Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2019)

Gambling, the ultimate act of faith or the height of anarchic genius? Based on the hit manga which has already been adapted as a popular TV anime, Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ) is the sequel to two seasons of a live action TV drama set in a school where hierarchy is decided not by grades or by fists, but by your prowess at the gaming tables. Those who lose so badly they bankrupt themselves become a kind of subhuman underclass, tied up like dogs and routinely humiliated, while the Student Council becomes a stand in for an oppressive social order ruling over all and enforcing the law with an iron hand. 

Into this high stress environment walks Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), a transfer student to the elite Hyakkaou Private Academy determined to bend its rules to her own advantage. Meanwhile, Student Council President Kirari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda) is forced to deal with a new and unexpected threat – The Village, a small cult made up of students who have rejected the system, dropped out to live a hippy lifestyle in the grounds, and refuse to participate in “meaningless” games of chance. Their priest-like leader, Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa), once beat Kirari at cards becoming something like a god of gambling, but lost his zeal for the game after losing the only thing he ever cared about. 

Where he opposes the system passively yet pointedly, Yumeko rebels in her own, fiercely individualistic way by superficially conforming, becoming a top gambler, but only because she is exercising a free choice to do so. She plays for kicks alone, and generally wins because she isn’t stressed enough about losing to let it bother her. This individualist streak makes her a hidden threat against Kirari, but one that might in itself be an interesting gamble for the infinitely bored Student Council President. 

While Yumeko’s individualism threatens to unbalance the system, The Village presents a collectivist threat, agitating wholesale revolution and an end to the oppressive rule of the Student Council which renders losers inhuman. Yet there’s an essential irony in The Village’s creepy monotony that stands in stark contrast to Yumeko’s seeming conformity but insistence on her own freedom. Your life’s your own, she later explains, it’s annoying if people try to manipulate it. In this instance she’s talking not about the “life plans” handed out by the Student Council, but the egotistical desire to “save” the lives of others without considering if they want them saved or if you’re merely infringing on their personal freedom in attempting to make choices for them based entirely on your own value system. 

Murasame perhaps bet something he shouldn’t have and technically won, but ended up losing anyway which is what has made him turn against gambling. Yumeko, meanwhile, believes that the only way to be truly free to entrust yourself to luck and destiny. That is, however, somewhat disingenuous, because what Yumeko excels at is mind games, essentially manipulating those around her in order to win. Yumeko plays players, not cards, and is rarely played herself. Unlike Murasame’s righthand woman Arukibi (Haruka Fukuhara), she doesn’t care that much what people think. Arukibi, meanwhile, is desperate for approval and is playing her own game just to get someone’s attention which makes her a volatile, if easily manipulated, opponent.

Essentially, Murasame wants freedom outside of the system where Yumeko has found it within, but her philosophy is perhaps the more dangerous in that it proposes total freedom that has no regard for the systems of governance. Then again, maybe this is all a long con to get better cakes in the cafeteria, merely gaming the system rather than actively undermining it. Nevertheless, for Yumeko life is risk, rebelling against an oppressive social order through the anarchic individualism of living by “chance”. Living in a society as highly regimented as this is a high stakes game, but you can’t win if you don’t play, and you need to play smart. That’s the peculiar irony of life at Hyakkaou Private Academy where the Student Council literally owns your future but you can win it back by playing them at their own game. Bet your life, win your freedom Yumeko seems to say but she still makes sure to bring cake for everyone, not just the “winners” or the privileged few. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

We Make Antiques (嘘八百, Masaharu Take, 2018)

We make antiques posterWho will scam the scammers? The antiques trade is a high stakes business, and at least as far as Masaharu Take’s We Make Antiques (嘘八百, Uso Happyaku) goes, one which makes use of its aura of respectability to cheat unsuspecting amateurs out of their hard earned cash for the false promise of exclusivity. Then again, does it really matter when something was made so long as it was made well and with artistic integrity? Perhaps collectors are just as happy with a nice piece as an authentic one, if only no one ever tells them the difference.

Jaded antiques dealer Norio Koike (Kiichi Nakai) prides himself on having a good eye, forced to learn to spot the inauthentic in record time after having his reputation trashed when he accidentally sold a “fake”, making the rookie mistake of taking provenance at face value without assessing all the facts. These days he’s not as precious as he used to be, mostly making his living out of buying up genuine antiques from clueless owners, convincing them their pieces are fakes and therefore worthless before selling them on at tremendous profit. It’s a trick he pulls on a wealthy man with a warehouse full of teacups that belonged to his father he’d rather get rid of so he can open a cafe, spotting an obvious fake and buying it cheap to take it straight back to where he knows it came from. Koike gets his comeuppance however when the man calls him back and says he’s found something interesting – an Edo-era letter in a box. Koike lies and says the letter is a random missive about a peasant revolt, when really it’s from grandmaster Rikyu and mentions coming with a tea bowl which Koike manages to find after searching the warehouse again.

After buying the entire stock to mask his desire for the tea bowl and letter, Koike realises he’s been had. The man he was talking to isn’t the owner of the warehouse but a caretaker, and the warehouse only exists to store fakes produced by a team of master forgers operating out of a nearby ramen joint. Noda (Kuranosuke Sasaki), who managed to scam Koike, was like him professionally embarrassed and by the same two corrupt elitists, Tadayasu Hiwatashi (Kogan Ashiya) and his celebrity authenticator Seiichiro Tanahashi (Masaomi Kondo), who picked him up as an aspiring ceramicist, giving him a fancy award but secretly using him to produce “replicas” to sell in their store. 20 years later, Noda is a cynical and jaded figure, unable to connect with his “nerdy” son (Tomoya Maeno) who spends his time building fantastically realistic military dioramas, and increasingly distanced from his patient wife who deeply resents the loss of his artistic integrity.

After a brief locking of horns, the two men decide to team up to scam the scammers, teach them a lesson, get a little ironic revenge, and become filthy rich in the process. Creating expert fakes, however, is a taxing business which requires an extreme depth of knowledge and in this case of a well known and hugely respected historical figure. Sen no Rikyu, the father of the tea ceremony, was, ironically enough, ordered to commit seppuku after speaking truth to power and, because he was an honourable man, he did it.

The reason most fakes fail is because they’re soulless replicas, often expertly crafted but essentially superficial. Creating a convincing fake allows Noda to regain the creative mojo that he’s been suppressing all these years in resentment towards Hiwatashi and Tanahashi, determined to craft something that reflects the spirit of Rikyu by virtue of the fact that it contains a piece of his own soul. Of course, the guys fully intend to exploit their own “artistic integrity”, Koike turning on the salesman’s patter to sell the dream of Rikyu to two soulless elitists too wrapped up in their sense of self-importance and blinded by greed to see things properly. Yet, there is a perverse love not only for the grift but for the craft and for Japan’s disappearing traditional culture, if only in the ironic rebuke of those who misuse it for their own gain. Bonded in revenge not only against the the venal Hiwatashi and Tanahashi but middle-age and and life itself, the guys generate an unlikely friendship, rediscovering their authentic selves through forgery as they scam the scammers and retake their sense of integrity in the form of a briefcase stuffed with cash.


International trailer (English subtitles)

My Teacher (先生!、、、好きになってもいいですか?, Takahiro Miki, 2017)

My Teacher posterJapanese cinema is having a mini moment of shojo crisis in its awkward obsession with student/teacher romance. While similarly themed age-gap “romances” such as After the Rain might have been better able to navigate the difficult seas of misplaced adolescent affection, Narratage and latterly My Teacher (先生!、、、好きになってもいいですか?, Sensei! …Suki ni Natte mo ii Desuka?), seem to have gone in a less palatable direction in accidentally implying that our squeamishness with these obviously inappropriate attachments might not be justified. The latest from romantic melodrama veteran Takahiro Miki, My Teacher is a perfect exemplification of the inherent problems with shojo romance and, in this case somewhat ironically, its inability to process the implications of a necessarily romantically naive perspective.

