumatic past head on in order to bring an end to a cycle of pain and destruction. Yu Irie retools Jung’s tale of a haunted policeman for a wider examination of the legacy of internalised impotence in the face of unavoidable mass violence – in this case the traumatic year of 1995 marked not only by the devastating Kobe earthquake but also by Japan’s only exposure to an act of large scale terrorism. Persistent feelings of powerlessness and nihilistic despair conspire to push fragile minds towards violence as a misguided kind of revenge against their own sense of insignificance but when a killer, safe in the knowledge that they are immune from prosecution after surviving the statute of limitations for their crimes, attempts to profit from their unusual status, what should a society do?

22 years ago, in early 1995, a spate of mysterious stranglings rocked an already anxious Tokyo. In 2010, Japan removed the statute of limitations on capital crimes such as serial killings, mass killings, child killings, and acts of terror, which had previously stood at 15 years, leaving the perpetrator free of the threat of prosecution by only a matter of seconds. Then, all of a sudden, a book is published claiming to be written by the murderer himself as piece of confessional literature. Sonezaki (Tatsuya Fujiwara), revealing himself as the book’s author at a high profile media event, becomes a pop-culture phenomenon while the victims’ surviving families, and the detective who was in charge of the original case, Makimura (Hideaki Ito), incur only more suffering.

Unlike Jung’s version, Irie avoids action for tense cerebral drama though he maintains the outrageous nature of the original and even adds an additional layer of intrigue to the already loaded narrative. Whereas police in Korean films are universally corrupt, violent, or bumbling, Japanese cops are usually heroes even if occasionally frustrated by the bureaucracy of their organisation or by prevalent social taboos. Makimura falls into hero cop territory as he becomes a defender of the wronged whilst sticking steadfastly to the letter of the law in insisting that the killer be caught and brought to justice by the proper means rather than sinking to his level with a dose of mob justice.

Justice is, however, hard to come by now that, legally speaking, the killer’s crimes are an irrelevance. Sonezaki can literally go on TV and confess and nothing can be done. The media, however, have other ideas. The Japanese press has often been criticised for its toothlessness and tendency towards self-censorship, but maverick newscaster and former war correspondent Sendo (Toru Nakamura) is determined to make trial by media a more positive move than it sounds. He invites Sonezaki on live TV to discuss his book, claiming that it’s the opportunity to get to the truth rather than the viewing figures which has spurred his decision, but many of his colleagues remain skeptical of allowing a self-confessed murderer to peddle his macabre memoirs on what they would like to believe is a respectable news outlet.

The killer forces the loved ones of his victims to watch while he goes about his bloody business, making them feel as powerless as he once did while he remains ascendent and all powerful. It is these feelings of powerlessness and ever present unseen threats born of extensive personal or national traumas which are responsible for producing such heinous crimes and by turns leave behind them only more dark and destructive emotions in the desire for violence returned as revenge. Focussing in more tightly on the despair and survivors guilt which plagues those left behind, Irie opts for a different kind of darkness to his Korean counterpart but refuses to venture so far into it, avowing that the law deserves respect and will ultimately serve the justice all so desperately need. Irie’s artier approach, shifting to grainier 16:9 for the ‘90s sequences, mixing in soundscapes of confusing distortion and TV news stock footage, often works against the outrageous quality of the convoluted narrative and its increasingly over the top revelations, but nevertheless he manages to add something to the Korean original in his instance on violence as sickness spread by fear which can only be cured through the calm and dispassionate application of the law.

Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Showroom Cinema – 22 March 2018
  • Broadway – 23 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 24 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 24 March 2018
  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 25 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Girl in the Sunny Place (陽だまりの彼女, Takahiro Miki, 2013)

girl in the sunny placeThe “jun-ai” boom might have been well and truly over by the time Takahiro Miki’s Girl in the Sunny Place (陽だまりの彼女, Hidamari no Kanojo) hit the screen, but tales of true love doomed are unlikely to go out of fashion any time soon. Based on a novel by Osamu Koshigaya, Girl in the Sunny Place is another genial romance in which teenage friends are separated, find each other again, become happy and then have that happiness threatened, but it’s also one that hinges on a strange magical realism born of the affinity between humans and cats.

25 year old Kosuke (Jun Matsumoto) is a diffident advertising executive living a dull if not unhappy life. Discovering he’s left it too late to ask out a colleague, Kousuke is feeling depressed but an unexpected meeting with a client brightens his day. The pretty woman standing in the doorway with the afternoon sun neatly lighting her from behind is an old middle school classmate – Mao (Juri Ueno), whom Kosuke has not seen in over ten years since he moved away from his from town and the pair were separated. Eventually the two get to know each other again, fall in love, and get married but Mao is hiding an unusual secret which may bring an end to their fairytale romance.

