Children of the Dark (闇の子供たち, Junji Sakamoto, 2008)

Children of the Dark posterJunji Sakamoto’s career has been marked by a noticeable split between commercial projects and artier genre pieces but even considering his tendency towards socially conscious filmmaking, Children of the Dark (闇の子供たち, Yami no Kodomotachi) is a surprising entry into his filmography. Starring heartthrob Yosuke Eguchi as an earnest reporter determined to expose the extent of Japanese complicity in the exploitation of Thai children, Sakamoto’s film is hard hitting in the extreme, refusing to back away from the horrors that these children are forced to experience but perhaps taking things too far in putting his young actors through a series of emotionally difficult scenes. Children of the Dark was pulled from its slot in the Bangkok Film Festival for painting a less than idealised picture of the grim underbelly of Thai society but Sakamoto is also keen to point out that the problem is a global one which merely finds an unhappy home in a country many regard as a “paradise”.

Nanbu (Yosuke Eguchi), a Japanese ex-pat reporter living in Thailand, has been handed a hot tip on a difficult piece of investigate reporting relating to the illegal trafficking of human organs. His investigation brings him back into contact with a local NGO who operate a centre promoting educational and human rights whilst helping the impoverished children of the area. The NGO is currently investigating the disappearance of child they’d been trying to save, but the two investigations eventually overlap as it becomes clear that the organ trafficking and sexual exploitation of abandoned children are part of the same deeply entrenched cycle of human cruelty.

Nanbu’s key interest is in the Japanese connection to organ transplant case. A wealthy Japanese couple will apparently be bringing their son to Thailand for an illegal transplant to get around Japan’s strict medical ethics laws which prevent children becoming organ donors. Though it might be thought that the boy’s parents simply believe they will be undergoing a legitimate medical procedure only abroad, they are perfectly aware that the organ they will be receiving will have been acquired specifically for the purpose and will have been ripped from a healthy child rather than transplanted from an unfortunate accident victim.

Using the NGO’s contacts, Nanbu begins to realise how deeply the conspiracy runs. The NGO’s investigations lead them to a brothel in which extremely young boys and girls are kept in cages to be picked out like lobsters in a restaurant by the international clientele each after a different kind of sexual experience. The children are beaten if they refuse and literally “thrown out” in black bin bags should they contract illnesses such as AIDS. When one of the children is killed by a client who overdoses him on hormones, the matter is settled with financial compensation and the body disposed of. Many of these children are orphans from backgrounds of extreme poverty, neglected or abandoned by their parents into a life of sexual servitude in part caused by ongoing economic inequality which is only exacerbated by the thriving underworld enterprises of people and drug trafficking.

Nanbu is, however, only a reporter. Keiko (Aoi Miyazaki), a young and idealistic Japanese woman recently arrived in Thailand to work with the NGO, is committed to saving individual lives whereas Nanbu and the paper are committed to being passive observers exposing the truth in the hope that the whole sordid system will one day collapse. Keiko’s sometimes dangerous naivety is contrasted with Nanbu’s jaded complicity in essentially allowing a young child’s life to be sacrificed to get his story with only the justification that something might be done if the truth were known.

A final revelation, however, proves a step too far even if it encourages all to point the finger back on themselves and accept that personal complicity may run far deeper than most suspect. The tragedy is further undercut by the strange decision to end on an idyllic scene of paradise with a karaoke track playing over the top complete with lyrics pasted on the side – a tonal variation too far given the necessarily somber atmosphere of the the film as a whole. Despite the strangeness of the ending with its unexpected reversals and clumsy attempt at reflexivity, Children of the Dark is an urgent, difficult piece exposing the unspeakable cruelties hidden away in the underbelly of a foreign “paradise”.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rage (怒り, Lee Sang-il, 2016)

rage posterVillain, Lee Sang-il’s 2011 adaptation of a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, used a crime story to investigate the wider effects of social stigma and emotional repression – themes which are recurrent in the author’s work. Rage (怒り, Ikari) attempts to do something similar but its aims are larger, reflexively tacking the vicious cycle of social oppression and emotional repression in a society which actively suppresses the desire for expression in the aim of maintaining an illusion of harmony. A brutal, senseless killing has occurred and three suspects present themselves. The killer could be any one or none of them, but the fact of the matter is that when you cannot speak the truth, you cannot truly believe in anything or anyone.

In the blazing summer heat with its noisy cicadas and uncomfortable humidity, a young couple has been brutally murdered in their Hachioji home. There are few clues to be found save that the killer has painted the kanji for “rage” in blood on the wall. The police do, however, come up with a suspect and circulate a photofit which is anonymous enough to look like any youngish man who might make you feel uncomfortable for a reason you can’t articulate.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged man from Chiba, Maki (Ken Watanabe), anxiously wanders around Kabukicho until someone finds him and takes him to a brothel where his runaway daughter, Aiko (Aoi Miyazaki), has been working and has been very badly injured through her “eagerness to please her clients”. The father, trying to comfort his daughter who seems cheerful enough despite her ordeal, inwardly seethes with rage and is both relieved and worried when she begins a relationship with a secretive drifter, Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama).

Back in Tokyo, Yuma (Satoshi Tsumabuki) visits a gay bathhouse and roughly forces himself on a nervous man hunched in a corner. Despite the slight unpleasantness of their meeting, the two men eat dinner together and Yuma invites his new friend, Naoto (Go Ayano), to live with him in his well appointed apartment despite knowing nothing more about him.

Further south, a teenage couple enjoy a day out on what they think is a deserted island but the girl, Izumi (Suzu Hirose), discovers a backpacker, Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama),  living in some local ruins. Strangely drawn to him, Izumi keeps meeting up with Tanaka but an encounter in the city turns sour when her friend, Tatsuya (Takara Sakumoto), works himself into a jealous rage. Trying to get the drunken Tatsuya to the ferry, Izumi is raped by GIs from the local military base.

The Okinawan episode is, in many ways the key. Tetsuya invites Izumi to see a movie in Naha but they’re really going to observe a protest about the continued presence of the US military bases. Tatsuya wanted to be there to see it but pressed for an answer he doubts protest will achieve anything. Izumi, after her brutal encounter, says the same thing. She doesn’t want anyone to know. “Protesting won’t change anything”. No matter what she says, nothing will be done, no one would listen, nobody really cares.

Or, perhaps they simply care about the wrong things. Aiko gets home from her horrible ordeal in the city but everyone knows what she did there; her “sordid” past is the talk of the town. Her father says nothing, because like Izumi he knows it will do no good, but still he berates himself for it and his internalised anger grows.

Izumi does not want the stigma of being a rape victim, and Aiko does not want the stigma of being a “fallen woman”, their secrets are already out, but Yuma is jealously guarding his – living as a cautious gay man with his life strictly divided, his true nature walled off from his professional persona. Too afraid to be open about his sexuality, he projects his sense of unease and discomfort onto Naoto – first going overboard by inviting someone he just met and knows nothing about to live with him and then refusing to let him in all the way. Yuma asks Naoto not to attend his mother’s funeral despite the fact they had been friends because he doesn’t want the awkwardness of deciding how to introduce his boyfriend to a set of relatives he doesn’t really know. What he doesn’t do is ask any questions about Naoto’s past, jumping to conclusions and angrily slinging accusations when he thinks he’s caught Naoto out in a lie but his reaction and subsequent behaviour only bear out his own insecurities in his inability to trust the man the loves.

Each of the trio begins to doubt their friends or lovers with little more to go on than a police photofit which only superficially resembles them. The suspicion, however, is reflexive. It’s born of a society in which one is obliged to keep secrets and emotional honesty is frowned upon. No one speaks the truth because no one wants to hear it – it will only bring more suffering with additional social stigma. Sooner or later, when all of these unexpressed emotions reach a critical mass, they will explode. Such crimes could so easily be avoided were it easier to live a more open, less fearful life, but as long as it is impossible to trust oneself, there can be no unguarded trust between people.

