The Promised Land (楽園, Takahisa Zeze, 2019)

Small-town Japan is no Promised Land in Takahisa Zeze’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by mystery writer Shuichi Yoshida. Japanese cinema has often had an ambivalent relationship with the rapidly depopulating countryside, split between a sickly furusato idealisation of rural life as somehow purer than its urban counterpart and lampooning city slickers tired of that same sense of urban ennui but discovering that the traditional way of life is often hard especially when you don’t know how to do it and have no friends in communities which can often seem hostile to newcomers. 

What newcomers to the small town at the centre of The Promised Land (楽園, Rakuen) discover is latent racism, mutual suspicion, and toxic local politics which bends towards the feudal as those now old go to great lengths to cling on to their power. Hardly a rural idyll but a space of atavistic decay. The rot begins 12 years prior to the main action when a little girl, Aika, doesn’t come home for tea after playing with a friend. A search of the local area is organised, but only her little red school bag is found. 12 years later the other girl, Tsugumi (Hana Sugisaki), is consumed by a sense of survivor’s guilt feeling as if she is underserving of happiness in the knowledge that if she had only taken a different path that day Aika might not have disappeared. When another girl goes missing, suspicion falls on a wounded young man, Takeshi (Go Ayano), who speaks little and is intensely traumatised by his childhood experiences of xenophobic bullying having come to Japan with his non-Japanese mother (Asuka Kurosawa) at seven years old. 

Bystanders in the crowd preparing a search for the second missing girl are quick to blame the other, one loudly casting suspicion on “Africans” living nearby while another brings up a man who sells second-hand cars she feels is a little odd. Takeshi gets the blame because he exists to the side of the community but also because he is meek and vulnerable, unable to defend himself until pushed into a corner and provoked into an explosive act of self-destructive violence. “Suicide brings redemption” Aika’s grief crazed grandfather (Akira Emoto) shrieks as if urging a young man on towards his death based on nothing other than prejudice and bloodlust. Later he admits that he just wanted someone to blame as if that would bring an end to the matter but of course it didn’t, it only added to the burden. 

Meanwhile, middle-aged beekeeper Zenjiro (Koichi Sato) who returned to the village to look after his parents following the death of his wife (Shizuka Ishibashi) from leukaemia also finds himself under suspicion but mostly as part of a concerted harassment campaign conducted by two local elderly men who have appointed themselves village elders and resent his attempt to go directly to city hall in order to fund a new business venture without going through them. Zenjiro is originally from the village, this is his hometown, but he was also away a long time and is in a sense other as a new returnee at first courted as a potential suitor for the similarly returned widowed daughter of the local bigwig, Hisako (Reiko Kataoka), and then aggressively shunned to the point he begins to lose his mind leading to another shocking act of irrepressible violence. 

“No one trusts anyone” Tsugumi laments, angrily tearing away an annoying sign asking residents to report any “suspicious behaviour”. She insists they need to face the past in order to move on, something Zenjiro was ultimately in capable of doing, but later claims that she doesn’t need to know what happened to Aika, she’s going to live her own life. The path leads towards an acceptance that she wasn’t responsible for what happened to her friend and has no need to live her life in the shadow of guilt, yet she still falls victim to small-town attitudes more or less bullied into a romantic friendship with a distinctly creepy young man (Nijiro Murakami) who admits to slashing her bike tires so she’d be more likely to accept a lift from him. 

According to Takeshi, there’s no such thing as the “promised land”, a sentiment also expressed by Hisako who agrees that all places are the same save your hometown something which Takeshi seemingly never had. Tsugumi’s problematic suitor tells her she ought to create the promised land for all of them, which might be as close as the film comes to a mission statement in suggesting that the individual has agency to craft the world in which they live while subtly undercutting it in the melancholy stories of Takeshi and Zenjiro each hounded towards acts of self-inflicted violence by an intransigent community mired in a primitive us and them mentality. Far from paradise, small-town Japan is a land of fear and suspicion where outsiders are unwelcome and the old hold sway, complaining that their kids all end up in the city while secretly perhaps satisfied in the knowledge their authority will not be challenged. If there is a promised land, you won’t find it here. 


The Promised Land streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2019 “The Promised Land” Film Partners

Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation (血を吸う粘土~派生, Soichi Umezawa, 2019)

Kakame returns! Having been encased in concrete at the end of the previous film, it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually break free to feed on the frustrated dreams of insecure artists everywhere. Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation (血を吸う粘土~派生, Chi wo Su Nendo: Hasei) picks up shortly after the first film left off, but this time around the insecurities are less artistic than they are familial and social as those affected by the curse of Kakame find themselves wrestling with a sense of responsibility they must face alone to ensure that his bloody vengeance is contained lest he wreak more havoc on the wider world. 

After a short flashback, Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) sends the surviving student home and insists on going to the police alone but is involved in a car accident. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the new heroine, Karin (Itsuki Fujii), the daughter of Fushimi (Kanji Tsuda) who fell victim to Kakame at the end of the previous film. His body has now been found in the art school and so the police contact Karin, who is his only living relative seeing as Karin’s mother committed suicide shortly after the marriage broke down, to identity him despite the fact they had been estranged for the last 12 years. The problem is that Karin didn’t want anything to do with her dad and so she is a bit lax dealing with his bones which still contain traces of Kakame. Meanwhile, as an aspiring artist herself, she enrols in a dodgy art project run by sleazy artist Kida (Shinji Kasahara) who makes a point of recruiting six young women in their 20s because he apparently wants to know what the women of Japan today are thinking, instructing them to unbalance the unbalanceable by disrupting the harmony of the hexagonal form. 

The strange apianism of the hexagonal theme is never developed further save a rerun of the events from the first film with the minor difference that is already “unbalanced” in the additional presence of Kida’s troubled assistant and the fact that he is the only male. Nevertheless, difficulties quickly arise among the girls and not least between Karin and her adoptive sister, also an artist though insecure in her abilities. Once again these tiny cracks between people are enough to let the murderous clay in, targeting first the melancholy assistant demeaned by her dismissive boss who refuses to let her participate in the project because the other girls are all students where as she is an aspiring ceramicist. Meanwhile, another suspect is provided in a young woman strangely fascinated with the bones of dead animals while Karin realises she is still in possession of one of her father’s lost in a tussle with her sister. It’s bone then, rather than blood, which condemns her but still she finds herself paying for her father’s sin in receiving a visit from Kakame as he makes swift work of the innocent artists. 

The sculptor’s curse refuses to die, the other Kakame apparently fusing with a worm and creating ructions underground which threaten to destabilise the world at large. As Aina had in the first film, venal artist Kida ponders using the clay for his own ends, ironically desiring to turn it into art, perhaps making good on the sculptor’s unfulfilled desires but also exposing his own less worthy goals of becoming rich and famous which is perhaps one reason why he’s busily exploiting six pretty young women rather than getting on with his work. Aina eventually reconsidered, but then finds herself facing a similar dilemma, targeted by the police who obviously don’t buy her story about demonically possessed clay turning murderous, while wondering if it might not be better to just dump the remaining powder in the river and be done with it. Maintaining his focus on practical effects, Umezawa shifts focus slightly heading into a different register of body horror as the strange clay worms work their way into the bones of our heroes before Kakame makes himself whole, but otherwise pulls back from large scale effects often switching to blackout and soundscape as in the opening car crash. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a tale of shared responsibility as two women of different generations refuse to let the other carry the burden alone though neither of them is in any way responsible for the curse of Kakame save for the darker emotions which helped to birth him of which we all are guilty. 


Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Vampire Clay (血を吸う粘土, Soichi Umezawa, 2017)

The artist consumed by their art is a potent motif, creation and destruction two sides of the same coin, but there’s rarely been a painter attacked by the canvas quite as literally as the sculptors of Vampire Clay (血を吸う粘土, Chi wo Su Nendo) are depleted by their material. The first feature from practical effects specialist Soichi Umezawa is refreshingly unpretentious, unabashed schlock designed to showcase Umezawa’s obvious skill in stop motion and prosthetics but it does perhaps have a point to make in the legacy of embittered artistry and frustrated dreams of those whose art is never recognised. 

Middle-aged sculptress Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) flees the duplicitous Tokyo art scene after being betrayed in love by her no good husband who also runs a studio specialising in training students to gain admission into one of Japan’s many exclusive art schools. In fact, Umezawa somewhat strangely opens with a title card revealing the comparatively small percentage of pupils each school accepts in contrast to the large number of applications, neatly setting up the desperation and sense of inadequacy that plagues most of our heroes, Aina included. Retreating to the country she sets up shop in a small shed which is later ravaged by an earthquake, leading to her discovery of a buried tin filled with mysterious clay and other artistic accoutrements left behind, she assumes, by the previous occupant. The trouble starts when errant student Kaori (Kyoka Takeda), who had been studying at a workshop in Tokyo, returns earlier than expected much to the chagrin of rival Reina (Ena Fujita) and discovers a new pupil has borrowed her clay. Predictably, she decides to use some from the mysterious bag, reviving the evil with water and discovering that somehow this magic substance seems to have upped her game. 

Umezama continues to flag the urban rural divide, the students beginning turn against Aina believing that it’s her time in Tokyo which has given Kaori a leg up, something that further wounds Aina in her sense of professional pride as she channels her rage and frustration into moulding her pupils into top candidates as a means of besting her ex. The sculptors knead their frustrated desires into the clay, it feeds on their misery and disappointment. This particular clay, however, is more cursed than most in that it is apparently infected by some kind of toxic disease which plagued the previous owner, symptomatic of the degree to which his art, or more pointedly the refusal of others to recognise it, destroys him. 

Aside from that there are a host of interpersonal problems between the students and their teacher. As the only male sculptor points out, they are both classmates and enemies as they are forced to compete against each other for the prize of recognition in the form of admission to an art school. Meanwhile, he is also the subject of a love triangle, refusing a homemade bento from an admirer in favour of one from another, this essential act of emotional betrayal later providing an in route for the murderous clay. 

Nevertheless, Umezawa is not so interested in the implications of the interpersonal drama as its potential for bloody action. The clay works its way into the bones of the sculptor, consuming and possessing them in a series of pleasingly retro, Cronenbergian practical effects. “I don’t want to lose my individuality to convention” Reina had snapped back in insisting that this small rural school suits her fine despite having just been given a dressing down for the “conventionality” of her final assignment. The clay, perhaps, attempts to rob them of their individuality, turning them into a mindless plastic mass fuelled only by negative emotions, thirsty for blood and hellbent on destruction. Somewhat incomprehensibly, a failed sculptor turned restaurateur convinces the original owner of the clay that his creepy creations will sell like hot cakes to hospitality establishments in the city, allowing his final humanoid legacy to become a kind of Frankensein’s child carrying all his rage and resentment into the future but attacking, it seems, other marginalised artists rather than the hated Tokyo arts scene which is the real target of his ire. Aina, having for the moment neutralised the clay, considers unleashing it against her ex, bringing the grudge full circle in its own, ironic, way but also consumed by resentment and jealousy. The “toxic waste” of artistic disappointment refuses to die, burrowing its way underground even as the responsible attempt to bury it, lying in wait for the next tortured artist willing to sell their soul for illusory success.


US release trailer (English subtitles)

Flowers of Evil (惡の華, Noboru Iguchi, 2019)

Small-town ennui is something familiar to many who’ve found themselves feeling somewhat out of place in the place they’ve always been, but rebellions usually take less obvious forms than the nihilistic rejection of bourgeois respectability enacted by the conflicted hero at the centre of Noboru Iguchi’s Flowers of Evil (惡の華, Aku no Hana). Iguchi is best known as a director of made for export splatter exploitation, so it might come as a surprise to his fans to see him take on the admittedly dark but largely gore-fee adaptation of Shuzo Oshimi’s coming-of-age manga.

Takao (Kentaro Ito), a “regular” high school boy, likes to read “difficult” books such as the poetry collection by Charles Baudelaire from which the film takes its title. He feels himself somewhat above his surroundings, but superficially conforms to the ordinary world around him. Like many of his classmates, he’s developed an adolescent crush on the school’s prettiest girl, Nanako (Shiori Akita), but unlike his friends views her as his “muse”, a pure and untouchable figure of unspeakable desire. Nipping back to the classroom alone to retrieve a forgotten book, he spots Nanako’s gym bag lying on the floor and cannot resist opening it, burying his face in her clothes. Panicked after hearing someone nearby, he takes the bag home with him.

Everyone immediately knows that a “pervert” is responsible for the theft, they just don’t know who it is. Except for the class’ resident strange girl, Sawa (Tina Tamashiro), who apparently witnessed Takao’s descent into perversion in real time. She makes him a deal – write an essay all about what a big pervert he is and she’ll kept his secret in friendly complicity seeing as she is a kind of “pervert” too. Sawa, who is much more obviously “different” than Takao and completely unafraid of embracing it, is convinced that their town is entirely inhabited by “Shit Bugs”, and they are the only elevated beings. Uncomfortable with her own desire, Sawa’s behaviour becomes increasingly intense when Nanako unexpectedly expresses an interest in Takao, apparently impressed that he was so “upfront with his feelings” and willing to stand up for Sawa when she was accused of being a (but not the) thief.

Takao tells Sawa that he just wants to be “normal”, to be the kind of man Nanako could desire. Just another confused teenage boy, he doesn’t yet know who he is or what he feels and is, in a sense, consumed by the sense of emptiness that comes of lacking self-knowledge. He masks his sense of intellectual inferiority by feigning sophistication, spending his free time in second hand bookshops reading the accepted canon with a typically teenage obsession with death and despair. But as he is later forced to admit, he did so largely in order to feel superior. He doesn’t truly understand much of what he read and lacks the maturity to accept his confusion. Nanako challenges him in more ways than one – by calling him on his wilful repression of his desires, and by confronting him about his obsession with Flowers of Evil, a “difficult” book which try as she might she can’t understand. She doesn’t “get” Baudelaire, and she doesn’t “get” Takao because of it, but Takao doesn’t “get” Takao either because he thinks he’s a book filled with blank pages, that if you open the cover there’s really nothing interesting there, just a giant void of emptiness.

Three years after stealing the gym bag, Takao describes his new environment as infinitely grey as if devoid of any sense of life, whereas the climactic summer is coloured by a vibrant greenery he claims to be equally oppressive. Fed up with small-town life, both Takao and Sawa long for a mythical “beyond” on the other side of the mountains which trap them within the claustrophobic environment of their provincial existence. They kick back against small-town conservatism with childish shows of resistance which culminate in a very public act of self-harm dressed as societal attack, but remain unable and unwilling to address the real cause of their frustration in their adolescent inability to accept that desire itself is not “perverse” or somehow sullying some grand romantic notion of pure and innocent love.

Unable to process his desires, Takao remains unable to progress into adulthood and become, as Sawa later chides him, a “regular human”. Normality is, however, what he eventually chooses, reverting to the anxious bookworm he always was only having moved forward in learning to let something go, whereas Sawa perhaps feels that she has no other option that to accept her own “perversion” and be exiled by it. Takao discovers an internal “beyond” and tries to share it with Sawa, but she is looking for something else and cannot join him in the “regular” world to which he is always going to return. Iguchi dedicates the film to all those who are or were tormented by youth, allowing his tortured hero to find his path towards an integrated selfhood, but resists the temptation to belittle his suffering as he strips himself bare to exorcise the emptiness inside.


Flowers of Evil was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Jellyfish Eyes (めめめのくらげ, Takashi Murakami, 2013)

161244_01Jellyfish Eyes (めめめのくらげ, Mememe no Kurage) is the feature film debut of the internationally popular Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami. Well known for his cutesy character designs which are as likely to turn up in the world’s best regarded art galleries as they are on a kid’s backpack, Murakami is one of Japan’s most highly regarded art exports. Having unsuccessfully tried to raise interest in the more obvious totally CG animation, Murakami has enlisted the help of gore master Yoshihiro Nishimura for some director’s chair tips in creating a live action/CGI hybrid. Jellyfish Eyes is very definitely a kids’ movie, calling it a “family film” seems unfair when the age cut off is most likely around seven or eight years old but those who meet the (lack of) height requirement are sure to lap it up.

The story is set in post-tsunami Japan as Masashi (Takuto Sueoka) has finally moved out of the earthquake evacuation centre with his mother (Mayu Tsuruta) to live in a new town. As it will transpire, the two have moved there alone as Masashi’s father (Kanji Tsuda) has been killed in the tsunami and his mother has a brother (Takumi Saito) in the area. Not long after he moves in, the boy makes a new friend in the shape of a Jellyfish-like creature who floats in the air and loves eating the same kind of snacks as Mashashi. The creature, christened Kurage-bo (Jellyfish Boy), becomes a firm fixture in Masashi’s life and when he arrives at school Masashi realises Kurage-bo is not the only one of his kind. In this strange town all the kids have a weird little creature friend they can control by means of a smartphone app. Predictably some of the meaner boys use them to fight, but could there be a more sinister reason for the appearance of these very odd little guys? and what’s up with the bizarre religious cult that’s located right next to the creepy science lab? This is a very strange town indeed.

The film’s Japanese title, Mememe no Kurage, is a little reminiscent of the master work of the late Shigeru Mizuki, Gegege no Kitaro and like that perennially popular franchise the film focuses on the daily lives of children as they have strange adventures with supernatural creatures. The central premise is that a shady group of black clad scientific researchers (played by Masataka Kubota, Shota Sometani, Hidemasa Shiozawa, and Ami Ikenaga) claim to have found the key to surpassing natural disasters like earthquakes and it relies on the particles generated by the negative emotions of human children. Predictably it’s not long before things go from bad to worse and a giant kaiju-like creature descends on the town requiring the kids to work together to combat the marauding monster before it destroys the entire planet.

To be frank the film sounds a lot more entertaining that it turns out to be. Though undoubtedly very cute and not exactly uninteresting, it all ends up feeling, well, “superflat” only in an unintended way. The photography is generally basic though the CGI itself is of an extremely high quality and perfectly toned to match Murakami’s thematic concerns. Structurally it’s all over the place with the central ideas emphasised a little too strongly only to be thrown out of the window for the sugar rush finale of a million adorable monsters all fighting to the death for their cute as a button sad children masters. There’s quite a lot of darkness and melancholy lurking around the edges but the adorable little critters seem tailor-made for keeping the bad stuff in the background.

Like all good children’s movies the messages are the usual ones about the importance of friendship, sharing, teamwork and doing what’s right but it feels like Murakami has quite a lot of other things to say about reliance on forms of technology (and in particular what that can open the door to) and the state of post earthquake Japan that don’t quite come through. Having said that Jellyfish Eyes boasts some amazing visuals in its adorably cute cast of F.R.I.E.N.Ds and though a little messy is perfectly watchable. A festive treat for younger members of the family, Jellyfish Eyes is full of youthful idealism in the power of simple sincerity and genuine human feeling to win through against even the most terrifying of monsters but ultimately fails to offer much beyond its cutesy visuals.


Here’s a trailer – it says the creatures are invisible to adults but they aren’t (but some of them can make themselves transparent, if that makes sense).

A Snake of June ((六月の蛇, Shinya Tsukamoto, 2002)

Mr9TSdN - ImgurOne day, I will add some new content to this blog! Today is not that day. Nor is tomorrow, or the day after or the day after that (probably) but someday soon and for the rest of my life! Sorry, carried away there. Anyway, review of the newly restored HD blu-ray release of Shinya Tsukamoto’s masterpiece A Snake of June up at UK Anime Network. It’s very weird and I love it a lot.


Shinya Tsukamoto made his name with body horror infused, pulsing cult hits such as Tetsuo the Iron Man, Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet (all of which are also available in the UK on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window Films). He’s no stranger to the avant-garde, the surreal or the troubling but even then Snake of June takes things one step further than even his generally intense filmmaking would usually go. A literal “blue movie”, Snake of June is the story of one woman’s sexual awakening, her husband’s release from OCD and the final fulfilment of the couple’s relationship set against the backdrop of a cold and unfeeling city.

Rinko is an attractive, if slightly mousy, young woman who works a telephone counsellor at a Samaritans-like call centre. As for her homelife, she lives in an upscale Tokyo apartment with her salaryman husband Shigehiko. It’s unkind to say, but the couple are a total mismatch – Rinko, young and pretty even if a little shy, is obviously way out her slightly overweight, balding middleaged husband’s league. Though they seem to have a pleasant enough relationship, there’s no spark between them and they live more like friends or roommates than a married couple. Shigehiko also has an extreme love of cleaning and a touch of OCD that sees him more often caressing the bathtub rather than his wife.

All that changes however when Rinko receives a mysterious envelope full of voyeuristic photos of her masturbating and looking up erotic material on the internet. Soon enough, it turns out these are a “gift” from a troubled photographer, Iguchi, who had planned to commit suicide before talking to Rinko on the helpline. Now he wants to help her by encouraging her to embrace her sexuality and her deepest, darkest desires. Iguchi sets her several tasks to set her on her way such as buying sex toys and walking through town in revealing outfits in an attempt to make her more comfortable with her own sexuality. However, having watched Rinko blossom, Iguchi eventually turns his attention to her husband and events take a decided turn for the surreal.

Erotic – yes, in some senses of the word, but never exploitative. Shot in a melancholy blue designed to mimic the color of the falling rainwater that stains a rainy season June in Tokyo, A Snake of June is a neon inflected journey into urban isolation where the demands of city life drown out the inner fire of those who live in it. Shy and repressed Rinko makes her first foray into town wearing the ridiculously short skirt her blackmailer has “prescribed” for her nervously, clutching a long umbrella in front of her like a shield. Making the same journey sometime later Rinko walks with a swagger, almost dancingly flirtatious she owns herself – her former shield is now a sword. Her “awakening” has nothing to do with her husband or with Iguchi, it’s something she’s achieved for herself and by herself and has left her a happier and more complete person than she’s previously been allowed to be.

Her husband, Shigehiko, by contrast hasn’t quite come to terms with this new version of his wife and even when graphically confronted with it responds in an entirely passive, selfish way. Cracking Shigehiko’s shell will require a little more than gentle coaxing, manipulation and blackmail and thus begins the nightmarish second volume of the film which becomes increasingly bizarre from here on out. Strange drowning themed sex shows where a woman bangs a drum and you have to wear a funny cone on your face which only lets you view everything through a tiny circle like the iris of a an old silent movie? It’s certainly an unorthodox solution.

Like all of Tsukamoto’s work, A Snake of June is exquisitely shot with its blue tint only adding to its native beauty. This new blu-ray edition from Third Window Films remastered from the original negative and supervised by Tsukamoto himself is a pristine presentation of the film which reveals all the tiny details that were rendered invisible by previous transfers. Strange and surreal, A Snake of June is a richly multilayered film dripping with symbolism, not to mention urban melancholy, that has lost none of its power in the intervening years since its shocking debut.


Stuck on Tsukamoto? Here are some more reviews by me:

Also, look out for a review of his latest movie Fires on the Plain which is ready to go some time soon!