Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Kazuki Omori, 1996)

night train to the stars posterKenji Miyazawa is one of the giants of modern Japanese literature. Studied in schools and beloved by children everywhere, Night on the Galactic Railroad has become a cultural touchstone but Miyazawa died from pneumonia at 37 years of age long before his work was widely appreciated. Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Waga Kokoro no Ginga Tetsudo: Miyazawa Kenji no Monogatari), commissioned to mark the centenary of Miyazawa’s birth, attempts to tell his story, set as it is against the backdrop of rising militarism.

An aimless if idealistic young man, Miyazawa (Naoto Ogata) is at once fiercely religious and interested in mildly left-wing, agrarian politics. Together with a close friend, Kanai, he dreams of building a village utopia in which a community of farmers works the land enjoying peace and prosperity free of the oppression of landlords. The eldest son of a money lender, Miyazawa does not approve of his father’s profession and attempts to show him up by interfering in his business but only succeeds in showing his own naivety and though he has an especially close relationship with his older sister Toshi (Maki Mizuno), Miyazawa longs for pastures new but never manages to stick at anything for very long. After failing to join a religious sect in Tokyo, he returns home to start an agrarian school which will teach ordinary famers’ sons the joys of the arts.

Miyazawa had seemingly always been a strange, ethereal presence – a drunken guest at his family home mocks the way he used to wander around town robotically banging his toy drum as a child, and it’s clear he doesn’t fit within any of the environments he attempts to carve out for himself save the solitary cabin where he later begins his personal agrarian experiment. As the eldest son of the family it would be expected that Miyazawa take over the family business but there just isn’t any way he could. Second son Seiroku (Ryuji Harada) later adopts the familial responsibilities, even if remaining committed to his brother’s legacy by collating and publishing his work following Miyazawa’s death.

Miyazawa’s strangeness extends to his diet – he’s a strict vegetarian thanks to his attachment to Nichizen Buddhism. Intense religiosity remains a central part of Miyazawa’s life but it’s often one that’s hard to integrate with his other relationships. Not content with leading by example, Miyazawa is continually trying to convert his reluctant friends and family to his own beliefs, refusing to take their polite refusals seriously. Though his father simply ignores Miyazawa’s pleas and accepts them as a part of his strangeness, other friends are not so tolerant. One even eventually decides to sever the friendship entirely, giving the young Miyazawa a painful station platform lecture on the true nature of friendship. Berating him for the fact his letters are essentially all about himself and his religious claptrap, his friend reminds him that true friendship is accepting someone for what they are, implying that he’s not a trophy to be won for the cause of Nichizen Buddhism and has his own beliefs and causes which are just as valid as Miyazawa’s.

Yet even if sometimes misguided, Miyazawa’s intensions are altruistic. His is a love of the world, of dreams, and nature and people too though something in him has never quite felt at home in conventional society. Miyazawa’s writing is more an artistic pursuit than an attempt at a literary occupation – his first published volume sold so badly he felt guilty enough to get himself in debt buying all his own books so that the publishing company wouldn’t be out of pocket after supporting him. The son of wealthy family, Miyazawa could perhaps afford to indulge his eccentric ideas but the same is not true for all as he finds out when visiting the home of a pupil who is considering giving up his studies because of an alcoholic parent. Miyazawa offers to pay his tuition for him, but the boy turns him down, studying is a frivolous affectation that he can no longer afford.

Though he talks of romance, Miyazawa prefers the one of the mind to the one of the heart. A young woman falls in love with his writings and, she thinks, with him though Miyazawa explains that her feelings are too big for him to process – just as one cannot eat all the clouds in the sky, he cannot accept the weight of her emotion. Knowing that his health is failing, Miyazawa chooses a fantasy, idealised love over a physical one he fears he will abandon, cleaving to the beauty of the landscape rather than those who people it.

