Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (春子超常現象研究所, Lisa Takeba, 2015)

haruko's paranormal laboratory posterIn the brave new Netflix era, perhaps it’s not unusual to hear someone exclaim that their most significant relationship is with their television, but most people do not mean it as literally as Haruko, the heroine of the self titled Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (春子超常現象研究所, Haruko Chojogensho Kenkyujo). Lisa Takeba returns with her second film which proves to be just as strange and quirky as the first and all the better for it. Haruko’s world is a surreal one in which a TV coming to life is perfectly natural, as is the widespread plague of “artistic” behaviour which involves robbing the local 100 yen store for loose change and randomly setting fire to things. Yet Haruko’s problems are the normal ones at heart – namely, loneliness and disconnection. Takeba’s setting may be a strange fever dream filled with fiendishly clever, zany humour but the fear and anxiety are all too real.

As a teenager, Haruko (Moeka Nozaki) was something of a loner. Being the daughter of a teacher and having a strong interest in UFOs and other supernatural entities, she had few friends and longed for something “exciting” to happen. Sadly, something quite exciting did happen, but it involved a suicide and her brother apparently being abducted by aliens. Ten or fifteen years later, Haruko still maintains her “Paranormal Laboratory” and intense interest in aliens with a view to maybe finding out what happened to her brother, but her external life is less satisfying. Her main hobby is lying around watching her 1950s black and white CRT TV and swearing loudly at the ridiculous images it projects. Her TV, however, has finally had enough and upon hearing 1000 dirty words from Haruko, springs into life as a handsome young man with telebox for a head.

An usual genesis for a relationship, but then when you spend all of your spare time googling paranormal events and harping on your teenage failures, beggars can’t be choosers. Haruko’s growing relationship with TV (Aoi Nakamura) follows the classic amnesiac mould as the two begin living together and eventually become an odd kind of couple. TV’s central operating system is pulled together from what he’s observed over the airwaves which means he has a slightly less realistic view point than your average guy. Though originally content to fall into the stereotypically “female” role, staying home cooking meals and tidying up while Haruko goes to work, he soon becomes depressed out of boredom and loneliness before eventually being made to feel inadequate when someone refers to him as a “freeloader”. Like many a spouse whose decision to stay home has not been entirely their own, TV has a lot of skills including the ability to speak 12 languages fluently, but what finally gets him a job as a TV star (yes, a TV on TV!), is his sex appeal and exotic appearance.

TV also thinks he can remember his “family” which lends a bittersweet dimension to his relationship with Haruko as she helps him look for the wife and child that might be waiting for him. Haruko’s relationship with her own family is strained. Complaining that her family are “annoying” she leaves her well meaning father standing on the doorstep when he’s come out of his way to deliver some of her favourite cup cakes which he’s baked for her himself. Haruko’s mother has since passed on but her feeling of familial disconnection stems right back into her childhood and one strange UFO hunting night during which she discovered something about her brother which may explain his long term absence. This potentially rich seam is merely background to Haruko’s life (something which she later realises as she figures out that her brother may have been watching over her in disguise all these years), but that her brother has felt the need to hide himself away following a traumatic childhood incident is certainly a sad mirror for Haruko’s own ongoing psychological isolation.

Takeba piles jokes on top of jokes in this strange world where ‘50s “Videodrome” TVs with Yubari Film Festival tags still work and play adverts in which cheap whiskey “for the needy” is advanced as a good father’s day present, and an idol retires from the top band KKK48 live on air. Freak shows, extreme cosplay, marital disconnect, “artistic” robbery and arson, and a very dedicated NHK man, pepper the scene but the outcome is a young woman stepping away from her romantic fantasies towards something more real, realising she doesn’t really need to meet aliens so much as she needs to pay more attention to the “normal” world. Quirky to the max and riffing off just about every aspect of Japanese pop culture from Sailor Moon to J-horror, Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory is a charming, if surreal, take on an early life crisis which must be seen to be believed.


Currently available to stream in the UK from Filmdoo.

Original teaser trailer (dialogue free)

Twilight: Saya in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2014)

Japanese cinema has its fare share of ghosts. From Ugetsu to Ringu, scorned women have emerged from wells and creepy, fog hidden mansions bearing grudges since time immemorial but departed spirits have generally had very little positive to offer in their post-mortal lives. Twilight: Saga in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや,  Twilight Sasara Saya) is an oddity in more ways than one – firstly in its recently deceased narrator’s comic approach to his sad life story, and secondly in its partial rejection of the tearjerking melodrama usually common to its genre.

Unsuccessful Rakugo performer Yutaro (Yo Oizumi) met the love of his life during one of his sparsely attended recitations. Saya (Yui Aragaki) was the only one laughing but even she didn’t think he was very funny, she just liked him because he was trying so hard. Eventually, he married her and they had a lovely baby boy but before little Yusuke was even a year old, Yutaro got himself killed in a random traffic accident. Such is life. Still, knowing that Saya had no family of her own and having grown up without a father himself Yutaro feels even worse about leaving his wife and son all alone in such a stupid way. Therefore he decides to delay going to heaven so that he can stick around to help Saya in whatever way he can.

A crisis occurs when Yutaro’s estranged father (Ryo Ishibashi) suddenly turns up at the funeral laying claim to little Yusuke with no thought to the additional emotional ramifications of trying to snatch a baby from a grieving mother right over the coffin of her husband. Possessing the body of another guest, Yutaro manages to convince Saya to run leading her to retreat to her late aunt’s house in the peaceful rural village of Sasara.

Though the premise is a familiar one, Fukagawa neatly sidesteps the more maudlin aspects for a broadly comic approach in which Yutaro recounts the story of his death as if it were a rakugo tale. Possessing various people along the way, Yutaro does indeed help Saya adjust to her new life but eventually discovers that perhaps the reason he hasn’t passed over was one of the past rather than one of the future.

Saya’s arrival in Sasara gets off to a bad start – essentially forced out of the city to escape Yutaro’s father Saya causes unexpected trouble when it emerges that the corrupt local estate agent has been letting out her aunt’s house without telling her. If that weren’t enough, some of her valuables are almost stolen by a local delivery boy but, this being an ageing village, children are a rarity and so little Yusuke quickly captures the hearts of the neighbourhood grannies who eventually become Saya’s friends and staunch supporters. Familial problems are the name of the day from childlessness to children (hopefully) writing down possible signs of dementia or just leaving town and not coming back. Yutaro also helps Saya improve the life of another young woman with a son who doesn’t speak by allowing him to finally voice what he really feels, adding to the circle of female help and support which becomes the family Saya had always longed for.

Orphaned at a young age, raised by her grandmother until she died and having lost her only living relative in her aunt a few years previously, Saya had always wondered what it felt like to have a real family of her own. Yutaro had also lost his mother at a young age through illness and was estranged from his father who refused to visit her even on her deathbed. Yutaro’s untimely death adds to Saya’s ongoing sorrows but also ends the beginnings of the happy family they’d begun to build with each other. As it turns out, Yotaro’s limbo is less about his son and more about his father as he gets a last opportunity to bond with his outwardly harsh and cruel dad and come to a kind of understanding about fatherhood in hearing his side of the story. Life is too short for grudges, and even spirits sometimes need to give up the ghost so that the air can rest a little lighter.

Though there are the expected moments of sadness as Yotaro realises the number of people he can possess is dwindling and his time with Saya will be limited, Fukagawa keeps things light and whimsical with a kind of small town quirkiness aided by Oizumi’s spirited delivery. Adding in frequent rakugo references complete with painted backdrops and sound effects as well as a repeated motif which sees the little town remade as a diorama model, Twilight: Saya in Sarasa has a pleasantly old fashioned feeling which only adds to its wholesome emphasis on an extended family of community coupled with the continuing presence of Yutaro watching from somewhere on high. Warm and funny if a little lacking in impact, Twilight: Saya in Sasara is a rare instance of a ghost bringing people together in love and harmony through helping them get closer to their true emotions but one that is also keen to emphasise that we’re all only here for an unspecified time – better not to waste it with silly things like grudges.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Library Wars: The Last Mission (図書館戦争-THE LAST MISSION-, Shinsuke Sato, 2015)

library-wars-last-missionWhen Library Wars, the original live action adaptation of Hiro Arikawa’s light novel series, hit cinema screens back in 2013 it did so with a degree of commercial, rather than critical, success. Though critics were quick to point out the great gaping plot holes in the franchise’s world building and a slight imbalance in its split romantic comedy/sci-fi political thriller genre mix, the film was in many ways a finely crafted mainstream blockbuster supported by committed performances from its cast and impressive cinematography from its creative team. Library Wars: The Last Mission (図書館戦争-THE LAST MISSION-, Toshokan Senso -The Last Mission-) is the sequel that those who enjoyed the first film have been waiting for given the very obvious plot developments left unresolved at the previous instalment’s conclusion.

18 months later, Kasahara (Nana Eikura) is a fully fledged member of the Library Defence Force, but still hasn’t found the courage to confess her love to her long term crush and embittered commanding officer, Dojo (Junichi Okada). As in the first film, The Media Betterment Force maintains a strict censorship system intended to prevent “harmful” literature reaching “vulnerable” people through burning all suspect books before they can cause any damage. Luckily, the libraries system is there to rescue books before they meet such an unfortunate fate and operates the LDF to defend the right to read, by force if necessary.

Kasahara is an idealist, fully committed to the defence of literature. It is, therefore, a surprise when she is accused of being an accomplice to a spate of book burning within the library in which books criticising the libraries system are destroyed. Needless to say, Kasahara has been framed as part of a villainous plan orchestrated by fellow LDF officer Tezuka’s (Sota Fukushi) rogue older brother, Satoshi (Tori Matsuzaka). There is a conspiracy at foot, but it’s not quite the one everyone had assumed it to be.

In comparison with the first film, The Last Mission is much more action orientated with military matters taking up the vast majority of the run time. A large scale battle in which the LDF is tasked with guarding an extremely important book containing their own charter (i.e. a symbol of everything they stand for) but quickly discovers the Media Betterment Force is not going to pass up this opportunity to humiliate their rival, forms the action packed centrepiece of the film.

The theme this time round leans less towards combating censorship in itself, but stops to ask whether it’s worth continuing to fight even if you feel little progress is being made. The traitorous officer who helps to frame Kasahara does so because he’s disillusioned with the LDF and its constant water treading. The LDF is doing what it can, but it’s fighting to protect books – not change the system. This is a weakness Satoshi Tezuka is often able to exploit as the constant warfare and tit for tat exchanges have begun to wear heavy on many LDF officers who are half way to giving up and switching sides. Even a zealot like Kasahara is thrown into a moment of existential despair when prodded by Satoshi’s convincing arguments about her own obsolescence.

Satoshi rails against a world filled with evil words, but as the head of the LDF points out in quoting Heinrich Heine, the society that burns books will one day burn men. The LDF may not be able to break the system, but in providing access to information it can spread enlightenment and create a thirst for knowledge among the young which will one day produce the kind of social change that will lead to a better, fairer world.

As in Library Wars all of these ideas are background rather than the focus of the film which is, in essence, the ongoing non-romance between Kasahara and Dojo. Remaining firmly within the innocent shojo realm, the romantic resolution may seem overly subtle to some given the extended build up over both films but is ultimately satisfying in its cuteness. Library Wars: The Last Mission masks its absurd premise with a degree of silliness, always entirely self aware, but gets away with it through sincerity and good humour. Shinsuke Sato once again proves himself among the best directors of mainstream blockbusters in Japan improving on some of the faults of the first film whilst bringing the franchise to a suitably just conclusion.


Original trailer (No subtitles)