Filmed with a breezy sunniness, Girl in the Sunny Place straddles the line between quirky romance and the heartrending tragedy which defines jun-ai, though, more fairytale than melodrama, there is still room for bittersweet happy endings even in the inevitability of tragedy. Following the pattern of many a tragic love story, Miki moves between the present day and the middle school past in which Kosuke became Mao’s only protector when she was mercilessly bullied for being “weird”. Mao’s past is necessarily mysterious – adopted by a policeman (Sansei Shiomi) who found her wandering alone at night, Mao has no memory of her life before the age of 13 and lacks the self awareness of many of the other girls, turning up with messy hair and dressed idiosyncratically. When Kousuke stands up to the popular/delinquent kids making her life a misery, the pair become inseparable and embark on their first romance only to be separated when Kosuke’s family moves away from their hometown of Enoshima.

“Miraculously” meeting again they enjoy a typically cute love story as they work on the ad campaign for a new brassiere collection which everyone else seems to find quite embarrassing. As time moves on it becomes apparent that there’s something more than kookiness in Mao’s strange energy and sure enough, the signs become clear as Mao’s energy fades and her behaviour becomes less and less normal.

The final twist, well signposted as it is, may leave some baffled but is in the best fairytale tradition. Maki films with a well placed warmth, finding the sun wherever it hides and bathing everything in the fuzzy glow of a late summer evening in which all is destined go on pleasantly just as before. Though the (first) ending may seem cruel, the tone is one of happiness and possibility, of partings and reunions, and of the transformative powers of love which endure even if everything else has been forgotten. Beautifully shot and anchored by strong performances from Juri Ueno and Jun Matsumoto, Girl in the Sunny Place neatly sidesteps its melodramatic premise for a cheerfully affecting love story even if it’s the kind that may float away on the breeze.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rakugo Monogatari (落語物語, Shinpei Hayashiya, 2011)

program_rakugoWhen it comes to the classic Japanese art forms, kabuki, noh and maybe even bunraku are not so uncommon overseas. Rakugo, however, has not been as lucky. Famously impenetrable for non-native speakers even if their language skills are otherwise top notch, rakugo is the art of traditional comic story telling in which the “rakugo-ka” recites a standard monologue with the aim of mining it for laughs in their own individual fashion. These stories date back to the Edo-era and rely heavily on classic Japanese puns, stock characters and cultural assumptions, consequently, their appeal has been on the wane in Japan for sometime. That’s not to say the art form is quite dead yet though, as real life rakugo-ka Shinpei Hayashiya’s Rakugo Monogatari attempts to prove.

The film begins as youngster Masato catches a Rakugo act and becomes immediately smitten. Hoping to become the disciple of a top master, he parks himself outside the house of Kozaru but is too shy to actually knock on the door. Luckily, Kozaru’s wife arrives home and spots Masato waiting outside. She’s a sharp woman and immediately guesses what Masato’s after so she invites him inside to meet her husband. Kozaru is a bit of a strange man but with a fantastic sense of humour and eventually agrees to take the young hopeful on as his pupil. There will be laughter and tears along the way but Masato is well on the road to achieving his rakugo dreams.

Created by real life rakugo comedian and occasional actor Shinpei Hayashiya, Rakugo Monogatari certainly has the air of authenticity. For a film that’s about an apprentice, we don’t really see a lot of direct training scenes (though there are some) and, in fact, we don’t spend all of our time on the hopeful Masato. After he starts to make some headway, the canvas widens a little to look at the arcane institution of the rakugo association and in particular its reaction to the decision of one of its female members to pursue a career in television which is taking her away from her rakugo roots. The position of female rakugo performers is briefly touched on as, though there are at least two highly proficient female rakugo-ka active on these stages, one of the other association members proclaims that he feels “uncomfortable” with a woman reciting this material at an important event. He says this right in front of an apparently high ranking female member of the association who looks rightfully non-plussed (and in general she is not a woman to be crossed lightly) before trying to back track. The younger female rakugo-ka eventually gets to perform but then has her profile immediately undermined by a personal scandal that would probably not have much effect on a male star’s career.

Hayashiya does give in to melodrama in the third quarter though he largely even manages to work a few laughs into a tragic situation. The other thread of the film is the warm and solid relationship between Kozaru and his wife Aoi, which is filled with a sort of bickering, reciprocal humour as the two become surrogate parents to the nervous Masato. In an odd sort of way it’s Aoi who lends the heart to the film and though her role is purely supportive, she provides the firm foundations which allow her husband and his new apprentice to flourish in their own careers.

A perfect tribute to the art of rakugo, Rakugo Monogatari is an affectionate comedy celebrating all sides of its famously complicated world. Though it runs a little long and has a tendency to run off the point for a while (perhaps an intentional complication), Rakugo Monogatari nevertheless proves an enjoyable foray into the world of this declining art form and finds plenty left to enjoy while it’s there.