Neatly in line with the self-centred narrative viewpoints, Izumi’s rape is relegated to a plot device as she herself disappears from the screen only to return briefly in the final coda. The effects of the rape are then explored as they impact on Tetsuya and Tanaka whose self images of masculinity are (seemingly) damaged by their failures to protect her. Izumi’s rape is viewed as something that happened to the men, as if she were a car that was scratched or a jacket torn. Self-involved as this is, it plays into the central theme – no one cares very much about anybody else’s feelings until those feelings are visited upon them by means of violence.

The murder occurs essentially because of a betrayal followed by unbearable, unexpected kindness. A woman felt sorry for a man, and so she trusted him and was betrayed. Two parties fail to trust the one they love because of a failing in themselves, their own sense of personal inadequacy will not allow them to believe in the other person’s faith in them, while another misplaces his trust in his need to find an ally and confidant to feel less alone and powerless. Prevailing social stigmas, selfishness, and a need to maintain the status quo have left all running scared, craving connection but too afraid to engage. When the system won’t let you be, violence, of one sort or another, is an inevitable consequence.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Shonen Merikensack (少年メリケンサック, Kankuro Kudo, 2009)

The Shonen Merikensack posterWhen you spent your youth screaming phrases like “no future” and “fumigate the human race”, how are you supposed to go about being 50-something? A&R girl Kanna is about to find out in Kankuro Kudo’s generation gap comedy The Shonen Merikensack (少年メリケンサック) as she accidentally finds herself needing to sign a gang of ageing never were rockers. A nostalgia trip in more ways than one, Kudo is on a journey to find the true spirit of punk in a still conservative world.

25 year old Kanna (Aoi Miyazaki) is an unsuccessful scout at a major Japanese label which mainly deals with commercial bands and folk guitar outfits. As she’s about to quit any way, Kanna makes a last minute pitch for a punk band she’s found on YouTube, fully expecting to be shown the door for the last time. However, what she didn’t know is that her boss, Tokita (Yusuke Santamaria), is a former punk rocker still dreaming of his glory days of youthful rebellion. With her leaving do mere hours away, Kanna’s contract is extended so that she can bring in these new internet stars whose retro punk style looks set to capture the charts.

Unfortunately, the reason Tokita was so impressed with the band’s authentically ‘80s style is because the video was shot in 1983. The Brass Knuckle Boys hit their heyday 25 years ago and are now middle aged men who’ve done different kinds of inconsequential things with their lives since their musical careers ended. Kanna needs to get the band back together, but she may end up wishing she’d never bothered.

Mixing documentary-style talking heads footage with the contemporary narrative, Kudo points towards an examination of tempestuous youth and rueful middle age as he slips back and fore between the early days of the Brass Knuckle Boys and their attempts to patch up old differences and make an improbable comeback. Kanna, only 25, can’t quite understand all of this shared history but becomes responsible for trying to help them all put it behind them. Her job is complicated by the fact that estranged brothers Akio (Koichi Sato) and Haruo (Yuichi Kimura) made their on stage fighting a part of the act until a stupid accident left the band’s vocalist, Jimmy (Tomorowo Taguchi), in wheelchair.

The spirit of punk burns within them, even if their contemporaries are apt to point and laugh. The Brass Knuckle Boys, when it comes down to it, were successful bandwagon jumpers on the punk gravy train. Craving fame, the guys started out marketing themselves as a very early kind of boy band complete with silly outfits and cute personal branding full of jumpsuits, rainbows, and coordinated dance routines. Yet if the punk movement attracted them merely as the next cool thing, it also caught on to some of their youthful anger and teenage resentment. In the end unrestrained passion destroyed what they had as the ongoing war between the brothers escalated from petty sibling bickering to something less kind.

Twenty-five years later the wounds have not yet healed. Akio is a lousy drunk with a bad attitude, Haruo is an angry cow farmer, drummer Young has a range of health problems, and Jimmy’s barely present. Tokita has become a corporate suit, a symbol of everything he once fought against and his former bandmate is his biggest selling artist – eccentric, glam, and very high concept.

The men are looking back (even those of them who aren’t even really that old), whereas Kanna can only look forwards. Before the Brass Knuckle Boys, she was about to be kicked out of her A&R job and planned to go home with her tail between her legs to help her confused father with his very unsuccessful conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Apparently in a solid relationship with a coffee shop guitarist who keeps urging her to put in a good word for him at the record label with his sappy demo tapes, Kanna’s life is the definition of middle of the road. Neither she not her boyfriend could be any less “punk” if they tried but if they truly want to follow their dreams they will have to find it somewhere within themselves.

At over two hours The Shonen Merikensack is pushing the limit for a comedy and does not quite manage to maintain momentum even as its ending is, appropriately enough, an unexpected anticlimax. Kudo’s generally absurd sense of humour occasionally takes a backseat to a more juvenile kind which is much less satisfying than the madcap action of his previous films but still provides enough off beat laughs to compensate for an otherwise inconsequential narrative.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

If Cats Disappeared From the World (世界から猫が消えたなら, Akira Nagai, 2016)

If Cats Disappeared from the worldWhat would you give to live another day? What did you give to live this day? What did you take? Adapting the novel by Genki Kawamura, Akira Nagai takes a step back from the broad comedy of Judge for an Iwai-inflected tale of life thrown into sharp relief by impending death. Less a maudlin meditation on the will to life, If Cats Disappeared from the World (世界から猫が消えたなら, Sekai kara Neko ga Kieta nara) is an existential journey into the mind of a man who believed himself an irrelevance, beloved by no one and living an unfulfilling existence, only to rediscover his essential place in the world at the moment he’s about to vacate it.

An unnamed 30 year old postman (Takeru Satoh) has a freak bicycle accident and is subsequently informed that he has an aggressive brain tumour which may take his life at any moment. Following this traumatic news, the postman returns home to discover his own doppelgänger there, waiting for him. The doppelgänger tells him that he will die tomorrow, unless the postman accepts the offer the doppelgänger is about to make him. There are too many unnecessary and irritating things in the modern world, in return for postponing the postman’s death sentence, the doppelgänger will erase one thing from human society – if only the postman will agree.

As in many similarly themed films of recent times, memories are stored not on hard drives or even in notebooks but in seemingly irrelevant objects with unexpected sentimental value. Quite literally “material culture”, it is the objects which provide the path back to the past and their destruction represents not only the severing of a connection but a kind of erasure of the past itself.

The doppelgänger sets about deleting various items at will which might previously have seemed irrelevant to the postman but turn out to have fundamental connections to the most important aspects of his life. The first item to go is phones (all phones, not just mobiles) which reminds him of his first love (Aoi Miyazaki) whom he met after she dialled a wrong number and recognised the score to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis which he happened to be watching at the time. Phones and movies – the second item on the doppelgänger’s hit list, brought the two together but it couldn’t have happened without the cinephile best friend (Gaku Hamada) the postman met at university who has been his movie mule ever since.  Delete the phone and the movies and the postman loses his first love and best friend to win the right to live on alone for just one day. Cats turn out to have an even more essential role in the postman’s life, one which is painful for him to consider but impossible to ignore.

The protagonist’s occupation, which becomes his name and defining feature, is an ironic one. A mere conveyor of items charged with other people’s memories. he feels like an empty vessel, trapped in an existence devoid of meaning. Yet his strange doppelgänger pushes him to reconsider his place in the world, re-entering a sphere he had long absented himself from. Remembering long forgotten yet life changing holidays with the love of his life or finally coming to understand the silent signs of devotion in his emotionally distant father (Eiji Okuda), the postman finally writes his own letter, the first and last of his life, answering the questions he never wanted to ask.

Finally learning to accept his fate, the postman rediscovers the meaning of life. He may leave with regrets and dreams never to be fulfilled, but wants to believe his life has made a difference, meant something at least. Only as he’s about to leave it does the postman feel himself connected to the world, finally noticing the beauty all around him.