On his deathbed Miyazawa asks his family to throw his notebooks away – he only kept them to try and figure things out but he feels as if he knows all he needs to know by now. Miyazawa’s constant search, as it was for the characters of Night on the Galactic Railroad, was for “true happiness” – perhaps he found it, perhaps not, but thankfully his work lived on thanks to his brother who later took up his interest in agricultural reforms. A typical prestige picture of the time, Night Train to the Stars is a straightforward biopic but one which also bears out Miyazawa’s dreamlike world view with all of its strangeness and wonder.


 

Blue Christmas (ブルークリスマス , Kihachi Okamoto, 1978)

blue-christmasThe Christmas movie has fallen out of fashion of late as genial seasonally themed romantic comedies have given way to sci-fi or fantasy blockbusters. Perhaps surprisingly seeing as Christmas in Japan is more akin to Valentine’s Day, the phenomenon has never really taken hold meaning there are a shortage of date worthy movies designed for the festive season. If you were hoping Blue Christmas (ブルークリスマス) might plug this gap with some romantic melodrama, be prepared to find your heart breaking in an entirely different way because this Kichachi Okamoto adaptation of a So Kuramoto novel is a bleak ‘70s conspiracy thriller guaranteed to kill that festive spirit stone dead.

A Japanese scientist disgraces himself and his country at an international conference by affirming his belief in aliens only to mysteriously “disappear” on the way back to his hotel. Intrepid reporter Minami (Tatsuya Nakadai) gets onto the case after meeting with a friend to cover the upcoming release of the next big hit – Blue Christmas by The Humanoids. His friend has been having an affair with the network’s big star but something strange happened recently – she cut her finger and her blood was blue. Apparently, hers is not an isolated case and some are linking the appearance of these “Blue Bloods” to the recent spate of UFO sightings. Though there is nothing to suggest there is anything particularly dangerous about the blue blood phenomenon, international tensions are rising and “solutions” are being sought.

A second strand emerges in the person of government agent, Oki (Hiroshi Katsuno), who has fallen in love with the assistant at his local barbers, Saeko (Keiko Takeshita). Responsible for carrying out assassinations and other nefarious deeds for the bad guys, Oki’s loyalty is shaken when a fellow officer and later the woman he loves are also discovered to be carriers of the dreaded blue blood.

Okamoto lays the parallels on a little thick at times with stock footage of the rise of Nazism and its desire to rid the world of “bad blood”. Sadly, times have not changed all that much and the Blue Bloods incite nothing but fear within political circles, some believing they’re sleeper agents for an alien invasion or somehow intended to overthrow the global world order. Before long special measures have been enforced requiring all citizens to submit to mandatory blood testing. The general population is kept in the dark regarding the extent of the “threat” as well as what “procedures” are in place to counter it, but anti Blue Blood sentiment is on the rise even if the students are on hand to launch the counter protest in protection of their blue blooded brethren, unfairly demonised by the state.

The “procedures” involve mass deportations to concentration camps in Siberia in which those with blue blood are interrogated, tortured, experimented on and finally lobotomised. This is an international operation with people from all over the world delivered by their own governments in full cognisance of the treatment they will be receiving and all with no concrete evidence of any kind of threat posed by the simple colouring of their blood (not that “genuine threat” would ever be enough to excuse such vile and inhuman treatment). In the end, the facts do not matter. The government has a big plan in motion for the holiday season in which they will stage and defeat a coup laid at the feet of the Blue Blood “resistance”, ending public opposition to their anti-Blue Blood agenda once and for all.

Aside from the peaceful protest against the mandatory blood testing and subsequent discrimination, the main opposition to the anti-Blue Blood rhetoric comes from the ironically titled The Humanoids with the ever present Blue Christmas theme song, and the best efforts of Minami as he attempts to track down the missing scientist and uncover the conspiracy. This takes him around the world – firstly to America where he employs the somewhat inefficient technique of simply asking random people in the street if they’ve seen him. Laughed out of government buildings after trying to make serious enquires, Minami’s last hope lies in a dodgy part of town where no one would even try to look, but he does at least get some answers. Unfortunately, the information he receives is inconvenient to everyone, gets him fired from the investigation, and eventually earns him a transfer to Paris.

