Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2019)

The thing about hotels is, people often go to them when they want to be someone else, so how can you be on the look out for suspicious behaviour when everyone is to some degree acting out of character? Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best known authors particularly praised for his elaborately plotted mysteries. In contrast to some of his famous detective novels, Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル) leans into his softer side, taking its cues from Agatha Christie in its ultimately cheerful exploration of the strange world of hotels while praising the detective acumen both of cynical policemen and eager to please hoteliers. 

The police are hot on the trail of a serial killer and, due to clues found at the previous crime scenes, have concluded the next killing will take place at the Hotel Cotesia Tokyo. To scout out the potential crime scene, the detectives have co-opted the hotel’s basement as an incident room and are preparing to go undercover to keep an eye on things upstairs. Dishevelled detective Nitta (Takuya Kimura) has been assigned to the front desk because of his English skills apparently honed while living abroad in his youth, and is to be paired with earnest hotelier Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) who will do her best to turn him into a first rate hotelman. 

As might be expected, Nitta and Naomi do not exactly hit it off. Gruff and given to giving everyone in 50m radius the hard stare, Nitta is a shaggy haired middle-aged man in creased suits and shiny shoes. The first thing Naomi makes him do is get a haircut which does wonders for his image, but also plays into the peculiar art of masquerade which defines hotel life. Nitta is in the habit of calling the guests “customers” which instantly irritates Naomi who has spent the entirety of her professional life learning to be deferent. She reminds him that in here the guests are in charge, they make the rules and therefore can never break them. Her job is to provide the best service, which means she often has to set her personal pride aside and allow the sometimes unpleasant clientele, the ones who like to come to posh hotels to throw their weight around and abuse the staff, to get away with being obtuse because that’s just part of her job. 

That’s a big ask from Nitta who is both a proud man and a justice loving policeman to whom the idea of letting people act badly is almost anathema. To do his job, however, he’ll have to learn to bear it or risk letting a potential serial killer slip through his fingers. What Naomi realises is that they’re more alike than they first seemed. Both of their jobs rely on an astute assessment of their targets, even if they come at it from opposite ends. Naomi knows that each of her guests is wearing a kind of mask, taking on a slightly different persona when they enter her hotel, but her job is to see past it without ever letting on. A good hotelier knows what the guest wants before they do and is always ready to provide it, that’s the nature of service. So Naomi trusts her guests and is careful not to judge them. Nitta, meanwhile, is a policeman so he’s trained to question everything and suspect everyone. His job is to unmask and confront his suspects with who they really are. 

They both, however got into this game essentially because they want to protect people even if she wants to protect them inside and he out. Which means of course that they can work together after all, learning a little something from each other along the way. Naomi, well versed in the liberties often taken by her guests, is nearly taken in by an obvious scam that only Nitta is quick enough to catch thanks to his cynical policeman’s logic. He’s also first to suspect that there’s something not quite right with a harmless little old lady, and though Naomi senses it too she’s minded to let it go and doubles down on being the perfect servant thanks to her animosity towards Nitta. That “not quite right”, however, proves to be a slight misreading of the guest who, like many Nitta encounters, is pretending to be something they’re not for reasons that prove perfectly understandable once revealed. 

But then, Higashino characteristically pulls the rug out from under us and asks if we haven’t been suckered in buying all those reasonable excuses. Thanks to his conversations with Naomi, Nitta begins to get a grip on the crime, while she struggles with her conscience after learning that her guests may be in much more danger than she thought. Staking all on justice, the pair of them vow to abandon their respective professions if a guest gets hurt, but fail to realise that the crime may hit far closer to home than they’d anticipated. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a strangely whimsical admiration for the weird world of hotels where no one is quite the same person they were before they walked through the revolving doors.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Eating Women (食べる女, Jiro Shono, 2018)

Eating Women poster 2“Comfort cinema” may be a slightly maligned genre, disregarded for its throwaway pleasures, but it can often be much more subversive than it’s given credit for. Jiro Shono’s adaptation of Tomomi Tsutsui’s novel Eating Women (食べる女, Taberu Onna), refusing to unambiguously reinforce contemporary social norms, it actively undercuts them as it pushes its lonely heroines towards more positive paths of self-fulfilment while remaining unafraid to embrace the sometimes taboo idea of female desire as something entirely normal.

The heroine, however, is someone who’s decided to live without it. Food writer and bookstore owner Atsuko (Kyoko Koizumi) lost the love of her life at 29 and has lived alone ever since. She does, however, have a very committed group of female friends who get together once a month to enjoy a tasty dinner she and her friend Mifuyu (Kyoka Suzuki), who runs the local restaurant, cook for them. Unlike Atsuko, Mifuyu is a sexually liberated older woman, complaining once again that both of her (young, male) apprentices have quit after she seduced them. Keiko (Erika Sawajiri), Atsuko’s editor, has hatched on a different solution in affirming that she has already achieved financial independence and has no real desire for male companionship, preferring to embrace her freedom to live as she chooses while Tamiko (Atsuko Maeda), an assistant TV producer and the youngest of the group, is facing the opposite dilemma – her boyfriend has proposed to her, but she’s unconvinced because he’s just too “nice” to make her heart beat faster.

Though at different points of their lives, the women are always there to support each other while permitting themselves the indulgence of fully enjoying beautifully cooked meals taken with good company. Meanwhile, across town, an American woman, Machi (Charlotte Kate Fox), seems to be content to play the role of a 50s housewife to a grumpy salaryman husband (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who barges in through the front door and roughly forces himself on her before retreating to the bedroom. The problem in their marriage is, apparently, that Machi can’t cook, providing mostly Western-style microwavable dinners which fail to excite her husband who tells her he’s been having an affair with someone who can make good food. Heartbroken, Machi runs into Mifuyu and eventually ends up living in one of Atsuko’s spare rooms where she slots right in with the other gourmet women as she begins to learn to cook under Mifuyu’s gentle guidance.

It is not, however, a pathway towards regaining her husband or “fixing” a perceived fault so that she can be a “proper” wife, but a way for Machi to rediscover life’s small pleasures along with a sense of independence, rejoicing in her own success as she enjoys a meal she cooked herself made with ingredients that she earned the money to pay for. Tamiko’s barfly friend Akari (Alice Hirose) begins to discover something similar on her own, repeatedly dumped by snooty salarymen boyfriends who objected to her preference for minced meat over whole steak. Akari had a habit of thinking of herself in terms of the meat – quick, cheap, and simple, but finally finds love with a gentlemanly colleague after she gains the confidence to share with him her real self by embracing her love of mince without embarrassment.

The only “misstep” is perhaps in Keiko’s tale in which her bid for solo independence is eventually negated by her loneliness, implying that in the end she did need male companionship after all. Indeed, only Atsuko who rejects sex in favour of vicarious maternity is allowed to live life alone, though conversely Mifuyu’s free spirited pursuit of younger men is never judged negatively nor is she encouraged to settle down even while she ironically advises Tamiko to do just that, and pointedly tells Keiko that she’s running out time to find anyone halfway decent. Yet all of that aside, the ladies are an accepting bunch, emphasising that love is love and refusing to judge others, making sure to offer support to all who need it. We’re never the same people as yesterday, Atsuko writes in her book, we just need to be ourselves. Above all, however, she seems to say you have to be kind to yourself, embracing life’s small pleasures such as the simple joy of well cooked food made with love, and the rest you can figure out later.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

To the Ends of the Earth (旅のおわり、世界のはじまり, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2019)

To the Ends of the Earth poster 2“It’s like a little journey you can take without going too far from home” a bubbly variety TV presenter announces partway through To the Ends of the Earth (旅のおわり、世界のはじまり, Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari), reporting from a rundown theme park the like of which she claims you hardly ever see in Japan anymore. It might as well encapsulate her life as the host of a TV travel programme directly aimed at people who prefer to take their pleasures vicariously. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s long career has been, in an odd sense, moving into the light. Where death was once eternal loneliness, he now tells us love is what will save us in the end, if only we overcome our fear of each other.

Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), a 20-something TV “reporter” for a variety show, is an intensely anxious young woman. In her postcards home to her firefighter boyfriend, she tells him that she feels “safe” now that they’ve arrived in a big, modern city, but, somewhat ironically, asks him to try and stay away from dangerous places. Currently shooting in Uzbekistan, she finds herself doubly isolated – both because she is a lone woman travelling with an all male crew, and because she is the star and therefore not included as a part of their team. Though they call her a “reporter”, it’s clear that the temperamental, insensitive director Yoshioka (Shota Sometani) does not value her editorial opinion and sees Yoko more or less as a kind of prop.

When we first meet her, Yoko is being forced to deliver a direct to camera speech from the middle of a “fake lake” which, as she explains, is more like a big puddle created by accident during a Soviet-era irrigation project that didn’t quite go to plan. During the course of the filming, we watch her effortlessly switch between the super “kawaii’ presenter who has to pretend the undercooked food she’s just been handed (that will probably make her ill) is the best meal she’s ever tasted, and the dejected young woman growing ever more resentful about her corrupted authenticity. Nervous and under-confident, she finds herself bullied by the demanding director, feeling as if she’s obliged to put up with whatever he asks her to do even if it compromises her safety.

Later, at the theme park, the owner of the ride Yoko is supposed to “enjoy” expresses concern, firstly claiming that it’s not suitable for women, and then apparently mistaking Yoko for a child. He doesn’t clarify if there’s actually a safety issue, that the ride is calibrated for a certain size and weight and might be dangerous for a slight woman as opposed to a beefy man, but in any case Yoko is made to ride it three times in quick succession. Akin to something they put astronauts and fighter pilots in to prepare them for coping with G-force fluctuation, it is not particularly fun but still Yoko is obliged to giggle like a giddy school girl every time before finally collapsing as if she’s about to go into nervous shock. A few moments later, however, she stands in front of the camera to give another cheerful speech about just how much fun she’s having.

Yet we also see her attempt to fight back against her sense of anxious powerlessness by actively asserting her independence. She leaves her hotel and takes a bus, a complicated affair when she doesn’t speak the language or understand where she’s going, visiting a local bazaar where she attracts not a little attention, some of the saleswomen even attempting to physically grab her in order to sell their wares. She feels the male gaze constantly upon her and though you’ll rarely find a woman who says that skirting round groups of men in darkened alleyways doesn’t make her nervous, there is something about the unfamiliarity of the environment which has Yoko on edge. Men peek in through the windows of the van where she changes costumes to make it look like they were in Uzbekistan longer than they were, and like the ride owner, a fisherman they’d enlisted to help them catch a giant fish grows progressively more irritated, claiming that the fish aren’t coming because they don’t like a woman’s smell.

Exploring the town, Yoko’s mind quietens only when she begins to hear music pouring out of a local opera house. She wanders inside and sits down, envisioning herself on stage performing Ai no Sanka, a Japanese rendering of Edith Piaf’s Hymne à l’amour, but her reverie is cruelly interrupted by a security guard who sends her anxiously reeling away. Another encounter with authority provokes a similar reaction when she’s stopped for filming in a prohibited area but instead of calmly presenting the camera, she panics and runs away. As a sympathetic detective later tells her, if you run from the police they have to chase you, it’s the law. The detective is a little offended. Why was she so afraid of Uzbek policemen? Did they seem excessively mean, what does she know about Uzbeks anyway? If only she’d tried to listen to what they were saying, all of this could have been avoided.

The detective, echoed through sympathetic translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov), avows that if we don’t talk then we’ll never understand each other. Temur became a translator after hearing about the Japanese prisoners of war who built the theatre in which Yoko heard the music, painstakingly crafting rooms dedicated to six areas of a country which had been their enemy. Moved by their generosity, he learned Japanese to give something back. Identifying herself with a captive goat she longed to free from constraint and isolation, Yoko gains confidence from his words. She confesses that she’s preparing to follow her dream of becoming a singer, but worries that she lacks the emotional authenticity required to make the song resonate. Through her cross-cultural adventure, brush with the law, and a personal crisis back home, Yoko begins to realise that the world isn’t such a scary place after all. Yoko sings the song of love, less for the uncommunicative boyfriend she unconvincingly claimed it was her hope to marry, than for herself and for the world, now as open as her heart in the limitless vistas of the Uzbek mountains.


To the Ends of the Earth was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ai no Sanka as performed by Hibari Misora

Almost a Miracle (町田くんの世界, Yuya Ishii, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

MNS_MAIN_B1_0311_ol“Being nice to everyone means hurting someone” the wounded heroine tries to explain to the perpetually confused hero of Yuya Ishii’s Almost a Miracle (町田くんの世界, Machida-kun no Sekai). After adapting a book of poetry and topping the Kinema Junpo list with the melancholy romance of urban ennui The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, Ishii returns to the lighter fare which inspired his earliest work with a whimsical adaptation of the manga by Yuki Ando in which a goodly young man begins to realise that sometimes being nice to everyone can create additional complications.

The titular Machida (Kanata Hosoda) is one of those people who seem to be exclusively composed of goodness. He truly believes that each and every person in the world is precious and loves them equally, so when he sees someone, anyone, who seems unhappy or in need of help he comes running (literally). Everything begins to change for him, however, when he injures himself during an art lesson and is sent to the infirmary where he meets sullen delinquent Inohara (Nagisa Sekimizu) who bandages his hand in the absence of the nurse. Entirely unused to people doing nice things for him, Machida is struck by this unexpected act of kindness and resolves to make a friend of Inohara who seems lonely and claims to hate people – something Machida is incapable of understanding.

Indeed, nicknamed “Christ” by some of his more cynical classmates, Machida sees only the world’s beauty and just wants people to be happy. He assumes that’s the way everyone else feels too and so it doesn’t really occur to him that some people are just mean. Even when he meets someone acting badly he has a knack for spotting the unhappiness that lies behind it and the desire to help them heal. Thus he alone sees the accidental self-loathing and pathological need for acceptance that have led pretty boy model and popular kid Himuro (Takanori Iwata) to become a self-centred jerk who thinks sincerity is for babies and that “taking things seriously only makes everything harder”. He may have a sort of point in that it’s much easier to keep pretending nothing, especially other people’s feelings, is very important but it’s Machida alone who is perspicacious enough to remark on how sad it is that all of his “friends” have forgotten something he told them just a few minutes ago and instructs him that he needs to be kinder to himself rather than hanging out with vacuous people who don’t care about him at all just for the kudos of superficial acceptance. 

In fact, much of Machida’s laidback superpower is geared towards getting people to be more comfortable in themselves so that they can in turn accept others. Ironically, that’s mostly because he hasn’t yet quite accepted himself and thinks he’s the worst human of them all which is part of the reason he’s so nice to everyone as a means of repaying the kindnesses he’s been shown in the past.

Where Machida sees only the world’s beauty, cynical failed writer Yoshitaka (Sosuke Ikematsu) sees only its ugliness. His lofty literary ambitions having fallen by the wayside, Yoshitaka has become a tabloid hack and occasional paparazzo whose wife is beginning to lose faith in him as he sinks deeper into the morass of scandal rag “journalism”. Yoshitaka justifies his actions with the rationale that the world is rotten, filled with “evil” and home to only self-interested people who revel in the suffering of others. Several random encounters with Machida, however, force him to revise his opinion – if someone that good and that pure really exists then what does it say about the rest of us?

Then again, Machida’s guileless goodness can often make him accidentally insensitive as he tries to balance one person’s expectation of happiness against another’s. Thus he gets himself mixed up in an odd kind of love triangle with Himuro’s old girlfriend Sakura (Mitsuki Takahata) and the lovelorn Inohara who is becoming increasingly exasperated by Machida’s mixed signals, unable to figure out if he’s just being “kind” or actually might like her. Unfortunately, Machida doesn’t quite know himself as, ironically seeing as he’s so keen on emotional honesty in others, he is remarkably out of touch with his own feelings. In any case, his desire for “sincerity” in all things sees him steer clear of saying something which isn’t true to make someone happy even if he finds himself unable to express the truth plainly when it really counts.

Machida’s superpower, however, blows through the world like a gentle breeze spreading goodness wherever it goes. Proving it really does come back around, all the people that he’s helped eventually come running to help him so he can achieve his romantic destiny on the most romantic of days. A whimsical celebration of the infectious power of unguarded goodness, Almost a Miracle is a beautifully pitched counter to nihilistic cynicism in which kindness becomes a kind of superpower, saving the world one lost balloon at a time.


Almost a Miracle was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dynamite Graffiti (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Masanori Tominaga, 2018)

Dynamite Graffiti posterThe division between “art” and “porn” is as fuzzy as the modesty fog which still occasionally finds itself masking “obscene” images in Japanese cinema, but for accidental king of the skin rag trade Akira Suei it’s question he finds himself increasingly unwilling to answer even while he employs it to his own benefit. Back in the heady pre-internet days of the 1980s, Suei was the public face behind a series of magazines along differing themes but which all included “artistic” images of underdressed women in provocative poses alongside more “serious” content provided by such esteemed figures as Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki in addition to stories and essays penned by “legitimate” authors and the more scurrilous fare written by Suei himself. Inspired by one of Suei’s essays “Dynamite Graffiti” (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Sutekina Dynamite Scandal), Masanori Tominaga’s ramshackle biopic has the informal feel of a man telling his sad life story to a less than attentive bar girl as he takes us on a long, strange walk through the back alleys of ‘70s Japan.

The entirety of Suei’s (Tasuku Emoto) life is lived in the wake of a bizarre childhood incident in which his mother (Machiko Ono), suffering with TB and trapped in an unhappy marriage to a violent drunk, chose to commit double suicide with the young man from next door. Perhaps there’s nothing so strange about that in the straightened Japan of 1955, but Suei’s mother chose to end her life in the most explosive of ways – with dynamite stolen from the local mine. Carrying the legacy of abandonment as well as mild embarrassment as to the means of his mother’s dramatic exit, Suei finds himself a perpetual outsider drifting along without the need to feel bound by conventional social moralities as symbolised by the “ideal” family.

What he longs for, by contrast is freedom and independence. Bored by country life he dreamt of moving to the city to work in a factory, but the problem with factories is that they’re mechanical and turn their employees into mere tools with no possibility of personal expression or fulfilment. Spotting an advert for courses in “graphic design”, Suei’s world begins to open up as he embraces the bold new possibilities of art even as it wilfully intersects with commerce.

Taken with the new philosophy of design as the message, a means of “exposing” oneself and ultimately enabling true human connection, Suei remains frustrated by the limitations of his role as a draughtsman for local advertisers and, inspired by a friend’s beautiful poster, finds himself entering the relatively freer creative world of the “cabaret” scene as a crafter of signboards and flyers. The cabaret bars are little better than the factories, exploiting the labour of women who themselves are the product, but Suei’s distaste is soon worn down by constant exposure. From the clubs and cabarets it’s only a natural step towards erotic artwork, nudie photographs, and finally a vast magazine empire of “literary” pornography.

Suei’s accounts of his youth are filled with a lot of high talk about the possibilities of art, of his desire to remove the masks which keep us divided so that we might all know “true” human love. Whether his adventures in adult magazines can be said to do that is very much up for debate. They are, as he freely admits, expressions of male fantasy – exposing a perhaps unwelcome truth about the relationships between men and women even as they continue to exploit them. Yet Suei’s own desire to find something more than a potential for titillation in his work continues to dwindle as he finds himself engaged in increasingly complicated schemes to avoid censure from the police while simultaneously insisting that his magazines are both “artistic” and not.

His insistence that the photographs are “artistic” becomes his primary weapon in getting sometimes vulnerable young women to agree to take their clothes off. Abandoning his loftier aspirations, Suei sinks still further into the smutty morass whilst still maintaining the pretension that his magazines are not like the others. He neglects his wife (Atsuko Maeda) to chase fleeting affections with unsuitable or unstable women, one of whom eventually descends into a mental breakdown which provokes in him only the realisation that his desire for her was a romantic fantasy which her illness has now dissipated. Art is an explosion, Suei claims, but his mother was the explosive force in his life, blowing him off course and leaving him too wounded to embrace the reality he so desperately claims to crave but continues to reject in favour of the same kind of male fantasies his magazines peddle.

Everyone around Suei seems to be damaged. Nary a face in the red light district is without a bandage or bruise of some sort. These are people who’ve found themselves at the bottom of the ladder and are desperately trying to scrap their way up. Times change and Suei’s empire implodes. Porn is swapped for pachinko as the exploitable pleasure of choice paving the way for yet another reinvention which sees him throw on a kimono to rebrand himself as his own mother and self-styled pachinko expert. You couldn’t make it up. Still, perhaps there is something more honest in Suei’s pachinko persona than it might first appear even if his present “art” is unlikely to enlighten us to the true nature of love.


Dynamite Graffiti is screening as the opening night movie of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

initiation loveMost romantic comedies don’t come with warnings about twist endings and a plea not to give them way, but Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ) is not your average romantic comedy. Set in the early bubble era, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s double sided feature is itself a wry look at the problematic nature of nostalgia. Harking back to a perhaps more innocent era in which lack of political and economic turmoil left plenty of time for romantic confusion coupled with the corruption of the consumerist dream, Initiation Love pits innocent romance against cynical success but subtly suggests that grown up love is a kind of compromise in itself.

Side A: In the summer of 1987, Yuki Suzuki (Kanro Morita) – a geeky, overweight young man who is shy but has a kind heart, is unexpectedly invited to a college drinking party where he earns some major white knight points for interrupting the increasingly inappropriate grilling of new invitee Mayuko (Atsuko Maeda). Mayuko is pretty, sweet, and cute if in a slightly affected way. She is way out of Suzuki’s league, but later confesses that she’s looking for someone a bit different, like Suzuki, an awkward-type who won’t lie to her or play around. Bonding over a shared love of reading, the pair grow closer, Mayuko rechristens Suzuki “Takkun”, and he vows to spruce himself up to become “worthy” of her.

Side B: Takkun (Shota Matsuda), now slim and handsome, is given a surprise promotion to Tokyo. Rather than suggest marriage or that Mayuko come with him, he settles on long distance and promises to come back to Shizuoka at weekends while waiting to be approved for a transfer back home. In Tokyo, however, Takkun’s personality begins to shift. Seduced by city sophistication and the promises of an elite salaryman lifestyle, Takkun draws closer to upper-class career woman Miyako (Fumino Kimura) whose jaded straightforward confidence he regards as “grown up” in contrast to the innocent charms of Mayuko waiting patiently at home.

The overarching narrative is provided to us via a melancholy voice over and accompanied, in the manner of a classic mix-tape, by a song from the era which is deliberately on the nose in terms of its aptness – a song about giving up on summer just as the couple are stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the beach and about to have a gigantic row, or a song about lucky chances coming up on TV just as our hero is plucking up the courage to allow himself to be bamboozled into going on a date with the girl of his dreams. The carefully placed positioning of the songs reminds us that we are inside someone’s carefully curated memories. Just as Takkun’s vision of Mayu-chan is one surrounded by flowers and light, the early days of romance are a condensed and romanticised version of real events seen entirely from one perspective and coloured with the gradual fading of time. Nostalgia is an unreliable narrator, recasting real life as Hollywood fiction.

The warm and fuzzy glow of Side A is undercut by the subtly questionable actions of Mayuko and our own prejudices about why she might be with a guy like Takkun. Self-consciously cute, Mayuko makes needling suggestions – dress better, get contacts, learn to drive, which, objectively speaking, might all help Takkun to gain some much needed confidence if only he were not doing all of them solely because he fears losing a woman like Mayuko. If Mayuko wanted a guy she could remake and boss around, she might have come to the right place but she does, at least, also try to insist that she likes Takkun anyway and so any changes he makes to himself will make no difference to her.

Side B, by contrast, turns the dynamic on its head as Takkun’s Tokyo persona becomes increasingly violent, resentful, and cruel while Mayuko seems genuine, innocent, and hurt by the increasing distance between herself and the man she loves. Seduced by city sophistications, Takkun leans ever closer to dumping the innocent country bumpkin, a love he has now outgrown, for a leg up into the middle-classes by marrying the elegant daughter of a wealthy Tokyo businessman. He is, however, torn – between the nostalgic glow of first love’s innocence, and the realities of adult life, the certain past and the uncertain future.

This is the philosophy ascribed by Miyako (apparently given to her by her own first love) that the first failed romance is a crucial part of growing up, an “Initiation Love” that breaks your heart by revealing the idea of true love as a romantic fallacy, allowing you move into the adult world with a degree of emotional clarity. A sound idea, but also sad and cruel in its own way. The final twist, offered as a cynical punchline, can’t help but feel cheap, carrying mildly misogynistic undertones dressed up as a kind of joke aimed at cowardly men who are incapable making clear choices and refuse to see their romantic partners as real people rather than the self created images of them they maintain. Takkun remains torn, between past and future, town and country, old love and new but nostalgia is always a trap – a false impression of a true emotion that impedes forward motion with a promise of a return to something which can never be delivered.


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

Screening again:

  • QUAD – 10 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 2 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 9 March 2018

Playlist: Side A

Yureru Manazashi (Kei Ogura)

Kimi wa 1000% (1986 Omega Tribe)

Yes-No (Of Course)

Lucky Chance wo Mo Ichido (C-C-B)

Ai no Memory (Shigeru Matsuzaki)

Kimi Dake ni (Shonentai)

Side B:

Momen no Handkerchief (Hiromi Ota)

Dance (Shogo Hamada)

Natsu wo Akiramete (Naoko Ken)

Kokoro no Iro (Masatoshi Nakamura)

Ruby no Yubiwa (Akira Teruo)

Show Me (Yukari Morikawa)

 

Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2017)

©2017 BEFORE WE VANISH FILM PARTNERS

before we vanish posterKiyoshi Kurosawa is getting sentimental in his old age. In Journey to the Shore and Real, brokenhearted, left behind spouses went on long and difficult journeys of grief and salvation. In Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha) we receive a visitation that presages our doom but wishes to know us before we go. An alien invasion movie which takes its cues from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and They Live, Kurosawa’s quirky drama is less about the enemy within than the hidden existential threat of a failure to understand oneself. As the Japanese title suggests, these invaders are merely out for a stroll, making time to smell the flowers before the big lawnmower arrives to cut them all down.

Strange events are afoot in Tokyo. A high school girl wanders home with a pair of goldfish in a plastic bag before brutally murdering her entire family, gazing at the scene of carnage with a beatific smile. Meanwhile, the estranged wife of Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda), Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), has been sent for to claim her presumably amnesiac husband from a medical facility. Shinji was brought in after wandering the streets cluelessly and seems to have lost certain sections of his memory. The doctor’s diagnosis is uncertain but leans towards some kind of temporary psychotic break or early onset Alzheimer’s. In any case, he is now Narumi’s responsibility, much to her consternation. Across town a down on his luck journalist (Hiroki Hasegawa) covering the brutal family murder finds himself the designated “guide” to another strange young man, Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), who seems to have done something very untoward to his parents.

These three “strangers” are really invaders from outer space – something which they freely confess to anyone who will listen, only everyone assumes they are joking. Exactly why they want to destroy the Earth is never revealed, nor is the the reason for the strange mission undertaken by the three researchers acting as the vanguard for the upcoming invasion. These three have been tasked with a thorough investigation of “humanity” in which they must learn and acquire certain “concepts”. They do this by requiring the subject to visualise their thinking behind a word or phrase and then tapping the head to pinch it causing that concept to be removed from the person’s interior cosmology.

The aliens learn as much from the effect of removing the concept as they do from its explanation. This being Japan, it’s not surprising that the first concept Shinji removes is that of “family” which he takes from Narumi’s younger sister, Asumi (Atsuko Maeda). Asumi had decamped to Narumi’s after an argument with her parents over their railroading her into a mainstream life she doesn’t really want. The removal of the concept of family means Asumi no longer needs to be bound by hollow obligation but her sudden coldness towards her sister immediately invites a series of other questions as to the true nature of their relationship. Similarly, Shinji removes a concept of “possession” from a young man. The young man does not immediately lose understanding of the word, but the concept ceases to be important to him. He is, in a sense, freed from the burden of materialism. Paying an unexpected visit to Narumi’s workplace and meeting her boss who, it seems, has just belittled her work on an important project after she rebuffed his attempt at sexual harassment, Shinji removes his concept of “work” leading him to play aeroplanes all around the office like an overexcited child.

There are positive effects of losing some of these centrally held ideas even if their loss seems tragic or painful on the surface. They are, however, what make us human whether that be attachment to family or an irrational desire to devote all to work and ceaseless acquisition. The final, most elusive concept is that of love – something alien and fascinating to the visitors which they find impossible to harvest due its essentially nebulous nature. Despite being part of a uniform hive mind, the invaders have each developed unique personality traits as a consequence of their “human” lives – the schoolgirl craves violence and destruction, Amano fatherly friendship, and Shinji something close to love with his own “guide” in the form of Narumi whose love for her husband apparently endured despite his betrayal.

Far from the gloomy nihilism of Pulse in which death is eternal loneliness, Before We Vanish suggests that what will survive of us is love. Salvation does, however, require a sacrifice which provokes the film’s romantic conclusion in which the absence of love becomes the “eternal loneliness” promised by Pulse but is tempered by patience and devotion. A gleefully absurdist exploration of the human soul, Before We Vanish finds Kurosawa at his most optimistic affirming the power of the human spirit at its most indestructible.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2017)

mukoku posterThe way of the sword is fraught with contradictions. Like many martial arts, kendo is not primarily intended for practical usage but for self improvement, emotional centring, and fostering a big hearted love of country designed to ensure lasting peace between men. Nevertheless, it tends to attract people who struggle with just those issues, hoping to find the peace within themselves though mastery of the sword. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s long and varied career has often focussed on outsiders dealing with extreme emotions and Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU) is no different in this regard as the two men at its centre lock swords at cross purposes, each fighting something or someone else within themselves rather than the flesh and blood opponent standing before them.

Kengo Yatabe’s (Go Ayano) life has been defined by the sword. As a young boy his father, Shozo (Kaoru Kobayashi), began training Kengo intensively but his standards were high, too high for a small boy who only wanted to please his dad but found himself beaten with the weapon he was failing to master. Twenty years later Kengo is a broken man after a long deferred violent confrontation between father and son has left Shozo in a vegetative state, neither dead nor alive, no longer a figure of fear and hate but of guilt and ambivalence. Kengo has given up kendo partly out of guilt but also as a kind of rebellion mixed with self harm and is currently working as a security guard. He spends his days lost in an alcoholic fog, trailing an equally drunken casual girlfriend (Atsuko Maeda) behind him.

Meanwhile, high school boy Toru (Nijiro Murakami) is a classic angry young man working out his frustrations through a hip-hop infused punk band for which he writes the angst ridden poetry that serves as their lyrics. Toru has no interest in something as stuffy as Kendo but when he’s set upon by a bunch of Kendo jocks he decides he’s not going down without a fight. Winning through underhanded street punk moves would normally be frowned upon but the ageing monk who runs the high school kendo club, Mitsumura (Akira Emoto), is struck by his nifty footwork and decides to convince the troubled young man that the path to spiritual enlightenment lies in mastery over the self through mastery of the sword.

The wise old monk pits the self-destructive older man against the scrappy young one, hoping to bring them both to some kind of peaceful equilibrium, with near tragic results. Kengo’s ongoing troubles are born of a terrible sense of guilt, but also from intense self-loathing in refusing to accept that he’s become the man he hated, as broken and embittered as the father who made him that way. Shozo was a kendo master, but as the monk points out, in technique only – his heart was forever unquiet and he never achieved the the true peace necessary to master his art. Knowing this to be the truth only made it worse yet Shozo also knew the burden he’d placed on his son. They say every man must kill his father, but Kengo can’t let the ghost of his go – clinging on to a mix of filial piety and resentful loathing which is slowly turning him into everything he hates.

Toru’s problem’s are pushed into the background but seeing as his enemy is not the flesh and blood threat of an overbearing father but the elements and more particularly water, it will be much harder to overcome. Water becomes a constant symbol for each man – for Toru it’s an inescapable symbol of death and powerlessness, but for Kengo it represents happiness and harmony in rediscovering the good memories he has of his father from joyful family outings to less abusive summer training sessions. Mukoku is the story of three ages of man – the scrappy rebellious teen, the struggling middle-aged man, and the elderly veteran whose own heart is settled enough to see the battles others are waging. The “warrior’s song” as “mukoku” seems to mean changes with each passing season, nudged into tune by the graceful art of kendo.

Kumakiri embraces his expressionist impulses as a young boy finds himself suddenly underwater, vomiting mud and fish while Kengo has constant visions of his father, mother, and younger self ensuring the past is forever present. The ominous score and strange occurrences including ghostly graveyard old women who appear from nowhere in order to offer a lecture on the five buddhist sins lend a more urgent quality to Kengo’s disintegration, though interesting subplots involving a possibly alcoholic girlfriend and a mamasan (Jun Fubuki) at a local bar who might have been Shozo’s mistress are left underdeveloped. Two men face each other to face themselves, trying to beat their demons into submission with wooden swords, but even if the battle is far from over the tide has turned and something at least has begun to shift.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

The Mohican Comes Home (モヒカン故郷に帰る, Shuichi Okita, 2016)

mohican-comes-homeJapan may be famous for its family dramas, but there is a significant substrain of these warm and gentle comedies which sees a prodigal child return to their childhood home either to rediscover some lost aspect of themselves or realise that they no longer belong in the place which raised them. Shuichi Okita’s The Mohican Comes Home (モヒカン故郷に帰る, Mohican Kokyo ni Kaeru) includes an obvious reference in its title to Keisuke Kinoshita’s colourful 1954 escapade Carmen Comes Home which cast legendary actress Hideko Takamine somewhat against type as a ditsy airhead show girl eager to show off all her city sophistications to the rural backwater she abruptly ran out of some years before. Like Carmen, the hero of Mohican Comes Home makes an unexpected trip to visit his family in the picturesque Hiroshima island village where he grew up only to find not very much has changed but an equally unexpected tragedy prompts him into a wider consideration of his past and future as he faces life’s two extremes in the very same moment.

Eikichi (Ryuhei Matsuda) left his island home some years ago for the bright lights of Tokyo where he fronts a punk band by the name of Grim Reapers. The band has some moderate underground success, but the guys are getting old for the punk scene and finding themselves with real world responsibilities from healthcare costs to the prospects of supporting wives and children. Eikichi, sporting a prominent bleached mohawk, feels this more than most as he’s soon to become a father and is intending to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Yuka (Atsuko Maeda), if only he had the money. He’s been promising to take his future wife to meet his parents for some time but so far they’ve never actually made the trip.

This time, things are different and so Eikichi makes a shocking return after seven years only to wander in during an awkward scene as his mother and younger brother try to manoeuvre his drunken father into a more convenient position whilst protecting his precious white suit from alcohol born ruin. Eikichi’s family own the village liquor store but his father’s passion is for music and he also coaches the local middle school band. A devotee of legendary Hiroshima born superstar Eikichi Yazawa, Osamu (Akira Emoto) insists the kids play his favourite tune ad nauseam to much eye rolling from the youngsters forced to associate themselves with such an uncool and old fashioned song.

Eikichi’s homecoming has not got off to the best start, especially after his father begins to sober up and recommends a hair cut and real job, both of which Eikichi resolutely refuses. Things take a more serious turn when Osamu realises his son is being financially supported by his girlfriend whom he has also got pregnant but is not yet married to. Experiencing extreme moral outrage at his responsibility shirking son, Osamu chases him around the table in what appears to be a scene often repeated during Eikichi’s childhood but the situation soon ends in an unexpected way foreshadowing Osamu’s decline into ill health.

Deciding to stay a little longer than intended, Eikichi and Yuka blend into the family home trying to help mother Haruko (Masako Motai) and boomerang younger brother Koji (Yudai Chiba) adjust while Osamu is in the hospital. The contrast between town and country, traditional and modern is never far from view whether in Yuka’s kindhearted decision to finish off preparing the family dinner though she has to consult a youtube video to find out how to gut fish, or in her astonishment at the very ordinary way in which her future in-laws met (i.e. simple propinquity). While the women begin to bond over their shared concern for their men as Haruko decides to teach Yuka some home style tips and tricks, Eikichi and his father spar with each other warmly as Eikichi takes charge of a band rehearsal and allows them to let loose on the much hated song with an energised punk fuelled twist.

Despite a strained relationship with his father, Eikichi is a good person who also wants to offer some kind of comfort to the old man in his final days. Going to great lengths to track down a particular pizza Osamu suddenly requests (the last time he ate pizza was on his 60th birthday) or eventually pretending to be Yazawa himself whom Osamu is very proud to have made eye contact with during a Tokyo concert in 1977, Eikichi comes to a kind of understanding of the man his father was as well as the man he is. Full of warm, naturalistic humour giving way to two elaborately constructed set pieces, The Mohican Comes Home is a typically well observed family drama from Okita which neatly undercuts its essentially melancholy set up with a layer of stoical perseverance.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Suicide Song (伝染歌, Masato Harada, 2007)

Suicide Song US Tokyo Shock DVD Cover
US Tokyo Shock DVD cover

There comes a time in every director’s life when fate leads them down the strangely tempting path of the idol movie. In recent years, sweet and innocent is no longer quite enough to cut it and when your film stars a bunch of kids from AKB48, you’re going to need 48x the kawaii factor so even though the DVD cover is suitably macabre and The Suicide Song (伝染歌, Densen Uta) is marketed as a J-Horror movie, there’s quite a lot more singing and dancing than might be reasonably expected.

In true idol star horror movie fashion, the film begins with some cutesy high school scenes before one student, Kana (Atsuko Maeda), starts in on her teacher who basically wants to skip a whole bit of the text book because it’s not on the exam. The potentially irrelevant teaching matter concerns famous Japanese playwright Chikamatsu whose big thing was, you guessed it, double suicides. Shortly after this, Kana is heard singing a weird song and then cuts her own throat with a kitchen knife right in front of her friend and classmate, Anzu (Yuko Oshima). It seems there has been a spate of these spontaneous suicides of teenage girls which occur after singing this particular song so skeevy newspaper guys Macasa, led by occult obsessed Riku (Ryuhei Matsuda ) and his ex-military buddy Taichi (Yusuke Iseya), decide to do some “investigative journalism”. Anzu and some of the other kids wind up helping out too, eventually coming under threat of that very same curse….

The idea of a “suicide song” isn’t a new one. Gloomy Sunday – a 1930s Hungarian folk song which achieved widespread acclaim thanks to an English language cover version recorded by Billie Holiday in 1941 became an urban legend after numerous suicides were linked to the doleful track and its extremely bleak lyrics. This time around, it’s AKB48’s inoffensive Boku no Hana which apparently drives anyone who tries to sing it to their deaths. Like Gloomy Sunday, the song features extremely nihilistic lyrics which echo the existential confusion and romantic disillusionment that many of its young listeners are undoubtedly experiencing. A perfectly rational explanation for why so many young women might be taking their lives with this particular song on their lips, yet Suicide Song is not particularly interested in exploring the various real world pressures which might push high school students towards death when their lives ought to be just beginning.

It’s not long before the curse makes the leap to supposedly solid adult males. Later, one character tries to weaken the importance of the song by suggesting that it just opened a door for the suppressed feelings that were already there. That each of the victims already wanted to die and and simply allowed themselves to make use of this real world meme to give themselves permission to end it all. This is an interesting idea in some ways, though comes close to victim blaming and conveniently lets the central characters off the hook for failing to save their friends who have already fallen for what is either a curse or mass hysteria. In any case, like most Japanese horror movies and mysteries, the real villain is a circle of buried secrets. The traumatic past must be faced, brought out into the light and then given a proper burial to end the ongoing chaos.

Harada is playing a very strange game. He adds in generic J-horrorisms such as odd jump cuts, stuttering, power outages and possessed video footage as well as a good deal of shadiness in the form of the low rent newspaper guys and the investigation turning up something as dark as a teenage gang competing to see how many kids they can get to kill themselves using the song as a marker. Yet, he generally keeps things cute and light just like your average teen idol romance movie. We’re even treated to a very special AKB48 performance at their club in Akihabara (“Japan’s Most Sophisticated Show” !) where they sing Aitakatta for a room full of devoted middle aged guys who are their biggest fans. There are also frequent cinematic quotations from such Hollywood classics as Vertigo and The Lady From Shanghai (not to mention a completely shoehorned in paintball sequence using Ride of the Valkyries a la Apocalypse Now) which seem to hint at some kind of greater plan, but whatever it is never quite materialises.

Whatever Harada’s intentions may have been, Suicide Song is a strange beast which veers widely in tone from wacky comedy to supposed horror film. In actuality there are very few real scares despite the J-horror aesthetic and the comedy never amps itself up to the level of parody. If the intention was to create some kind of weird, subversive genre hybrid, the punches have been well and truly pulled. Watched as a horror movie Suicide Song is prone to disappoint, though its moments of absurd comedy and cute schoolgirl drama prove enjoyable enough for those able to adjust their expectations on the turn of a dime.


The Suicide Song is available with English subtitles on R1 US DVD from Tokyo Shock.

English subtitled trailer (aspect ratio is slightly stretched):