Our heroine, Hibiki Shimada (Suzu Hirose), is a shy, awkward teenager with a hopeless crush on her handsome, if somewhat aloof, history teacher, Mr. Ito (Toma Ikuta). Unlike her classmates, Hibiki has been slow to a romantic awakening and confused by her friends’ various and rapidly changing crushes. Nevertheless, like her best friend Chigusa (Aoi Morikawa), Hibiki has begun to develop feelings for a teacher – Ito whose gruff exterior hides a considerate heart. Mistaking his general kindness for an extension of personal affection, Hibiki has fallen in love and even whilst knowing that there is something not quite acceptable about her feelings decides to pursue her inappropriate crush in the manner only a naive schoolgirl can.

Ito, as expected, turns down Hibiki’s confession with weary resignation. A kind man who seems to limit his interactions with other humans in order to avoid becoming over involved, he is aware of the delicacy of the situation but also of its dangers as regards his own standing as an educator and responsible adult. He wants to protect his student, emotionally and physically, but is at a loss as to how to handle his dilemma without causing her further distress. Consequently, he fails to definitively shut down a tricky set of circumstances in good time, allowing to Hibiki to bamboozle him into an awkward bargain in which she asks him if her crush will be “OK” if she manages to score over 90% on the upcoming test. Surprised, Ito laughs and reminds her of her woeful results in the previous midterms. Understanding that she’s been turned down, Hibiki nevertheless regards Ito’s awkward laughter as a flicker of possibility and continues on in hope.

Had My Teacher continued in the same vein, with Mr. Ito valiantly attempting to guide Hibiki towards a healthier romantic consciousness while remaining mindful of the tenderness of her feelings and the delicacy of the situation as a whole, it might have entered more interesting and less problematic thematic territory. Unfortunately, it remains firmly rooted in shojo romance in which the heroine’s innocent desires must be recognised and so Mr. Ito’s nobility eventually crumbles as he begins to fall for the “earnest”, “awkward” schoolgirl and forgets his “position as a teacher”, finally giving in to “temptation” even if he then agrees that the responsibility for his transgression must rest entirely with him. Ito attempts to remove himself from the situation in recognition of the harm he may be causing, but the film won’t let him because it needs a resolution that is “romantic” rather than “realistic”.

“Realism” rears its head when the inappropriate relationship between the pair is eventually uncovered and Ito hauled before a staff committee to explain himself but the school’s understandable decision that he must be summarily fired for gross misconduct is undercut by its presentation as an act of unavoidable tragedy that fails to make a distinction between “genuine feeling” and “abuse of position”, conveniently forgetting that in these kinds of cases that is not a distinction that it is useful to make. Chigusa, trying to encourage her friend in her great romance, affirms that there is no one in the world it is not OK to love, which might have some truth in it seeing as love itself is rarely wrong, but there are instances where acting on that love would be and a teacher/student relationship is definitely one of them especially where the student is still a minor.

Indeed, the kids resent the fact that everyone treats them as children but they are, as a similarly exasperated teacher tries to explain to them, not yet adults as exemplified by their consistently self-centred perspectives which prevent them from realising the difficult position in which their decision to air their inappropriate feelings places those whom they claim to love. This dawning realisation is heralded as the pathway to adulthood in finally coming to an acceptance of the individual’s place within a community bound by ethical rules and the responsibility one has towards the feelings of others most particularly when they conflict with one’s own. It is however undercut by the irresponsible decision to push the innocent romance to its “natural” conclusion even if it has the decency to wait until after graduation until it does so. Ethically questionable as it is, Miki’s obvious talents are not in question and his beautifully composed emotionally moving aesthetics are out in force but only serve to emphasise the uncomfortably naive sensibilities of the source material.