In keeping with many a ‘70s political thriller, Blue Christmas is bleaker than bleak, displaying little of Okamoto’s trademark wit in its sorry tale of irrational fear manipulated by the unscrupulous. In the end, blue blood mingles with red in the Christmas snow as the bad guys win and the world looks set to continue on a course of hate and violence with a large fleet of UFOs apparently also on the way bearing uncertain intentions. Legend has it Okamoto was reluctant to take on Blue Christmas with its excessive dialogue and multiple locations. He had a point, the heavy exposition and less successful foreign excursions overshadow the major themes but even so Blue Christmas has, unfortunately, become topical once again. Imperfect and cynical if gleefully ironic in its frequent juxtapositions of Jingle Bells and genocide, Blue Christmas’ time has come as its central message is no less needed than it was in 1978 – those bleak political conspiracy thrillers you like are about to come back in style.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Virus (復活の日, Kinji Fukasaku, 1980)

virusThe ‘70s. It was a bleak time when everyone was frightened of everything and desperately needed to be reminded why everything was so terrifying by sitting in a dark room and watching a disaster unfold on-screen. Thank goodness everything is so different now! Being the extraordinarily savvy guy he was, Hiroki Kadokawa decided he could harness this wave of cold war paranoia to make his move into international cinema with the still fledgling film arm he’d added to the publishing company inherited from his father.

Adapted from a pessimistic, post-plague novel in the vein of Andromeda Strain penned by Japan Sinks’ Sakyo Komatsu, Virus (復活の日, Fukkatsu no Hi) was, at that time, the most expensive Japanese movie ever made. Using an international cast with the bulk of the dialogue in English, Kadokawa’s hopes were high but his dream was ultimately dashed when the film bombed at the box office and ended up being unceremoniously sold off to cable TV in a re-edited international version which removed almost all of the Japanese scenes. Since its original release, the film has accrued something of a negative reputation and left a stain on the resume of its otherwise popular director Kinji Fukasaku  (whose other international effort, Tora! Tora! Tora! didn’t do him any favours either) but Virus is far from the disaster it’s often regarded to be, even if extremely flawed.

Seismologist Yoshizumi (Masao Kusakari) witnesses the ruined state of his homeland in December 1983 from the comfort of a British submarine. Reminiscing about the woman who left him because of his scientific obsessions, Yoshizumi becomes our catalyst for a flashback to learn exactly how the world was destroyed in just a couple of years. Genetic experiments to create new viruses were banned in 1981 but in the following February a dodgy deal goes down in East Germany and the most dangerous biological weapon ever created is accidentally unleashed when the plane it was travelling on crashes into the Alps. It’s not long before “Italian flu” is laying waste to half of Europe before reaching Asia and the Americas. The virus is all powerful and no serious attempts to combat it are possible given the lack of time, but, the virus is dormant at below zero temperatures so the antarctic polar research station becomes humanity’s last hope for survival.

Though the film is funded and produced by Japan, it clearly positions America as its global leader. This is, however, countered by the fact that the weapon itself was being developed in America as a “credible deterrent” against Russian aggression now that Russia and the US are about even on Nukes. The bad guys are the American intelligence officials who have been continuing the research illegally without the President’s knowledge. In a touch of ironic Soviet-style manoeuvring, a research scientist trying to blow the whistle on this frighteningly destructive project is thrown into a mental hospital.

Rather than the struggle to find a cure, Virus prefers to focus on the immediate effects of the epidemic as the civilised world crumbles with alarming speed. Zipping around the major world capitals with death tolls placed against picturesque landmarks, Fukasaku mixes in stock footage of real rioting and civil unrest (of which he had a lot to choose from by 1980) as people take to the streets in desperation. Hospitals overflow with the infected, and the bodies pile up unceasingly.

The situation in Antartica is calmer if concerned. Some researchers opt for suicide whilst others club together to discuss possible plans for the survival of the human race. Unfortunately, this being a scientific community in the 1980s, there are 800 men and just 8 women, which leads to a number of obvious social problems. The remaining women are quickly convinced to become a kind of comfort team “accommodating” the needs of the attendant men. If the need really was to repopulate as quickly as possible, such an extreme re-imagining of current social mores would hardly be necessary, but strangely the women seem to accept their sudden conversion to forced prostitution with stoic pragmatism. Civility is maintained, and the outpost colony survives without too many problems but another threat arrives when Yoshizumi predicts a major earthquake event set to hit Washington that may activate its secret nuclear weapons which are trained on Moscow. That hardly matters now except that Moscow’s nukes are pointed at their research base owing to a slight political misunderstanding.

The research base is a testament to international cooperation with representatives from all continents, all working together peacefully (well, mostly – Lopez (Edward James Olmos) is…a passionate man) for the betterment of science. When it comes down to it, Yoshizumi and the American soldier Carter (Bo Svenson) are the lone duo heading back into plague infested Washington in an attempt to shut down the nuclear weapons systems before it’s too late.

Where Virus differs from many of the similarly themed films of the time is in its generally benevolent view of humanity. Despite the fact that the virus was man made, constructed to perpetuate an ongoing arms race, and was released due to bad luck and avarice, the majority of people are good, progressive sorts who want to work together to figure all of this out. Where the re-edited US version opts for a bleaker than bleak ending, the Japanese version does at least demonstrate the strength of human endurance as Yoshizumi trudges south in search of the survivors. The world is not restored, but there is still a kind of life possible if only those left behind can choose to live it.

Fukasaku opts for a more straightforward approach than some of his more frenetic work, but introduces an interesting device when the exhausted, hungry, and lonely Yoshizumi passes through a church. A mental dialogue with Christ on the cross is offered entirely in subtitles, as is the later “conversation” with a skeleton lying next to it who asks Yoshizumi some tough questions about his relationships and intentions.

These more spiritual enquiries play into the secondary theme of Yoshizumi’s ongoing guilt over abandoning his pregnant girlfriend to head off to Antarctica. Though adding to Yoshizumi’s backstory, his lost love in Japan occupies slightly more of the running time than is comfortable only to end on an ambiguous, if bleak, note which has little to do with anything else going on at the time. It does, however, feed into the mirroring developments at the research station when Yoshizumi is charged with looking after a pregnant woman and then becomes attached both to her and to the baby. It’s Yoshizumi’s love for another man’s wife and child coupled with the failure to save his own which drive him onward, but the romantic subplot often feels like an after thought and never achieves the kind of impact it hopes for.

Though a meandering, unwieldy beast, Virus is undoubtedly ambitious and often successful even if its production values don’t always live up to its famously high budget. Despite odd casting decisions which find Americans commanding British submarines and Brits playing Norwegians with English accents the largely international cast acquits itself well. Virus’ world is an oddly rational one where those left behind are willing to put aside their differences to work together rather than selfishly try to save themselves (though the film offers no ideas on how anyone is going to survive on Antartica when the supplies run out). As such, its vision is as bleak as many ‘70s dystopias but it also offers a brief glimmer of hope in allowing Yoshizumi to trudge to a kind of home, even if it’s one of ongoing uncertainty and primitive survival.


This review refers to the full 156 minute cut rather than the 108 minute US version.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bloom in the Moonlight (わが愛の譜 滝廉太郎物語, Shinichiro Sawai, 1993)

bloom-in-the-moonlightAll those songs and rhymes you learnt as a child, somehow it’s strange to think that someone must have written them once, they seem to just exist independently. In Japan, the name behind many of these familiar tunes is Rentaro Taki – the first composer to set Japanese lyrics to European style “classical” music. It’s important to remember that even classical music was once contemporary, and along with the opening up of the nation during the Meiji era came a desire to engage with the “high culture” of other developed nations. The Tokyo Music School was founded in 1887 and Taki graduated from it just four years later in 1901. However, his career was to be a short one as his health gradually declined until he passed away of tuberculosis at just 23 years old. Bloom in the Moonlight (わが愛の譜 滝廉太郎物語, Waga Ai no Uta: Taki Rentaro Monogatari), also the title of one of his most well known and poignant songs, is the story of his musical career but also of the history of early classic music in Japan as the country found itself in a moment of extreme cultural shift.

Defying his father’s wishes and travelling to Tokyo to pursue a musical education, Rentaro Taki (Toru Kazama) becomes fascinated by the piano and is determined to become a high level pianist. Even knowing how hard it is to conquer the instrument and that many of his contemporaries have been studying since early childhood, Rentaro refuses to lose heart and pushes himself to become the best piano player that he can possibly be. Always a sickly child, Rentaro’s intense devotion to his instrument begins to threaten his health but his ambition knows no limit. The purpose of the school leans more towards the study and dissemination of Western music among ordinary people but soon Rentaro and some of his fellow pupils grow tired of the idea that their role is that of teachers and scholars and begin composing their own work. Rentaro’s songs become what is really the first kind of modern folk music, marrying the European classical music of the foreign elites and the more egalitarian, everyman quality of the accompanying lyrics to create a new kind of Japanese music.

The tale is narrated at times by a fellow pupil, Yuki Nakano (Isako Washio), who encounters Rentaro at the same time as he encounters the piano. The star pupil at the school and sister of an already internationally famous concert pianist, Yuki is nevertheless insecure about her own skills. Rentaro quickly surpasses her though the two become close and eventually a source of mutual inspiration. Adding to the melancholy nature of the tale, Yuki falls in love with Rentaro and his musical intensity but the pair are separated when she is selected as one of the first pupils to be sent abroad to learn from the classical music masters in Germany. A year later, Rentaro is also permitted to go and the pair are briefly reunited but it will be for the last time as Rentaro’s illness intensifies and brings an early end to his musical career.

Times being what they are, Rentaro and Yuki are denied the possibility of pursuing a romance, adding to the theme of poignancy and missed opportunities running through the film. Indeed, the final piece Rentaro composes and which he is still working on right up to the end is for Yuki and is titled “Regret”. Dedicating himself to music above all else, Rentaro leaves behind him a musical legacy but still, as one of his songs puts it, longs for the “brightness of bygone days”.

Rentaro was from a wealthy family, and even if his father did not approve of his decision to study music, he continued to support him even whilst worrying about his constant ill health. Many of his fellow pupils were not so lucky including his good friend Suzuki (Ryo Amamiya) who is forced to leave the school when his father becomes ill leaving him responsible for each of his siblings. Eventually Suzuki is able to return to the world of music as a teacher, playing Rentaro’s folk songs for the local village children and helping to make his friend’s work some of the most well known in Japan.

Little is seen outside of the rarefied world of wealthy students and their internationally focussed cultural pursuits but at times the other world is allowed to slink in, particularly in the case of an inn girl who is charged with looking after Rentaro during one of his periods of convalescence. The girl, Fumi (Miki Fujitani), also becomes fascinated with Rentaro’s intense love music but any attachment on her part can only lead to tragedy. All else aside, Rentaro is the oldest son of a wealthy family and not seriously considering a formal arrangement with someone like Fumi. Eventually she will be sold off as a concubine to a wealthy man, there are no better options for her even in the bright new Meiji era.

As in much of his other work, Sawai neatly avoids the more sentimental elements of the story even if melodrama is a necessary part of its appeal. Bloom in the Moonlight is among his more straightforward efforts sticking to the prestige picture approach without any of the stranger or more expressive sequences which often crop up in films such as W’s Tragedy or Maison Ikkoku. As a neutral biopic, the treatment of its subject is at times superficial, skipping other interesting details of Rentaro Taki’s life such as his late conversion to Christianity preferring to focus on the tragic love story which becomes the genesis of his final, unfinished work. Nevertheless, Bloom in the Midnight succeeds in telling the sad story of a musical genius who poured all of his intensity into a few short years leaving a body of work behind him likely to outlive us all.


Rentaro Taki’s songs are still very popular today and if you’ve spent any time at all watching Japanese films you will definitely have heard them.

One of the most recognisable – Hana

And one of the most well known – Kojo no Tsuki (with footage from Throne of Blood!)

 

A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Junji Sakamoto, 2012)

chorus of angelsAs you read the words “adapted from the novel by Kanae Minato” you know that however cute and cuddly the blurb on the back may make it sound, there will be pain and suffering at its foundation. So it is with A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Kita no Kanariatachi) which sells itself as a kind of mini-take on Twenty-Four Eyes (“Twelve Eyes” – if you will) as a middle aged former school mistress meets up with her six former charges only to discover that her own actions have cast an irrevocable shadow over the very sunlight she was determined to shine on their otherwise troubled young lives.

Haru has been working as a librarian in the city for the last twenty years and has finally reached retirement age but before that she was a school teacher in Japan’s frozen north. Before she can even think about enjoying her new found freedom, a pair of policeman turn up at her door to ask her a few questions about one of her former pupils, Nobuto, who is a suspect in a murder case. It seems that they found Haru’s address amongst Nobuto’s possessions and are keen to find out what kind of relationship she had with him and anything she might know about his current whereabouts. Haru is shocked to the core but remembers that she always gets a New Year card from one of Nobuto’s classmates, Manami, and decides to return home at long last to try and put to rest some wandering ghosts.

Like much of Kanae Minato’s work, A Chorus of Angels is a perfectly constructed mystery only this time much more of the heart than of the head. Consequently, it would be wrong to reveal too much of the plot but suffice to say that a traumatic incident twenty years ago left a profound effect not only on each of the children but also on their teacher and others in the surrounding area. Re-encountering each of her six pupils again, Haru discovers that each of them has been harbouring a deeply buried sense of guilt and shame, believing themselves to have been responsible for what happened that day. That sense of unresolved trauma has prevented each of them from fully getting on with their lives, as if some part of each of them was frozen in time when they were just primary school children singing in a choir and feeling proud of themselves for the first time in their lives.

Their teacher, Haru, also left a part of herself behind in that snowy northern landscape. Having committed something which some would regard as a sin, she’s hounded off the island – or perhaps allows herself to be, giving in to a punishment that she sees as befitting her own sense of guilt. However, as is customary for Minato, Haru’s “crime” is not such a black and white affair. If she betrayed someone, that person understood and, ultimately, only wanted the best for her. That she sacrificed the things that might have allowed her to go on living a happy life is the kind of tragic irony Minato is known for and the lonely, cold and shut off appearance of Haru’s twenty years of librarianing exile is another perfect example. She didn’t really do anything wrong except for try to live, and yet she’s paid for that with the next twenty years of her life and not only that, in robbing the young children who’d come to see her as something of a guardian angel of her very presence, she’s left them to pay too. Guilt grows like a mountain until it eclipses even the brightest of suns.

Despite its unfeasibly starry cast which radiates around veteran actress Sayuri Yoshinga and includes such young talents as Hikari Mitsushima, Mirai Moriyama, Ryuhei Matsuda, Ryo Katsuji, Aoi Miyazaki and Eiko Koike, A Chorus of Angles is actually fairly ordinary in terms of its directorial style and though it manages to stay on the right side of saccharine, never quite manages to make its tear-jerking set-up quite as moving as it seems to want to be. That said, it does boast some extraordinarily beautiful scenes of the Hokkaido snowscape which is a perfect setting for this chilling, frozen ghost story in which no actual ghosts appear. The children’s childhoods are all blissful blue skies and sunny summer days but in the future there’s only snow and cold winter sunshine. Just stay alive, it would be enough – to live is to suffer, but you have to go on. The important thing to learn is that it’s one thing to forgive everyone else, but there comes a time when you have to forgive yourself, too.


The Hong Kong release of A Chorus of Angels includes English subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer: