Sacrifice (サクリファイス, Taku Tsuboi, 2019)

Taku Tsuboi meditates on coming disaster in his evocative debut feature, Sacrifice (サクリファイス). Post-earthquake anxiety meets its opposite number in doomsday cult as an Aum-esque sect rejects and then embraces a contrary prophecy of the end of the world ushered in by a giant worm already burrowing menacingly under our feet. Putative apocalypses however pale in comparison to the incurable threat of other people and it may not be an earthquake or a war or a terrorist attack that puts an end to us so much as our inability or perhaps refusal to overcome our fear. 

“Forgiveness transcends revenge” a young man claims during a debate about the death penalty, “the cycle of hate must be broken”, only he later confesses that he didn’t quite mean what he was saying. He opposed the death penalty but less for humanitarian reasons than curiosity. Okita (Yuzu Aoki) wants to know the why, what the killer was feeling when they did what they did. Fellow student Toko (Miki Handa) has been patiently watching Okita, suspicious of him because when he thinks no-one’s watching, he drops his mask. She’s convinced that he is responsible for a notorious series of ritualised cat killings, as well as the death of fellow student Sora (Hana Shimomura) who was apparently investigating them and had presumably gotten too close to the truth. Toko’s suspicions are confirmed when she raids Okita’s backpack and discovers an incriminating file, essentially blackmailing him to become her friend in the hope that, unlike her boyfriend the straight-laced job hunter Masaya (Kosuke Fujita), he can buy her a ticket out of her maddeningly “normal” life. Meanwhile, Okita also becomes an unexpected protector for another student, Midori (Michiko Gomi), who finds herself targeted by a young man in camouflage (Yasuyuki Sakurai), apparently a member of a cult, Shinwa, successor to the defunct Sacred Tide and the first private army in Japan. 

Midori was once a cult member herself, unwillingly inducted by her mother, and is plagued by strange visions after having foreseen the devastating March 2011 earthquake in a dream and subsequently targeted for elimination by those who feared her power. The cat murders are numbered and apparently counting down from 311 leading some to conclude they have something to do with the earthquake, some kind of “sacrifice” in the face of coming disaster. “The world needs sacrifices” a true believer later affirms, but has no reason why it should, only insisting that they are following the teachings of Mr. Sazanami, the mercenary turned cult leader. Some become soldiers, others kill cats in Japan without knowing why. 

“Seeking reason makes you weak” Sazanami conveniently claims, “view the world without the blindfold of humanity, then you can understand my vision”. Toko is drawn to Okita precisely because of his lack of human feeling, “You see people only as objects”, she tells him with admiration not caring if he killed or not only hoping that his difference will help her escape a life of crushing mundanity. She thought the earthquake would change something. Everyone was talking of new beginnings and great renewals but in the end nothing really happened and her adolescence has been one of disappointment coloured with anxiety. She resents being “the only normal one” trapped in “a world of normality” and longs to throw herself into this strange world of conspiracy and ritual in order to give her life the greater meaning she craves. 

Midori, however, craves that kind of normality. Her mother ironically lost faith in the idea of salvation after facing death in the wake of disaster, while she struggles to escape from an unfair sense of responsibility for the fate of the world seeing too much and not enough at the same time. Yet in a strange way it is faith that sustains her. “All I can do is run” she affirms, hoping that she will one day re-encounter the person who claims his life found meaning only when he found her. She refuses to discard her “blindfold of humanity”, living in the shadow of future catastrophe but living all the same. An accomplished feature debut, Tsuboi’s broody drama wrings all the dread out of its eerie settings from churches disused and not to abandoned buildings and the bleakness of a somehow comforting dreamscape while offering his beleaguered youngsters a tentative sense of hope if only in the ability to normalise a sense of existential anxiety.


Sacrifice streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dual City (デュアル・シティ, Yokna Hasegawa, 2015)

dual cityCyberpunk and Japan are a match made in heaven though, it has to be said, it’s often been much more an inherited influence in international pop culture than something which has originated directly in Japan. Yokna Hasegawa’s Dual City (デュアル・シティ) puts this to rights a little with a politically infused tale of Japan in 2034 – a nation divided and engaged in a wider information war with the little guy at the mercy of evil corporate giants.

The year is 2034, following a civil war Japan has been divided in two with a north/south border located at the feet of Mount Fuji. Our protagonist, Yoriko, is a nurse and mother working in the North sector which is definitely thought of as the least advantageous place to be. When her hospital is raided by guerrilla soldiers, Yoriko finds herself in the relatively lucky position of last survivor but is then charged with assisting this “resistance movement” by taking over from the soon to be dead insurgent, Gou, and completing his mission of carting a mysterious suitcase across the border.

Once in the south, we’re introduced to the rest of the band including the dynamic Ayumi who can’t seem to forgive Yoriko for the loss of Gou. The gang’s ultimate goal is to expose the shady Nephe corporation who, aside from their business interests of arms dealing and android production, have begun building a virtual world known as “information life” which is constructed through harvesting the memories of Northern corpses. Yoriko lost her daughter to terrorist aggression and the idea that she might be able to see her again, albeit in virtual form, is one which she is unable to pass up.

Adding to the intrigue is the love story between a resistance member and an android which may or may not come to be a liability and the hacker group’s involvement with the steady stream of illegal migrants somehow making the dangerous cross border journey into the relative safe haven of the South. Many of these people have injuries or ailments that would be best served by a doctor, but having no proper papers they can’t risk a hospital and so the care that Yoriko can provide becomes another useful asset for the group.

Drawing parallels with other “divided” nations, Dual City looks at a multitude of contemporary social and philosophical problems from dealing with refugees fleeing an oppressive regime to the power of multinational corporations and the eternal quality of a mother’s love. Nephe (represented in a futuristic ad campaign starring Third Window Films’ Adam Torel as its heinous CEO) commits the very worst kind of identity theft as it steals and repurposes the very soul of those that it has killed by sucking out their memories and using them to create artificial counterparts in their online world. Are these ghosts in the machine any less “real” than their flesh counterparts were? A standard question of the cyberpunk world and one which still has no clear answer, but Dual City continues to explore it in a mature and nuanced manner.

Though an undoubtedly low budget, indie movie Dual City makes a decent job of creating its realistically grimy cyberpunk world with its interactive video screens and invisible techno warfare. Special effects, though sparse, are effectively achieved and never call attention to themselves. Dual City is actually the second part of a projected trilogy with the overarching title of Japan Year Zero (following the 2014 short Illuminations) but is perfectly intelligible even without knowledge of the previous film and manages to create a sense of a bleak, oppressive society which travels along with Yoriko from the totalitarian North to the supposedly freer South. Eventually Yoriko’s love for her daughter transforms and becomes something larger, an eternal and infinite love for all mankind that represents our last, best hope for peace. It only remains to be seen if the troubled society of 2034 can can learn to follow a similar road.


Reviewed as part of the SCI-FI London Film Festival 2016.

On a side note, Illuminations seems to be the film Hoshi Ishida was talking about when I interviewed him (for UK Anime Network) a couple of years ago. Small world! I would like to see the movie but it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere, maybe one day. Here is a trailer for Illuminations:

You can also keep up with director Yonka Hasegawa’s work via her website and twitter feed!