International trailer (English subtitles)

River’s Edge (リバーズ・エッジ, Isao Yukisada, 2018)

River's Edge poster 2The ‘90s were a strange time to be a teenager, but then what age isn’t? Isao Yukisada, surprisingly making his first manga adaptation, brings Kyoko Okazaki’s cult hit River’s Edge (リバーズ・エッジ) to the big screen, recreating those days of nihilistic despair in which ordinary teens spiralled out of control in the wake the bubble bursting, watching all their possibilities disappear in a cloud of smoke. Set in 1994, River’s Edge is a post-bubble story but it also takes place in the period immediately before everything started to go wrong. In 1995 there was a devastating earthquake followed by terror in Tokyo and somehow it all seemed so dark – something the kids at the centre of River’s Edge already seem to see as they watch time flow, knowing all that awaits them is yet more emptiness.

Haruna (Fumi Nikaido), a spirited tomboy and latchkey kid living with her busy single-mother, is in a lazy relationship with violent popular boy Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi) though in truth she doesn’t seem to like him very much. One of her major problems with Kannonzaki is that he keeps picking on one particular guy, Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa), who is rumoured to be gay. Warned by one of Kannonzaki’s minions, Haruna races off to an abandoned storeroom where she finds Yamada trussed up and naked hidden inside a locker. The pair become friends and he offers to show her his “special treasure” which turns out to be a dead body hidden among the reeds near the edge of the river. Yamada, with another friend, Kozue (Sumire) – a model with an eating disorder, likes to come to the river to gaze at the body in an effort to feel alive.

The ‘90s were full of tales of cruel, emotionless youth torturing itself without mercy and there is something of the era’s insensitivity in the detachment of the central trio. Unable to feel alive, the teens of River’s Edge chase sensation and oblivion through indiscriminate sex, drugs, violence, and self harm but rarely find the kind of fulfilment they so desperately crave. Kannonzaki, the rowdy delinquent, blames his broken home for his lack of connection, making a fierce resentment of a perceived rejection his excuse for his dangerously violent proclivities which run not only to venting his rage on the figure of the gay outsider Yamada but also to drug fuelled rough sex with one of Haruna’s classmates, Rumi (Shiori Doi), who is also chasing agency through sexuality but eventually finds herself cornered in the most terrible of ways.

Yamada is indeed gay, but can hardly say so in the environment in which he lives and so has turned in on himself with a near sociopathic detachment. Having given up on the idea of romantic fulfilment he has resigned himself to loving the object of his affection from afar, happy enough that he exists in the world even if he can never declare himself let alone dare to hope his feelings may be returned. Yamada works as a rent boy in the evenings, going to hotels with middle-aged men for money, but has a fake girlfriend at school, Kanna (Aoi Morikawa), whom he uses as a beard. Kanna, seemingly sweet and oblivious, soon becomes jealous of her boyfriend’s friendship with Haruna and is driven into her own kind of despair by Yamada’s continued coldness.

There’s an especial irony in Yamada’s use of Kanna which is almost certainly not lost on him. These kids, like many before them, abhor the fakery of the adult world but are also unable to embrace their own painful truths. Yamada covers up his sexuality through misleading Kanna, while Kannonzaki is resentful towards his parents who put on a front of marital harmony even after his father ran off with his mistress only to come back a week later with his tail between his legs, and Kozue laments the superficiality of her industry in which everyone falls over themselves to declare something ugly beautiful in order to make themselves feel better. There are no responsible adults here, having ruined the future for their kids they no longer have any kind of moral authority that can offer guidance or support to a jaded generation.

