Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

asako I & 2 posterDualities define the perpetually submerged worlds of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour followup Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても, Netemo Sametemo). Waking and sleeping, fantasy and reality, past and present, presence and absence, love and sadness. Asako (Erika Karata), an ordinary young woman of the contemporary era, finds herself in a similar position to many of the heroines of contemporary Japanese literature in that she has no idea what she really wants out of life and is essentially torn between a series of idealised lives snatched from movies and magazines. Yet she is also haunted by a broken heart, arrested in a state of perpetual adolescence thanks to an early disappointment in love in which remains horribly unresolved.

As a university student in Osaka, Asako attends a photo exhibition dedicated to one of the few books put out by legendary Japanese photographer Shigeo Gocho titled “Self and Others”. Fascinated by an eerie picture of two little girls dressed identically, one slightly taller than the other, Asako’s attention is eventually caught by a striking young man. She leaves the exhibition and follows him until he eventually turns and faces her. Firecrackers some teenagers had been struggling to light suddenly explode around his feet. He strides over to her, asks for her name, and then leans in for a kiss – at least, that’s the way he later tells it to a disbelieving friend who points out that “no one meets like that”. An arty type in dungarees and shaggy hair, the young man’s name is “Baku” (Masahiro Higashide) – he uses the character for wheat (his dad was big into grains) but it’s also a homonym for explosion which a is key indication of the unpredictable excitement he comes to represent for Asako as her uni best friend Haruyo (Sairi Ito) attempts to warn her by insisting that Baku is the heartbreaking type and whatever she has with him is destined to end in tears.

Haruyo’s prediction comes to pass when Baku steps out one day to buy some shoes and never returns. A brokenhearted Asako makes her way to Tokyo and begins working a cafe but two and a bit years later, she is stunned to find “Baku” wearing a suit and working in an office. He doesn’t remember her and says his name’s Ryohei, but Asako can’t shake the association which is both attractive and repellent in equal measure. Ryohei is smitten, he felt the connection too, but Asako doesn’t quite know what to do with this unfortunate coincidence.

Events repeat themselves with only mild distortions – Asako and Ryohei attend another Gocho photo exhibition though this time with Asako’s Tokyo best friend, Maya (Rio Yamashita). Rather than a motorcycle accident, Ryohei and Asako find and comfort each other after the 2011 earthquake and eventually become a couple, move in together, and even get a cat. Asako begins to fall for Ryohei, but can’t be sure her love for him isn’t really love for Baku refracted through a different lens. Baku, a man with a wandering heart, once told her he would always return no matter how long it might take. There’s a part of Asako that’s always waiting, held back, afraid to move and unwilling to acknowledge the death of her younger self as immortalised in the image of herself with Baku.

When Haruyo runs into Asako and Ryohei unexpectedly in Tokyo, she gives us our first indication that Ryohei really does look like Baku and the association isn’t just a projection of Asako’s romantic anxieties. Haruyo’s first words to Asako are that she hasn’t changed – they’re intended as a compliment, but Asako bristles. She feels as if she’s moved forward, matured, is preparing to enter a comfortable middle age with Ryohei at her side but deep down she knows she hasn’t. She’s still the naive student pining for a lost love that never cared enough about her to resolve itself. She worries she’s been playacting and that her relationship with Ryohei isn’t “real” even if she cares about him enough to have her feeling guilty for this mild form of betrayal.

Later, offered another possibility, Asako feels as if her life with Ryohei has been like a dream, or perhaps the only waking moment of her life. When Ryohei introduces a work friend to Maya as an excuse to get close to Asako, they watch a video of her performing a scene from Chekhov’s Three Sisters – a play famously about self delusion in which the fierce belief in an impossible future becomes the only thing which makes life possible. The climactic earthquake hits just as Ryohei is preparing to watch Maya perform in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck – the play which lays bare the playwright’s key tenet, that if you take away a man’s life lie you take away his happiness. Ryohei’s friend Kushihashi (Koji Seto) might rip into Maya’s “narcissistic” acting, denigrating her for attention seeking rather than baring her soul on stage, but Asako admires her determination and absolute certainty in her chosen goal, things she herself lacks.

Talked down by the soothing tones of practiced de-escalator Ryohei, Kushihashi is prompted to confess that his outburst was mostly out of jealously, that having given up his dreams of the stage for a conventional salaryman life he resented seeing someone else embrace theirs. Asako can’t decide which “dream” she wants – a life of fireworks and unpredictability with Baku for all the heartbreak it might bring, or one of gentle happiness with the good and kind Ryohei. A series of crises prompt her into making a clear choice – seemingly her first, though it may be too late. Real love is messy, painful, and ugly, but it’s beautiful too once you learn to see through the miasma of self delusion and romantic fantasy.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Love At Least (生きてるだけで、愛, Kosai Sekine, 2018)

love at least posterFor some, it might be impossible grasp just how exhausting it can be merely being alive. For the heroine of Kosai Sekine’s debut feature Love At Least (生きてるだけで、愛, Ikiteru Dake de, Ai) , adapted from the novel by Yukiko Motoya (Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers!, Vengeance Can Wait), life is a draining cycle of waking and sleeping from which she fears she will never be able to free herself. An encounter with an equally atypical though perhaps more destructive young woman who orders her to leave her ordered existence so that she might step into the newly vacant space unwittingly helps her towards a moment of clarity though not the one it might at first seem.

Yasuko (Shuri) has vague memories of her mother dancing when the power went out but she herself is afraid of the dark. Looking back there’s a lot that makes sense to her about her mother’s behaviour and subsequently her own, but she hasn’t yet found a way to come to terms with her psychology. Yasuko has bipolar and is currently unemployed as she suffers with hypersomnia and hasn’t been able to hold down a job. She’s supported by her live-in boyfriend of three years, Tsunaki (Masaki Suda), who once dreamed of being a writer but now has a soul crushing job at a tabloid magazine writing salacious exposés about celebrities.

Yasuko is currently in the middle of a depressive spell and rarely leaves the house, spending most of the day asleep and exchanging texts with her somewhat unsupportive sister but her life is turned upside-down when she receives a surprise visit from a woman calling herself Ando (Riisa Naka) who drags her off to a nearby cafe and explains that she previously dated Tsunaki three years ago and now she wants him back. Viewing Yasuko as some kind of lesser human, Ando thinks she should see sense and leave Tsunaki to which Yasuko quite reasonably points out she has no income and so the request is quite unreasonable. Ando, however, is nothing if not thorough and it’s not long before she’s bamboozled both the cafe and Yasuko into taking her on as a part-time waitress.

Ando, an extremely unpleasant and manipulative woman, may be as Yasuko points out even “sicker” than she is but somehow she seems to make all around her do her bidding. Oddly enough, working at the cafe might actually be good for Yasuko – the cafe owner and his wife are kind and sympathetic people who seem to want to help and the other waitress was once a hikikomori so they might truly have some idea of what is involved in trying to help those in need. Ando, however, doesn’t quite seem to want her to succeed – she turns up at the cafe on a regular basis to feed Yasuko’s insecurities, pointedly asking her if she’s considered whether the problem might not just be that she’s “useless”, telling her that it’s pointless to try because she’ll inevitably fail, all of which seems quite counterproductive to her nefarious plan.

Then again, kindness and sympathy are not always quite as helpful as they seem. The cafe owner’s wife is nice, to be sure, but is fond of repeating the mantra that depression is caused by loneliness and that therefore making friends with the people at the cafe will make everything better. There might be something in her way of thinking, but it’s also a superficial approach to a more complicated problem and mild refusal to face some of the more serious aspects of Yasuko’s condition. When she’s started to feel as if the cafe is a safe space, told to think of herself as “family”, Yasuko lets down her guard and reveals one subject of her obsessive anxieties which just happens to be the washlet and the possibility of its sudden explosion should the water pressure go haywire. All of a sudden it’s as if the air changes, they look at her like she’s “mad” and the facade of their patronising desire to help is suddenly ripped away. Yasuko’s worst fear has been realised, they “see through” her and she feels as if there’s no hope any more.

Being seen through is perhaps something which Yasuko both fears and craves. Tsunaki, meanwhile, is suffering something similar only in a less extreme way. He also feared being seen through, but unlike Yasuko chose to isolate himself, rarely speaking and maintaining a healthy distance to the world. For this reason he’s been able to put up with his awful tabloid job, even excusing himself when an actress whose affair they’d exposed committed suicide because after all it was “nothing to do with” him despite the fact he was so obviously complicit. Increasingly conflicted, he begins to pull away from Yasuko, unwilling to overburden her with his own worries or perhaps more accurately equally afraid to expose them. Yasuko’s cruel barb that she wished Tsunaki’s “lack of character” would infect her hints at her mild frustration with his passivity, that his refusal to engage and habit of pussyfooting around her illness to avoid creating a scene are also contributing to her ongoing lethargy. The passive aggressive texts from her sister which seemed so unsupportive are perhaps less so as she is the only person willing to go toe to go with her and suddenly Yasuko’s meanness towards her outwardly patient and caring boyfriend reads more like provocation, as if she’s trying to make him respond rather than allow him to continue enabling her inertia.

Being driven apart by their parallel crises eventually brings the pair back together again, closer to an emotional centre and reaching a brief moment of understanding. As Yasuko says, the connection may have been only momentary, but within that infinitesimal space she can perhaps find a life. The dark is not so scary after all. Anchored by an extraordinary performance from Shuri, Love at Least is a beautifully composed examination of the costs of modern living in which fragmentary moments of absolute connection become the only source of salvation in a world of broken dreams and hopeless futures.


Love At Least made its World Premiere at the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Smaller and Smaller Circles (Raya Martin, 2017)

Smaller and Smaller circles poster“Time and forgetfulness are the allies of abusers” – a Catholic priest reminds his students as part of a history lesson regarding the supposedly bloodless revolution that led to the end of the Marcos regime. Festival favourite Raya Martin dials things back a little in adapting the award winning novel by F.H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles. Batacan’s novel is often described as the first real Philippine crime novel – something echoed in the ridiculous views of a lazy and self serving police officer who believes there are no serial killers in the Philippines, yet the Smaller and Smaller Circles of the title lay the blame for the heinous acts its centre not at the feet of an evil madman but at those of the society which so progressively damaged his soul as to render it irreparable.

Our hero is himself a priest. Father Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) is a man of faith and compassion who, despite all the failings he can see in it, still believes the Church is the best way to help those in need. He is sickened and appalled by the institution’s intransigence when it comes to bad priests and is preoccupied by one in particular – Father Ramirez, whose inappropriate conduct with children he has doggedly reported for more than a decade only for him to continually escape punishment. In addition to the priesthood, Father Gus is also a teacher of philosophy and a forensic scientist who works as an occasional consultant to the local police. It is in this capacity that he comes to discover a series of murders involving young boys whose bodies were discarded on a local rubbish dump deprived of their hearts, genitals, and faces. With the assistance of his junior priest, Father Jerome (Sid Lucero), and a reporter (Carla Humphries) who was once his student, Gus attempts to solve the mystery behind this horrific series of murders before the killer strikes again.

Martin breaks with genre norms by giving us an immediate insight into the killer’s psychology as we witness the prelude to the killings while listening to his own explanations of why they must occur. The picture he paints of his childhood quickly frames his crimes as a murder of the self as the killer indulges in a compulsion to kill the weak, targeting teenage boys and stealing from them not only the breath of life but the spirit of it too. The first of our circles is the Church – the bad priests whose abuses are sanctioned by their organisation and mitigated by the “good” they leave behind. Father Ramirez was shuffled on and now works for a children’s charity but Father Gus’ attempts to warn the charity’s director fall on deaf ears and then cost him his funding. Only when Father Ramirez’ financial improprieties are discovered is his position finally questioned.

The second ring is poverty. All of these boys were poor and many of them were not identified right away because aside from their parents (if they had them) nobody was going to miss them. The film opens with a scene of children running over a rubbish dump and as the father of the first victim explains, his son was one of many who supported their struggling families by combing over the left overs of the better off looking for anything which might still be useful. Our third ring is bureaucracy – when Fathers Gus and Jerome meet the local councillor, they are surprised to find that she is efficient and committed, keen to do whatever it takes to look after her constituents even if it means going up against the Church or the wider government. However, she knew nothing of the murders and though she is quick to grant Father Gus all the access he needs, it is partly her own efforts to provide essential services to the poor which have enabled the crimes as those who claim to want to help others are really only helping themselves and wilfully turning those same mechanisms back on the people who need them most.

As a man of faith Father Gus does his best, refusing to give up on the killer, trying to ease his burden whilst in grave physical danger. Set in the Philippines of the late 90s, Smaller and Smaller Circles is filled with those still trying to come to terms with the traumatic past but finding its unpleasantness echoing in unexpected places. As such it finds unexpected resonance in the world of 2017 in which life is once again cheap and compassion thin on the ground.


Smaller and Smaller Circles is screening as part of the seventh season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on 19th September at 7pm, AMC River East 21, plus introduction and Q&A with director Raya Martin.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain, Yoji Yamada, 1988)

Downtown Heroes posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Yoji Yamada was an infrequent visitor to the youth movie. Best remembered for his long running Tora-san series, Yamada’s later output is marked by an alternation of laughter and tears, running between raucous family comedies and poignant examinations of wartime loss. Set in the immediate postwar period, 1988’s Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain) adapts the autobiographical novel by Akira Hayasaka for a twin tale of endings and beginnings as a group of boys prepare to leave the Japan of their childhood behind and set out into the brand-new post-war future.

Our narrator for the tale is Hayasaka’s stand-in, Kosuke (Hashinosuke Nakamura), a sensitive young man from the mountains studying at the prestigious boys’ boarding school in town. The Matsuyama high school is one of the last to still be operating in Japan’s pre-war educational model. In fact, when the boys graduate the school will shut down in favour of the American 6-3-3 standard model of organising the educational system. Nevertheless, Kosuke and his friends enjoy what seems like a fantastically broad curriculum to modern eyes, much of which consists of classic German literature. Rather than their family names, the boys refer to each other with a series of nicknames inspired by their studies and have been heavily influenced by European left-wing political ideology. Accordingly, they are less than happy about the imposed American “reforms” and, paradoxically, the restrictions placed on their individual “freedom” by the “imperialist” occupation.

The central drama revolves around two episodes occurring one after another during the final year of high school. The first involves Kosuke’s friend Arles (Toshinori Omi) and a prostitute he helps to rescue from the red light district – Sakiko (Eri Ishida) was supposed to elope with a student from the school, but he didn’t show up and if the people from the brothel she was sold to find her she’ll be in big trouble. Her suitor turns out to be a fraud, but the boys are committed to saving her and hide Sakiko in their dorm, sharing their meagre rations with her before helping her escape to her home town. Meanwhile, the boys are also preparing for the very last culture festival the school will ever see at which they will present their adaptation of a classic German play. The snag is, the play needs a girl. Eventually the gang enlist the help of Fusako (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – a student at the girls’ school recently repatriated from Manchuria who also happens to be the young lady Kosuke had a meet cute with on the road and has been in love with ever since. Trouble brews when Gan (Tetta Sugimoto), the play’s director, falls in love with her too.

Told from the POV both of the old and the young Kosuke, the atmosphere is one of intense melancholy and inescapable nostalgia. Though these were times of hardship – rationing is fierce and intense, so much so that the school no longer serves meals at all on Sundays and the boys largely subsist on rice gruel, they were also times of joy and possibility. These are however youngsters in the best tradition of the sensitive young men of Japanese literature. They feel everything deeply, fully aware that they are living on the cusp of something new, which necessarily also means to be standing atop a grave. Their world is collapsing and the values they’ve been given (progressive though they seem to be) are about to be thrown out of the window. They have been taught that nothing is more important than their personal autonomy and that personal freedom is attained only through overcoming hardship, but their lives will increasingly be dictated by occupying forces and they feel themselves robbed of something without the right to reply.

Nevertheless their problems are also ordinary teenage ones of romantic crises and friendship dilemmas. Kosuke struggles with his love at first sight crush on Fusako but remains too diffident to say anything until it’s almost too late, while he also struggles to figure out what the most proper thing to do is when Gan reveals he is also in love with her. Gan, a sensitive writer, apparently burns with longing – so much so that he’s written a book long confession of love in apology for being unable to declare himself in person. Kosuke, a good friend, agrees to deliver the letter but both of them have neglected to consider Fusakao’s feelings so bound up are they in their own solipsistic dramas. Fusako was also struck by the love bug on her first meeting with Kosuke and has been patiently waiting for him to say something (as is the custom of the time). She is therefore doubly hurt and offended when he delivers a mini-tome on the theme of love from someone else before attempting to leave abruptly in a huff. Truth be told, there are few women who would enjoy being handed a thesis as a confession, but Fusako is really not in the mood to read one now.

Ending on a melancholy epilogue in which the old Kosuke looks on at field of young men playing American football before some others in running shorts brush past him and a young couple enjoy an evening walk, Yamada embraces the mild sense of deflation that has been building since the beginning. Young love faded and the dreams of youth were destined to come to nothing – not quite a tragedy, or perhaps only one of the ordinary kind, but food for the regrets of age all the same. The times were hard, and then they got better but somehow they were never so happy again. A youth drama indeed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Theme song “Jidai” performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru

Female Ninja Magic (くノ一忍法, Sadao Nakajima, 1964)

female ninja magic posterSadao Nakajima, a veteran director and respected film scholar, is most often associated with his gritty gangster epics but he made his debut with a noticeably theatrical fantasy tale of female ninjas and their idiosyncratic witchcraft. Adapted from a novel by Futaro Yamada, Female Ninja Magic (くノ一忍法, Kunoichi Ninpo) is an atypically romantic take on the ninja genre, infused with ironic humour and making the most of its embedded eroticism as a collection of wronged women attempt to change the course of history and mostly pay with their lives.

The night before the fall of Osaka castle in 1615, Sanada Yukimura (Eizo Kitamura) comes up with a cunning plan to ensure the survival of the Toyotomi clan. Following the death of Hideyoshi, his son Hideyori had inherited the title but he was sickly and had no children of his own. His wife, Princess Sen (Yumiko Nogawa), was not able to bear an heir and so Sanada has hit on an idea. He wants to send five women of Iga to Hideyori’s bed chamber in the hope that one of them will become pregnant and ensure the survival of the Toyotomi line. Princess Sen is very much in on the plan and hopes to raise the child herself. However, she is by birth a member of the Tokugawa which is where she is eventually sent following fall of Osaka. Refusing to return to her birth clan, Sen rejects her father and insists on remaining true to the memory of her (now departed) husband and his unborn child. Tokugawa Ieyasu (Meicho Soganoya), however, has learned of the Toyotomi heir and is determined to see it killed…

Nakajima opens in grand fashion with a ghostly sequence in which Sanada outlines his plan. The ninjas sit silently before magically fading from the frame and being replaced by Sasuke, Sanada’s messenger. Soon enough, both Sanada and Sasuke are cut down by a rogue assassin but rather than going straight to heaven they decide to hang around and see how well the plan works out, becoming our narrators of sorts, hovering around in the background and occasionally offering the odd ironic comment from beyond the frame.

The ghostly effects don’t stop with the two undead commentators but comprise a key part of Nakajima’s deliberately theatrical aesthetic. Like many ninja films, Female Ninja Magic is filmed almost entirely on studio sets but never pretends otherwise. Its world is unrealistic and deliberately over the top, filled with with visual motifs both from traditional Japanese and classical European art. The female ninjas dance, topless, beckoning and seducing but they do it against a stark black background moving firmly into the film’s magical space in which all things are possible.

Meanwhile, Tokugawa Ieyasu has sent five male ninjas to take care of our five female witches, making use of their own, devious, ninja magic to combat that of our heroines. The first nefarious male ninja technique involves the murder and identity theft of a trusted maid, while another tries a similar trick by “projecting” himself into the consciousness of a handmaiden he has figured out is pregnant by listening for additional heartbeats, and convincing her to commit harakiri. His villainy is eventually turned back on him as the female ninjas make use of the most important of their spells – the “Changing Rooms” technique which effectively shifts the foetus from one womb to another.

Deliciously named – Rainbow Monsoon, Dancing Snow, Robe of Wings etc, the spells run from the sublime to the ridiculous with the self explanatory Eternal Gas which sends noxious purple smoke billowing from under the skirts of an elegant princess. Each has its own erotic component, even if it doesn’t necessitate a shift into the film’s elegantly designed dreamscape, but by and large the female ninja fight with supernatural rather than earthly powers. Facing such extreme threat, the women form a tight group of mutual support in order to ensure the survival of the child which Princess Sen will raise but not birth. Though her quest originated as a fierce declaration of her loyalty to the Toyotomi, she later recants on her tribal zealotry. Shocked by her father’s cruelty and sick of a persistent suitor, she admits that she has come to loathe the world of men and prefers to think of the baby as belonging to her band of women alone. Nevertheless, male violence eventually saves her as her aggressor, ironically enough, is moved by her devotion to the new life in her arms – he is “defeated by her strength as a woman”, and turns on his own kind. Female Ninja Magic eventually achieves the revenge it sought, allowing a princess to survive in triumph while the male order quakes in its boots.


The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Yoichi Sai, 1987)

Lady in a Black Dress posterHaruki Kadokawa had become almost synonymous with commercial filmmaking throughout the 1980s and his steady stream of idol-led teen movies was indeed in full swing by 1987, but his idols, as well as his audiences, were perhaps beginning to grow up. Yoichi Sai’s first outing for Kadokawa had been with the typically cheery Someday, Someone Will Be Killed which was inspired by the most genre’s representative author, Jiro Akagawa, and followed the adventures of an upperclass girl who is suddenly plunged into a world of intrigue when her reporter father disappears after dropping a floppy disk into her handbag. A year later he’d skewed darker with a hardboiled yakuza tale starring Tatsuya Fuji as part of Kadokawa’s gritty action line, but he neatly brings to two together in The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Kuroi Dress no Onna) which features the then 20-year-old star of The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, Tomoyo Harada, in another noir-inflected crime thriller again adapted from a novel by Kenzo Kitakata.

We first meet the titular “lady in a black dress” walking alone alone along a busy motorway until she is kerb crawled by a yakuza in a fancy car. Declaring she intends to walk to Tokyo (a very long way), Reiko (Tomoyo Harada) nevertheless ends up getting into the mysterious man’s vehicle despite avowing that she “hates yakuza”. The yakuza goon does however drive her safely into the city and drop her off at her chosen destination – a race course, where she begins her quest to look for “someone”. By coincidence, the yakuza was also heading to the race course where he intended to stab a rival gangster – Shoji (Bunta Sugawara), who makes no attempt to get away and seemingly allows himself to be stabbed by the younger man. Shoji, as it happens, is the temporary responsibility of the man Reiko has been looking for – Tamura (Toshiyuki Nagashima), a former salaryman turned bar owner with fringe ties to the yakuza. Putting on her little black dress, Reiko finally finds herself at his upscale jazz bar where she petitions him for a job and a place to stay, dropping the name of Tamura’s sister-in-law who apparently advised her to try hiding out with him.

Reiko is, after a fashion, the dame who walked into Tamura’s gin joint with the (mild) intention to cause trouble, but, in keeping with the nature of the material, what she arouses in Tamura and later Shoji is a latent white knight paternalism. Curious enough to rifle through her luggage while she’s out, Tamura is concerned to find a pistol hidden among her belongings but when caught with it, Reiko offers the somewhat dark confession that the gun is less for her “protection” than her suicide. Not quite believing her, Tamura advises Reiko not to try anything like that in his place of business and to take it somewhere else. Nevertheless, Reiko stays in Tamura’s bar, eventually sharing a room with melancholy yakuza Shoji who is also hiding out there until the plan comes together to get him out of the country and away from the rival gangsters out for his blood.

As it turns out, Reiko had good reason to “hate yakuza” but she can’t seem to get away from them even in the city. Tamura’s life has also been ruined by organised crime as we later find out, and it’s these coincidental ties which eventually bring Reiko to him through his embittered sister-in-law who had been the mistress of Reiko’s lecherous step-father. The codes of honour and revenge create their own chaos as Shoji attempts to embrace and avoid his inevitable fate while his trusted underling (the yakuza who gave Reiko a lift) tries to help him – first by an act of symbolic though non-life threatening stabbing and then through a brotherly vow to face him himself to bring the situation to a close in the kindest way possible.

Meanwhile, a storm brews around a missing notebook which supposedly contains all the sordid details of the dodgy business deals brokered by a now corporatised yakuza who, while still engaging in general thuggery, are careful to mediate their world of organised crime through legitimate business enterprises. Reiko, like many a Kadokawa heroine, is an upperclass girl – somewhat sheltered and innocent, but trying to seem less so in order to win support and protection against the forces which are pursuing her. Though the film slots neatly into the “idol” subgenre, Harada takes much less of a leading role than in the studio’s regular idol output, retaining the mysterious air of the “lady in a black dress” while the men fight back against the yakuza only gradually exposing the truths behind the threat posed to Reiko.

Consequently, Reiko occupies a strangely liminal space as an adolescent girl, by turns femme fatale and damsel in distress. Wily and resourceful, Reiko formulates her own plan for getting the gangsters off her back, even if it’s one which may result in a partial compromise rather than victory. Though Kadokawa’s idol movies could be surprisingly dark, The Lady in a Black Dress pushes the genre into more adult territory as Reiko faces quite real dangers including sexual violence while wielding her femininity as a weapon (albeit inexpertly) – something quite unthinkable in the generally innocent idol movie world in which the heroine’s safety is always assured. Sai reframes the idol drama as a hardboiled B-movie noir scored by sophisticated jazz and peopled by melancholy barmen and worn-out yakuza weighed down by life’s regrets, while occasionally switching back to Reiko who attempts to bury her fear and anxiety by dancing furiously in a very hip 1987 nightclub. Darker than Kadokawa’s generally “cute” tales of plucky heroines and completely devoid of musical sequences (Harada does not sing nor provide the theme tune), The Lady in a Black dress is a surprisingly mature crime drama which nevertheless makes room for its heroine’s eventual triumph and subsequent exit from the murky Tokyo underground for the brighter skies of her more natural environment.


TV spot (no subtitles)

Theme song – Kuroi Dress no Onna -Ritual- by dip in the pool.

Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store posterKeigo Higashino is probably best known for his murder mysteries, most particularly the international best seller The Devotion of Suspect X. His literary output is however a little broader than one might assume and fantastical hypotheticals are very much a part of his work as in the bizarre The Secret in which a mother wakes up in her daughter’s body after a fatal accident. Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki) is indeed one of his warmer stories even if it occasionally veers towards the author’s usual taste for moral conservatism in its yearning for a more innocent, pre-bubble Japan that is rapidly being forgotten.

Back in 1980, Mr. Namiya (Toshiyuki Nishida) runs the local store and is a much loved member of the community. As an older man with plenty of life experience, he also offers an agony uncle service. People with problems can simply write him a letter and drop it through his box. He’ll have a bit of a think about it and then either paste up a response on the village noticeboard outside or, if the question is a little more delicate, place his reply in an envelope in the milk box.

32 years later, a trio of delinquent boys end up taking refuge in the disused store after committing some kind of crime. While they’re poking around, what should pop through the letter box but a letter, direct from 1980. Freaked out the boys try to leave but find themselves trapped in some kind of timeslip town. Eventually they decide to answer the letter just to pass the time and then quickly find themselves conversing with an earlier generation by means of some strange magic.

At the end of his life, what Mr. Namiya is keen to know is if his advice really mattered, and if it did, did it help or hinder? His introspection is caused in part by a news report that someone he advised on a particularly tricky issue may have committed suicide. Mr. Namiya isn’t now so sure he gave them the right advice and worries what he told them may have contributed to the way they died. This itself is a difficult question and if it sounds like a moral justification to point out that no one was forced to follow Mr. Namiya’s “advice” and everyone is ultimately responsible for their own decisions, that’s because it is but then it doesn’t make it any less true. Then again, Mr. Namiya’s advice, by his own admission, was not really about telling people what to do – most have already made a decision, they just want someone to help them feel better about it. What he tries to do is read between the lines and then tell them what they want to hear – the decision was always theirs he just helped them find a way to accommodate it.

The boys have quite different attitudes. Kohei (Kanichiro), who takes the initial decision to write back, is compassionate but pragmatic. As we later find out, the three boys are all orphans and Kohei counsels a melancholy musician who wants to know if he should give up on his Tokyo music career and come home to run the family fish shop that he should count himself lucky to have a place to come back to and that if he was going to get anywhere in music he’d have got there already. Mr. Namiya’s philosophy proves apt – the musician writes back and argues his case, he wants to carry on with music but feels guilty and hopes Mr. Namiya will tell him it’s OK to follow his dreams. For the boys however, “dreams” are an unaffordable luxury and like a trio of cynical old men they tell the musician to grow up and get a real job. That is, until he decides to play them a tune and they realise it’s all too familiar.

Similarly, a conflicted young woman drops them a letter wanting advice on whether to become the mistress of a wealthy man who claims he will help her set up in business. The boys say no, do not debase yourself, work hard and be honest – that’s the best way to repay a debt to the people that raised you. Again she writes back, she wants her shot but it is a high price. That’s where hindsight comes in, as does advance knowledge about Japan’s impending economic boom and subsequent bust.

As expected, everything is connected. Higashino maybe romanticising an earlier time in which community still mattered and the wisest man you knew ran the corner store, but then there’s a mild inconsistency between the idealised picture of small town life and the orphanage which links it all together – these kids are after all removed, even perhaps exiled, from that same idea of “community” even if they are able to create their own familial bonds thanks to the place that has raised them. The most cynical of the boys once wanted to be a doctor, but as another boy points out it takes more than just brains to get there. While it’s a nice message to say that there are no limits and nothing is impossible, it is rather optimistic and perhaps glosses over many of the issues the kids face after “graduating” from the group home and having nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, seeing everything come together in the end through the power of human goodness and the resurgence of personal agency is an inspirational sight indeed. The world could use a few more miracles, but as long as there are kind hearted people with a desire for understanding, there will perhaps be hope.


Original trailer (English/simplified Chinese subtitles)