The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

Scythian Lamb posterSometimes life hands you two parallel crises and allows one to become the solution to the other. So it is for the bureaucrats at the centre of Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Hitsuji no Ki). The prisons are overcrowded while rural Japan faces extinction thanks to depopulation. Ergo, why not parole some of those “low risk” prisoners whose problems have perhaps been caused by urban living and lack of community support on the condition that they move to the country for a period of at least ten years and contribute to a traditional way of life. The prisoners get a fresh start where no one knows them or what they might have done in the past, and the town gets an influx of new, dynamic energy eager to make a real go of things. Of course, there might be some resistance if people knew their town was effectively importing criminality, but that’s a prejudice everyone has an interest in resisting so the project will operate in total secrecy.

Not even civil servant Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been tasked with rounding up the new recruits, was aware of their previous place of residence until he started to wonder why they were all so unusual and evasive. Tsukisue likes to think of himself as an open-minded, kind and supportive person, and so is disappointed in himself to feel some resistance to the idea of suddenly welcoming six convicts into his quiet little town, especially on learning that despite being rated “low risk” they are each convicted murderers. Thus when a “murder” suddenly happens in the middle of town, Tsukisue can’t help drawing the “obvious” conclusion even if he hates himself for it afterwards when it is revealed the murder wasn’t a murder at all but a stupid drunken accident.

The ex-cons themselves are an eccentric collection of wounded people, changed both by their crimes and their experiences inside. Many inmates released from prison find it difficult to reintegrate into society, especially as most firms will not hire people with criminal records which is one of the many reasons no one is to know where the new residents came from. Yet, there are kind and understanding people who are willing to look past the unfortunate circumstances that led to someone finding themselves convicted of a crime such as the barber (Yuji Nakamura) who reveals his own difficult past and happiness in being able to help someone else, or the woman from the dry cleaners (Tamae Ando) who is upset by other people’s reaction to her new recruit who, it has to be said, looks like something out of Battles without Honour. Tsukisue doesn’t know anything about these people save for the fact they’ve killed and has, unavoidably, made a judgement based on that fact without the full details, little knowing that one, for example, killed her abusive boyfriend after years of torture or that another’s crime was more accident than design.

Tsukisue later becomes friends with one of the convicts, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose distant yet penetrating stare makes him a rather strange presence. Miyakoshi is the happiest to find himself living in the small coastal town, enjoying the lack of stimulation rather than resenting the boredom as some of the other new residents do. Despite his obvious inability to “read the air”, Miyakoshi is quite touched by Tsukisue’s kindness and by the way he treated him as a “normal” person despite his violent criminal past, excited to have made a real “friend” at last. Trouble begins to brew when Miyakoshi joins Tsukisue’s garage band and takes a liking to another of its members – Aya (Fumino Kimura), another returnee from Tokyo with a mysterious past though this time without a prison background. Tsukisue has had a long standing crush on Aya since high school but has always been too shy to say anything. He thought now was his chance and is stunned and irritated to realise Miyakoshi might have beaten him to it and, even worse, given him another opportunity to disappoint himself though doing something unforgivable in a moment of pique.

The bureaucrat in charge of the scheme wanted it kept secret in part because he was afraid the criminals might find each other and start some sort of secret murderer’s club (betraying another kind of prejudice) which actually turns out not to be so far fetched, though the main moral of the story is that kindness, understanding, and emotional support go a long way towards keeping the peace. Meanwhile, another of the convicts has taken to “planting” dead animals inspired by a plate she finds on a refuse site featuring a decoration of a “Scythian Lamb” – a plant that grows sheep which die when severed from their roots, and the evil fish god Nororo sits atop the cliffs in reminder of the perils of the sea. The Scythian Lamb is a poignant exploration of the right to start again no matter what might have gone before or how old you are. It might not always be possible to escape the past, and for some it may be more difficult than others, but the plant withers off the vine and there’s nothing like good roots for ensuring its survival.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Pale Moon (紙の月, Daihachi Yoshida, 2014)

Pale-Moon_MainDaihachi Yoshida’s last venture into human dynamics, The Kirishima Thing, took the high school environment as a microcosm for society as a whole. In some senses painting on a large canvas by illuminating the inner lives of these teenagers acting as both individuals and as members of a group, The Kirishima Thing was equal parts ensemble character drama and probing social commentary. Pale Moon (紙の月, Kami no Tsuki) is no different in this regard although it focuses more tightly on one individual and shifts age groups from turbulent adolescence to middle aged desperation. Set in 1994 just after the bubble burst, this gleefully cheeky (im)morality tale takes another sideways glance at the social norms of contemporary Japan.

Rika (Rie Miyazawa) is a demure woman in her early forties. A childless former housewife, she’s recently moved from a part time position at a bank to a full time job where she works as a kind of personal banking assistant visiting wealthy clients at home to discuss their financial needs and physically depositing their money in the bank for them. Efficient, reserved, reliable – Rika is the perfect employee, that is until one day she spends some of a client’s money because there isn’t quite enough in her purse. She takes the money straight out of an ATM and replaces it right away, of course, but a line has been crossed. It’s a quick step from a gentle misappropriation of funds to a series of interestingly decorated hotel rooms with a boy half your age, embezzlement on a grand scale, blackmail, bank fraud – the list goes on. How did it ever come to this? Yet, it’s the strangest thing – Rika has never felt more alive.

Money – it’s the life blood of capitalism. It makes the world go round and drives people crazy as they try to amass even more little bits of paper with numbers written on them. It’s fake, an illusion that we’ve all bought into – no more real than a paper moon (to go by the film’s original Japanese title), though we continue to set all of our hopes afloat on its surface. When Rika finally convinces her financially challenged young lover to accept her (stolen) money, she tries to convince him that nothing will change but, of course, it does. The dynamics fluctuate and money gets in the way, the toxicity of debt starts to eat away at any genuine connection that may have existed. The irony is, Rika is one of those people who steals in order to give away. It sounds selfless, even altruistic, but is in fact the most intensely selfish action that can be taken. “It’s better to give than to receive” goes the mantra of the nuns of the Catholic school where young Rika was educated, but they also council that charity should never have anything to do with your own gratification. This is the lesson that Rika finds so hard to learn, it feels so good to give – how can it be wrong to take?

It’s easy to say that the world has changed a lot in the intervening twenty years between now and the time the bulk of the action takes place, but maybe it hasn’t. The first thing that strikes you is how extraordinarily sexist Rika’s world is. It’s not long before she’s being asked questions about her marital status whilst being made to feel uncomfortable, alone in the home of her elderly male client. Then at the office her boss praises her efforts whilst sadly lamenting that women have more “tools” at their disposal than men do, which is both insultingly crude and a put down of her skills and hard work. Rika only gets her permanent position because another woman, an employee of nineteen years standing, has been forced out through a campaign of constructive dismissal because the big wigs don’t like paying higher salaries to older female workers but they won’t promote them past a certain level either. Her younger colleagues make fun of their “spinster” supervisor, Sumi (Satomi Kobayashi), who, only a generation older, had to make a clear cut choice between work and family and having chosen a career now sees the rug being pulled out from under her with the standard “transfer to head office” game plan in place to force her into retirement.

Rika’s home life offers a similar level of hope for the future. Her husband is probably well meaning, but totally insensitive and the marriage is at best unfulfilling. He pooh-poohs his wife’s thriftiness and her new “hobby” at the bank, totally failing to understand her motivation. At one point he announces he’s being transferred abroad so she’ll have to give her notice – it never occurs to him she may not wish to go, let alone that she’d refuse over something so trivial as her own job. It’s little surprise then that she’d so quickly fall for a handsome and attentive stranger. An “amour fou”, an old story but no less potent than it ever was.

Rika knows none of it’s real – that her temporary crime fuelled reprieve can’t go on forever, but that only makes her feel more free. In one telling episode, Rika is talking to a granny she’s in the process of swindling and remarks on her beautiful new necklace. What a shame it’s fake, Rika says, but the old lady replies that she knows it’s only imitation but she doesn’t care – it’s pretty, she likes it and she’s happy. That perhaps is the answer. Rika saw her chance and she took it. That takes some courage and whatever the moral outrage one might feel, there’s something undeniably admirable, even exciting, about Rika’s dramatic escape from the constraints of conventional social behaviour.


Pale Moon is receiving its UK Premier at the Glasgow Film Festival on 19th February so if you’re in the Glasgow area be sure to check it out!

The Kirishima Thing (UK-anime.net review)

thekirishimathingThis is from a million years ago but it was caught up in the queue at UK-anime.net and has only just been liberated! Also I wrote this when I was deathly ill (festival fever is a real thing!) so I’m not entirely sure it’s completely coherent. Anyway, have at it – The Kirishima Thing reviewed at Uk-anime.net


What’s up with that girl, why is everyone crying?

Must be the Kirishima thing again, right? It’s got everyone all riled up.

Hey, what exactly happened with that? Where is Kirishima?

You didn’t hear?! Kirishima quit the volleyball team! And nobody’s heard from him since, doesn’t answer calls, doesn’t answer texts – he’s in the wind….

Damn, man, that’s cold! Wonder what happened….

What happened with Kirishima, why he’s upped and quit the volleyball team quite suddenly right after having been made captain and with the team on course to win a big championship actually turns to out be almost totally irrelevant. We may speculate on why someone might just do that but we can never really know. What is important is that Kirishima’s unpredictable action causes a seismic wave to rip through the social structure of his class. With Kirishima gone, everyone else starts to question their own place in the social hierarchy – are they really where they want to be, where they ‘belong’ within the all important high school pecking order? Some threaten to move up and others down but will anything be the same ever again?

The ‘cool’ kids are in the ‘going home’ club or possibly ‘in a sports team but blowing off practice’, the next level are ‘kind of in a club because it’ll look good on my application forms (it’s not like I like it or anything)’ and then at the bottom we have the geeky guys and girls who are really into their club activities – exemplified here by the downtrodden film club. When Kirishima just quits and effectively demotes himself from the A crowd by quitting the volleyball team nobody’s really certain of anything anymore – what’s cool, what’s not, what do I care? The volleyball team feel betrayed by their captain’s absence, the cool boys are puzzled and uncertain without their leader to look to, the popular girls doubt their status now the alpha guy isn’t around and the film club….carry on as normal and try to ignore all the silly drama going around the school.

However, there are those in the higher echelons who maybe feel they don’t belong there. One of the cool girls has a secret liking for ‘geeky’ films but is frightened of becoming ‘one of them’ and losing her ‘popular’ status. Another girl, nominally one of the cool girls both hates and admires her friends for their vacuity and refusal to see whats going on around them. She is the only who really sees what’s going on everywhere, but even she too is afraid of losing her position. The most troubled and changed though is Hiroki, Kirishima’s ‘best friend’ who nevertheless didn’t know anything about his friend’s decision. Half in half out of the baseball team, he’s trapped between the cool world of the going home club and the slightly less cool one of being able to do something very well. The only people who aren’t really affected are the film club who are, to some extent, too invested in their own sense of inferiority to really notice what’s going on everywhere else.

The film club  are in some ways the heart of the film as they both refuse to see and ultimately document the social fracturing that’s going on within the school. They seem to think themselves very hard done by -‘they’re always winning’ complains one boy after they find a location they want to use already occupied and later ‘I won’t cast them when I’m a director’ about the annoying popular clique who’ve just been laughing at them loud enough for them to hear before they’ve even gone past. However, they are the key to the film’s climactic roof top confrontation scene as the film club’s high school zombie invasion movie is rudely interrupted by the popular kids’ desperate search for Kirishima. This leads to a day of the dead style zombie fantasy sequence as the film club zombies devour the unwitting volleyball stars and popular girls which is the highlight of the film. The intermingling of the two groups which would never normally have anything to do with one another finally forces the ramifications of the Kirishima thing to come to a head. In some senses it clears the air; the tensions have boiled over and worked themselves out. However, for some the outcome is far from clear and they remain trapped between levels of high school cool.

The Kirishima Thing is certainly not for for those who like a lot of action, zombies aside, or something with a heavier plot element, but as an ensemble character study it excels. As an allegory for the wider problem of conformity/social norms vs individuality and self recognition in the adult world it’s certainly a very apt parable but all of the characters concerned are very well drawn and each afforded a degree of sympathy and understanding. The Kirishima thing strikes a more realistic tone than the director’s previous films (Funuke: Show some love you losers!, Perfect Nobara) which took place in a world of heightened reality but still has a strongly comic tone. An extremely nuanced and layered tale, The Kirishima Thing may require multiple viewings to completely appreciate but it’s certainly well worth the investment in time.


Also look out for fellow queue inmates Kumiko the Treasure Hunter and Tale of Iya which, I am assured, will shortly become eligible for parole.