Shooting in the classic 4:3 of a ‘90s TV, Yukisada recreates the narrowness of an era in which the kids struggle to see past themselves, blinkered by their own solipsistic perspective and trapped by the shallowness of their perceptions. Permanently dark, gloomy, and lonely their world is one nihilistic despair in which they feel themselves already dead, living in the half-dug grave of a moribund city giving off its last few puffs of toxic industrial smoke before the whole thing collapses in on itself. In one sense nothing changes, there are no answers or cures for adolescent malaise, but something does eventually seem to shift in the genuine connection formed between two detached outsiders standing on the brink, watching the decay of their era flow past them with melancholy resignation.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Schoolgirl Complex (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Yuichi Onuma, 2013)

Schoolgirl Complex is a popular photo book featuring the work of Yuki Aoyama and does indeed focus on that most most Japanese of fixations – the school girl and her iconic uniform. Aoyama’s book presents itself as taking the POV of a teenage boy, gazing longly from a position of total innocence at the unattainable female figures who, in the book, are entirely faceless. Given a more concrete narrative, this filmic adaptation (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Schoolgirl Complex Housoubu-hen) directed by Yuichi Onuma takes a slightly different tack in dispensing with high school boys altogether for a tale of self discovery and sexual confusion set in an all girls school in which almost everyone has a crush on someone, but sadly finds only adolescent suffering as so eloquently described by Osamu Dazai whose Schoolgirl informs much of the narrative.

About to become head of the broadcast club when the school leavers depart after the culture festival, Manami (Aoi Morikawa) has developed a fascination for Chiyuki (Mugi Kadowaki) whose mysterious figure she finds herself watching from hidden places even though they’ve never met. She is therefore both delighted and alarmed when Chiyuki suddenly joins her broadcast club but becomes flustered enough to tell her she doesn’t need to bother coming to any of the meetings if she doesn’t feel like it – much to the consternation of the other members. Neglecting her best friend Ai (Maaya Kondo), Manami grows closer to Chiyuki whose avoidance of a previous best friend and out of school troubles including a no good older boyfriend are all causes for concern when it comes to her growing feelings. Chiyuki, blowing hot and cold, continues to cause trouble both for herself and everyone else as she finds herself conflicted over who she is and what she really wants.

As in Dazai’s book, there’s a lot of hiding, waiting, watching and suffering at the heart of Schoolgirl Complex. Slightly unusually the school environment does seem to be a strangely progressive one in which same sex attraction is more or less normalised despite the shyness and confusion manifesting among the girls. Love is declared loudly and dramatically in the school corridors with no seeming consequences save perhaps embarrassment and heartbreak for the unlucky girl who finds herself rejected. There are a set of four girls with apparent crushes on each other, returned or otherwise, and there is no further mention of boys or dating outside of Chiyuki’s boyfriend who turns up to steal her away by car but also demands she bring him money. Aside from the general adolescent diffidence, there does not seem to be additional anxiety or personal angst around the idea of same sex love save for Chiyuki’s lament that she can’t make proper friends because everyone turns out to be a lesbian and wants more out the relationship than she can give them.

Rather than the teenage boy POV adopted by the photo book, Onuma’s camera is perhaps intended to capture that of Manami as she finds herself experiencing complicated feelings towards her classmate. Accordingly the camera lingers sensuously over sun beaten, sweaty flesh, and long legs under short skirts as Onuma explores Manami’s burgeoning desires but cannot avoid the tendency towards fetishisation which the title implies.

To its credit, Schoolgirl Complex is not the film which one might presuppose it to be. It’s no schoolgirls gone wild exploitation fest or a shy boy’s yearning for female contact, but its melancholy message that adolescence is difficult for everyone is a somewhat flat one even given its obvious triteness. During the climactic performance at the cultural festival a huge and very public declaration is made but gathers absolutely no reaction save an “I knew it!” from the control booth. Rejections all round seem to reinforce female bonding as the girls continue on in friendship with Dazai’s words that this will all seem funny when they’ve grown up ringing in their ears. The tone of total acceptance is a warm and refreshing one but perhaps a little unrealistic in its uncomplicated approach to a complicated area of personal development. Nevertheless, though Schoolgirl Complex’s attempt to redefine itself as a painful story of youth rings hollow its sympathetic treatment of its suffering teenage romantics is worthy of applause.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)