On learning of his condition, the postman’s first thoughts turn to all the movies he’ll never see and the books he’ll never read. The doppelgänger’s determination to delete the movies provokes a quietly passionate defence of the arts but, apparently, they are not worth dying for. Nagai films with a low-key dreaminess as magical realism mixes with wistful nostalgia in the melancholy world of a man who has no future finally falling in love with the past. A celebration of the interconnectedness of all things in a world of increasing isolation, If Cats Disappeared from the World advises you make the most of your time, making the difference only you can make before it’s too late.


Hong Kong trailer (English subtitles)

Hatsukoi (First Love) (初恋, Yukinari Hanawa, 2006)

hatsukoiThe 300 Million Yen Affair is one of the most famous and intriguing unsolved mysteries in Japan, not least because the missing cash has been lying dormant somewhere, apparently untouched, ever since that fateful day back in 1968. Seeing as the true story has never been discovered, the crime has taken on legendary status and become the focus of many kinds of fiction. Misuzu Nakahara’s fictionalised autobiography is just one of these as she retroactively claims responsibility for the robbery as a teenage girl in love with a detached revolutionary.

Misuzu (Aoi Miyazaki) begins her tale a couple of years before the crime as she lives a lonely and introverted life in the house of her uncle, her father having died and her mother apparently absconded with her older brother in tow but leaving her behind. It’s her 16th birthday, but no one cares. Soon enough she starts hanging around a shady jazz bar before another woman convinces her to come inside and join their group of layabout beatniks – a group which is actually lead by her estranged older brother, Ryo (Masaru Miyazaki). These are the heady days of students protests – against the old order, against the ANPO treaty, against the war in Vietnam, against just about everything. Misuzu grows closer to one of their number, the quiet and mysterious Kishi (Keisuke Koide), who has a proposition for her….

Hatsukoi (AKA First Love, 初恋) is a film which is thick with period detail from the authentically smokey, sweaty jazz bar and its counterculture denizens to the nostalgic atmosphere and 1960s street scenes. However, evoking Misuzu’s own sense of ennui, director Yukinari Hanawa opts for a detached, dispassionate tone which is entirely at odds with the otherwise searing, youth on fire tension of the time period. Misuzu is always on the edges of things, younger than the other members of the group she feels as if she’s merely being permitted to stay and listen rather than invited to participate. Nevertheless, even if it’s the case that Misuzu is a by nature a passive person, the film pushes the intense nature of the social revolution going on all around her into mere background, squandering its power to bring out the sense of passion that the film feels as if it needs.

At heart, the robbery is something of a mcguffin as the real story is the true love tragedy hinted at in the title. Misuzu and Kishi grow closer through their plotting of the crime which is born of his desire to commit a different kind of revolutionary act. The money is intended to pay the bonuses of Toshiba employees and Kishi feels the best way to make a protest against economic inequality and the power of large corporations is to hit them in the finances. Misuzu plays her part well enough and the robbery comes off OK despite minor hitches allowing only a brief honeymoon period for its would be Bonnie and Clyde before history begins to move forward and eventually rips them apart. For Misuzu the robbery becomes the defining event of her youth and the birth of the love that she seemingly cannot let go. After this the jazz club is over, the protest movement dies as do some of the protestors, or else they move on to more conventional lives. Not quite a coming of age, but a death of youth before it had hardly begun.

Some injuries never heal, says the kindly old man who teaches Misuzu how to drive. A prescient remark if ever there was one. Misuzu seems locked within this brief period of her youth, before her friends died, left, or disappeared once the turbulent atmosphere of protest and revolution gave way to the consumerist 1970s and everyone forgot about the necessity for social change in the hurry to make money.

Hatsukoi becomes less a about the first love itself than about the period that surrounds it. The love was lost, but so was the bubble in which Misuzu had begun to define herself as a young woman. What Hatsukoi lacks is a sense of personal tragedy, of a soul crushing, spiritual death which locks each of the group members into their own tragic fates and seems somehow dictated despite their insistence on defining themselves in the new, youth centric world. Often beautifully photographed, Hatsukoi’s air of desolation and cold, detached tone weaken its ability to engage making its painful end of youth journey all seem rather dull.


Hatsukoi was released with English subtitles on blu-ray in Taiwan, and on DVD in Hong Kong though both editions now appear to be OOP.

Unsubtitled trailer:

A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Junji Sakamoto, 2012)

chorus of angelsAs you read the words “adapted from the novel by Kanae Minato” you know that however cute and cuddly the blurb on the back may make it sound, there will be pain and suffering at its foundation. So it is with A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Kita no Kanariatachi) which sells itself as a kind of mini-take on Twenty-Four Eyes (“Twelve Eyes” – if you will) as a middle aged former school mistress meets up with her six former charges only to discover that her own actions have cast an irrevocable shadow over the very sunlight she was determined to shine on their otherwise troubled young lives.

Haru has been working as a librarian in the city for the last twenty years and has finally reached retirement age but before that she was a school teacher in Japan’s frozen north. Before she can even think about enjoying her new found freedom, a pair of policeman turn up at her door to ask her a few questions about one of her former pupils, Nobuto, who is a suspect in a murder case. It seems that they found Haru’s address amongst Nobuto’s possessions and are keen to find out what kind of relationship she had with him and anything she might know about his current whereabouts. Haru is shocked to the core but remembers that she always gets a New Year card from one of Nobuto’s classmates, Manami, and decides to return home at long last to try and put to rest some wandering ghosts.

Like much of Kanae Minato’s work, A Chorus of Angels is a perfectly constructed mystery only this time much more of the heart than of the head. Consequently, it would be wrong to reveal too much of the plot but suffice to say that a traumatic incident twenty years ago left a profound effect not only on each of the children but also on their teacher and others in the surrounding area. Re-encountering each of her six pupils again, Haru discovers that each of them has been harbouring a deeply buried sense of guilt and shame, believing themselves to have been responsible for what happened that day. That sense of unresolved trauma has prevented each of them from fully getting on with their lives, as if some part of each of them was frozen in time when they were just primary school children singing in a choir and feeling proud of themselves for the first time in their lives.

Their teacher, Haru, also left a part of herself behind in that snowy northern landscape. Having committed something which some would regard as a sin, she’s hounded off the island – or perhaps allows herself to be, giving in to a punishment that she sees as befitting her own sense of guilt. However, as is customary for Minato, Haru’s “crime” is not such a black and white affair. If she betrayed someone, that person understood and, ultimately, only wanted the best for her. That she sacrificed the things that might have allowed her to go on living a happy life is the kind of tragic irony Minato is known for and the lonely, cold and shut off appearance of Haru’s twenty years of librarianing exile is another perfect example. She didn’t really do anything wrong except for try to live, and yet she’s paid for that with the next twenty years of her life and not only that, in robbing the young children who’d come to see her as something of a guardian angel of her very presence, she’s left them to pay too. Guilt grows like a mountain until it eclipses even the brightest of suns.

Despite its unfeasibly starry cast which radiates around veteran actress Sayuri Yoshinga and includes such young talents as Hikari Mitsushima, Mirai Moriyama, Ryuhei Matsuda, Ryo Katsuji, Aoi Miyazaki and Eiko Koike, A Chorus of Angles is actually fairly ordinary in terms of its directorial style and though it manages to stay on the right side of saccharine, never quite manages to make its tear-jerking set-up quite as moving as it seems to want to be. That said, it does boast some extraordinarily beautiful scenes of the Hokkaido snowscape which is a perfect setting for this chilling, frozen ghost story in which no actual ghosts appear. The children’s childhoods are all blissful blue skies and sunny summer days but in the future there’s only snow and cold winter sunshine. Just stay alive, it would be enough – to live is to suffer, but you have to go on. The important thing to learn is that it’s one thing to forgive everyone else, but there comes a time when you have to forgive yourself, too.


The Hong Kong release of A Chorus of Angels includes English subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer: