Last of the Wolves (孤狼の血 LEVEL2, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2021)

“The Showa era’s over. We don’t use guns now, business is our battlefield.” a recently released foot soldier is told, finding himself in a whole new world emerging from a not so distant past of turf wars and street scuffles into a late bubble wonderland of besuited corporatised gangsters. Set in 1988, Kazuya Shiraishi’s Blood of Wolves had been about the twilight of post-war gangsterdom forever associated with an era that was literally about to pass. Set three years later in the twilight of the bubble economy and an already established Heisei, Last of the Wolves (孤狼の血 LEVEL2, Koro no chi: Level 2) finds no longer rookie cop Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) taking on the mantle of his late mentor Ogami, attempting to broker peace by getting uncomfortably close to yakuza. 

At the end of the previous film, Hioka had managed to engineer a truce between rival gangs Odani (with whom he is affiliated), and Irako through pushing top Odani guy Ichinose to take out boss Irako. Three years later, the peace has held and in any case Heisei yakuza no longer take violence to the streets. The release of crazed Irako foot soldier Uebayashi (Ryohei Suzuki), however, threatens to destabilise the local balance of power. Despite mournfully declaring that he doesn’t intend to wind up back in prison, Uebayashi’s first call on release is to the sister of one of his guards whom he rapes and kills in quite gruesome fashion. Hioka is put on the case and partnered with a genial veteran, Seshima (Yoshiko Miyazaki), weirdly excited about investigating a murder at this late stage of his career, but quickly realises that Uebayashi’s recklessness is primed to destroy everything he’s built. 

Having started out a straightlaced rookie, Hioka has fully incorporated the Ogami persona dressing in sharp suits and sunshades, driving a sports car, and hanging out with the Odani guys, while also using his girlfriend’s little brother Chinta (Nijiro Murakami) as a mole in rival gangs. As a cynical reporter points out, however, Ogami was essentially “undercover” in that he understood hobnobbing with yakuza was part of his job and something he did solely to keep civilians safe by preventing another street war. Hioka has started to lose his way, enjoying himself a little too much and already way out of his depth as the fragile peace he’d brokered by less than ethical means begins to crumble beneath his feet. 

Having been in prison, Uebayashi is unaware of the various ways in which the world has changed seeking to return to old school rules of gangsterdom, ironically lecturing his superiors on the absence of jingi (honour and humanity) in their new corporate existence. He’s a monster and a sadist, but his violence is also a result of the horrific abuse he suffered as a child which led to an equally heinous act of revenge while as a member of the ethnic Korean Zainichi community, like Chinta and his siblings, he continually faces discrimination and social oppression. His first act on release is of revenge against the guards who relentlessly tortured him in prison, the murdered woman’s brother confessing that they wrote him up as a model prisoner in the hope he’d be released early so they wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore.  

Yet what Hioka and Uebayashi have in common is that they’re both pawns in a game they were unaware was being played. As it turns out the police corruption Hioka discovered during the previous film did not go away, and in certain senses they liked things the way they were before. Hioka’s truce is very bad for business for a certain subset at least. They might be minded to let a dangerous killer go loose if it disrupts Hioka’s attempt to suppress the criminal underworld to manageable levels. Mimicking the classic jitsuroku, Shiraishi throws in occasional voiceover from an anonymous narrator along with freeze frame and montage while skewing still darker in the levels of depravity among these desperate men fighting over the scraps of a world already in terminal decline even as the bubble seems fit to burst. Shiraishi ends on a note of change with the institution of the organised crime laws which have contributed to the ongoing decline of the yakuza, a relic of the Showa era unfit and unwelcome in the modern society, but also discovers that for good or ill there may yet be wolves in Japan.


Last of the Wolves screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Distance (ディスタンス, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2001)

Distance DVDHirokazu Koreeda has become known predominantly for his nation’s representative genre – the family drama. He has, however, maintained a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the idea of family and more specifically what it means in the contemporary society. Koreeda’s later work might have found more faith in the healing power of familial bonds, but his third film, Distance (ディスタンス), is among his bleakest and finds little cause for hope when relations between people remain necessarily oblique. Another of the post-Aum films from the 2000s, Distance does not concern itself primarily with the immediacy of terrorist cult violence but its wider causes and implications.

As the opening news report informs us, three years previously the Ark of Truth cult released a genetically engineered virus into the Tokyo water system leading to the deaths of 128 people with thousands poisoned. In quick succession we meet four ordinary Tokyoites variously affected by the disaster but trying to go about their everyday lives. Schoolteacher Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), salaryman Kai (Susumu Terajima), punkish student Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), and sensitive florist, Atsushi (Arata). Eventually each of them, somewhat reluctantly, prepares for a trip. Ending up in a small rural town, they’ve gathered to commemorate the attack but, crucially, they are not relatives of those who were poisoned but of the cultists who committed the atrocity.

The relatives are, in a sense, secondary victims – they have all lost loved ones and are forced to bear the vicarious stigma the conformist society heaps on them simply for being related to someone who has committed a crime. When the group’s car is randomly stolen in the middle of nowhere, they are “rescued” by the mysterious Sakata (Tadanobu Asano) who is the only surviving member of the cult cell which carried out the terrorist attack and was subsequently wiped out by fellow cultists presumably horrified by what they had done to discredit the movement. Holing up in the remote mountain lodge where the cult had lived, the relatives are forced to confront their complicated emotions towards their late loved ones and the various ways their lives continue to be influenced by their loss.

The “distance” to which the title refers, is that between the relatives and the cultists to whose eventual slide into fanaticism they were largely blind. There are secrets, things left unsaid, a growing gap between a perception of a person and the “reality”. Most joined a cult because they were frustrated with the modern world and bought into its dubious messages from spiritual healing to saving the environment, but they were also each lonely and looking for a replacement for the traditional family which they had failed to find in their ordinary lives. Now remarried with a small daughter, Kai thinks back on the disastrous dinner during which his then wife told him she was leaving with another man to join a cult because Kai was never willing to fully face her. Only in the cult where there is full and total trust, did she finally find a reason for living – something which did not exist within her (presumably unhappy) marriage.

Yet even these flashbacks cannot be taken at face value. Our former cultist, Sakata, appears meek and apologetic among the relatives, once again describing the cult as “family” (perhaps insensitively) with fathers, sisters, and brothers who all loved him “unconditionally” though he eventually betrayed them. His description to a policeman immediately after the event is somewhat different, as is his attitude towards “quiet” sister Yuko (Ryo) who follows her brother’s lead in describing herself as an inhabitant of “Silent Blue” and subsequently views herself as part of a revolution – an engineer of the systemic crash which will reset the world.

With varying degrees of truth and self-deception, the relatives interrogate themselves and their place within the actions taken by the cultists while attempting to process the future with greater clarity. The divisions, however remain – in the strained relationship between in Kai and his wife, and that between Masaru and his suspicious girlfriend. Lonely souls look for forgiveness through reparation, but ultimately decide that perhaps the only solution really is to burn the whole thing down. A formal experiment for the increasingly formalist director, Distance is an unusually bleak negation of the concept of family which refuses the possibility of genuine connection in a world so often built on guile and subterfuge.


Distance screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.