Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Akio Jissoji, 2005)

Summer of the UbumeAkio Jissoji has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director to date. In a career that also encompasses the landmark tokusatsu franchise Ultraman and a large selection of children’s TV, Jissoji made his mark as an avant-garde director through his three Buddhist themed art films for ATG. Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Ubume no Natsu) is a relatively late effort and finds Jissoji adapting a supernatural mystery novel penned by Natsuhiko Kyogoku neatly marrying most of his central concerns into one complex detective story.

Freelance writer Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) and occult expert Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) become intrigued by the bizarre story of a woman who has apparently been pregnant for twenty months. If that weren’t enough weirdness, the woman’s husband also went missing a year ago and now her sister has approached the pair hoping they can investigate and figure out what’s really going on. Unbeknownst to him, Sekiguchi has a longstanding connection with several of the people involved and himself plays a role in the central mystery. Demons foreign and domestic, past trauma, infanticide and multiple personality disorder are just some of the possible solutions but as Kyogokudo is keen to remind us, there is nothing in this world that is truly strange.

The mystery conceit takes the form of a classic European style detective story complete witha drawing room based finale in which each of our potential suspects is assembled for Kyogokudo so that he can deliver his final lecture and tick them all off the list as he goes along. The tale takes place in the summer of 1952 and so the spectre of Japan’s wartime past, as well as its growing future, both have a part to play in solving this extremely complex crime. The original supernatural question concerns two otherworldly entities which have become conflated – the Chinese Kokakucho which abducts children, and the Japanese Ubume which offers its child to passersby. Needless to say, the answer to all of our questions lies firmly within our own world and is in no small part the result of relentless cruelty masked as tradition.

The opening scene includes a lengthy discussion between Kyogokudo an Sekiguchi debating the nature of reality. We only experience the world as we perceive it, seeing and unseeing at will. Everybody, to an extent, sees what they need to see, therefore, memory proves an unreliable narrator when it comes to recalling facts which may run contrary to the already prepared narrative.

Jissoji brings his trademark surrealist approach to the material which largely consists of interconnecting flashbacks often intercut with other dreamlike imagery. Filming with odd angles and unusual camera movements, Jissoji makes the the regular world a destabilising place as the strange mystery takes hold. The canted angles and direct to camera approach also add to a slight hardboiled theme which creeps in around the otherwise European detective drama though this mystery is much more about solving a series of puzzles than navigating the dangerously dark world of the noir. That said this is a very bleak tale which, for all its frog faced children weirdness, has some extremely unpleasant human behaviour at its roots.

Supernatural investigator Kyogokudo quickly dispenses with the demonic in favour of the natural but the solutions to this extremely complicated set of mysteries are anything but simple. Making space for the original novel’s author to show up as a travelling picture storyteller with some Shigeru Mizuki inspired illustrations on his easel, Summer of Ubume is not entirely devoid of whimsy but its deliberately arch tone is one which it manages to make work with its already bizarre set up. The enemy is the unburied past, or more precisely the unacknowledged past which generates its own series of ghosts and phantasms, always lurking in the background and creating havoc wherever they go. Occasionally confusing, Summer of Ubume is a fascinating supernatural mystery which takes its cues much more from European detective stories and gothic adventure than from supernatural horror or fantastical ghost story.


Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s source novel is available in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith (published by Vertical in the US).

Original trailer (no subs):

Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース, Eiichi Kudo, 1981)

Yokohama bj bluesYusaku Matsuda may have been the coolest action star of the ‘70s but by the end of the decade he was getting bored with his tough guy persona and looked to diversify his range a little further than his recent vehicles had allowed him. Matsuda had already embarked on a singing career some years before but in Eiichi Kudo’s Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース), he was finally allowed to display some of his musical talents on screen as a blues singer and ex-cop who makes ends meet through his work as a detective for hire.

After his set at a rundown jazz bar, BJ’s first job is tracking down a missing son. When he finds the guy, Akira, he seems to have become the employee (and possible sex slave?) of a gay gangster. Akira says he’s fine with his new life and wants his mother to leave him alone so BJ gets the hell out of there to give her the message but the unpleasantness of the situation lingers with him a little.

Shortly after, BJ receives a telephone call from an old police buddy, Ryo, who needs his help. Ryo got in too deep with the same gang BJ just came up against and is thinking of quitting the force in a bid to make the “Family” lose interest in him. However, Ryo is gunned down in broad daylight leaving his partner, Beniya, convinced that BJ is somehow responsible. BJ now doubly has it in for Family and starts working on his own behalf to try and find some answers and possibly a little vengeance too.

You see, back when Ryo and BJ were partners, they both liked the same girl, Tamiko, who eventually married Ryo. Beniya thinks BJ killed his friend to steal his wife and is much more interested in giving BJ a good kicking rather than investigating this very strange gang set up which seems to have some kind of drug smuggling gig going with the triads in Hong Kong.

BJ forms an odd sort of friendship with Akira in the hopes of tracking down the four gay, leather clad punk henchmen of Ali who probably gunned down his friend. However, the conspiracy only deepens and BJ finds himself suspecting even his closest of friends.

With its jazz soundtrack and melancholy tone, Yokohama BJ Blues is channelling hard boiled in a big way though does so in a distinctly modern fashion. BJ sings the blues whilst walking around this strange noir world which seems to endlessly disappoint him. Unfortunately for him, BJ is quite a good detective and quickly gets himself in way over his head only to end up finding out a few things it might be better not to know.

One of the film’s most notable components is its use of homoerotic themes with its gangs of gay gangsters, rent boys and punks. Indeed, though the wife of his former partner is floated as a possible motive, the love interest angle is never fully explored and all of BJ’s significant interactions in the film are with other men. Firstly his relationship with his former police partner Ryo which kick starts the entire adventure and then his strange almost date-like experience with Akira about half way through. BJ remains otherwise alone, a solo voice seeking justice for his fallen friends.

Of course, the film’s selling point is Matsuda’s singing so he’s allowed to play his own chorus in a sense by narrating the events from the stage in the form of the blues. Not quite “The Singing Detective”, but almost – BJ tries to bring some kind of order to his world by turning it into a song. In addition to adding to the noir tone, the bluesy soundtrack even allows for a New Orleans-esque musical funeral which oddly fits right in with the film’s weird, macabre atmosphere.

A surreal, noir inspired crime drama with musical elements, Yokohama BJ Blues is quite a hard film to categorise. Unusual for its homosexual milieu and overt homoerotic plotting the film occupies something of a unique place given its obvious marketing potential and star’s profile coupled with its decidedly murky noir tone. Difficult, yet interesting, Yokohama BJ Blues ultimately succeeds both as an intriguing crime drama and as a star vehicle for its versatile leading man.


This is a really, deeply, strange film.

Unsubtitled trailer:

I actually quite like Matsuda’s foray into the world of jazz, the title song from Yokohama BJ Blues which is heard in the trailer is called Brother’s Song and is included on Matsuda’s 1981 album Hardest Day. Here he is on a talk show singing Yokohama Honky Tonk Blues:

Midsummer’s Equation (真夏の方程式, Hiroshi Nishitani, 2013)

midsummer's equationSometimes it’s handy to know an omniscient genius detective, but then again sometimes it’s not. You have to wonder why people keep inviting famous detectives to their parties given what’s obviously going to unfold – they do rather seem to be a magnet for murders. Anyhow, the famous physicist and sometime consultant to Japan’s police force, “Galileo”, is about to have another busman’s holiday as he travels to a small coastal town which is currently holding a mediation between an offshore mining company and the local residents who are worried about the development’s effects on the area’s sea life.

As fans of the series will know, Manabu Yukawa is a fastidious and difficult man who likes things just so. On the train he ends up encountering a small boy who annoys the other passengers by answering his phone. Apparently he can’t turn it off because all sorts of notifications will be sent to his parents and they’ll go into panic overdrive. The old man across from him doesn’t believe this and grabs the phone away from the small boy after an undignified tussle. In an uncharacteristic move, Yukawa comes to the boy’s rescue by taking back the phone and wrapping it in foil so it won’t go off again – problem solved.

The boy, Kyohei, turns out to be the nephew of the inn owners at the place where Yukawa is staying. After another guest is found dead in mysterious and suspicious circumstances, little Kyohei immediately raises several doubts of his own which endears him to Yukawa who is sad to hear that the boy hates science classes at school. Still, Yukawa concedes there are some odd details in this case especially as the dead man is an ex-Tokyo policeman. Before long Detective Kishitani has been dispatched to assist in  the investigation of another strange mystery.

Again based on a novel by Keigo Higashino, the fourth in his Galileo series, Midsummer’s Equation (真夏の方程式, Manatsu no Houteishiki) is something of a departure as it takes place in an idyllic summer seaside town and is more like some of Higashino’s other mysteries as it places secrets of the heart at its core. Yukawa is generally a difficult man who can’t stand children, in fact they bring him out in a rash. However, for some reason Kyohei doesn’t seem to have this effect on him and he becomes determined to teach the boy the joy of science through a series of experiments while also investigating the central mystery. The incurably curious little tike becomes almost like a mini deputy to Yukawa as he begins to piece together what exactly has happened but it turns out Kyohei may have a different part to play than had originally been suspected.

In the usual mode, it’s not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit and a how will they catch them. The mystery’s solution is heavily signposted from the beginning and there aren’t a lot in the way of twists. In contrast with some of the other Yukawa mysteries, particularly those from the TV drama, there aren’t a lot of clever scientific shenanigans either and though the central murder is plotted in quite an elaborate way, it’s also a panicked adaptation to circumstances which could be enacted by anyone, anywhere.

Long term series director Hiroshi Nishitani pulls out all the stops here and leaves the small screen far behind as he creates a surprisingly artistic take on a fairly run of the mill murder mystery. Beginning with the repeated motif of the falling red umbrella, he takes care to create a nuanced visual poetry which is quite different in approach both to the construction of the TV series and the other big screen outing which adapted Higashino’s most famous novel, The Devotion of Suspect X. Suspect X never quite managed to marry its roots as the theatrical adaptation of a TV drama and as an adaptation of a hugely popular and award winning book into something which was convincing on both levels. Midsummer’s Equation has an easier time with this as it’s slightly separated from the TV drama series and largely succeeds in becoming a standalone adventure for its famous detective.

Masaharu Fukuyama returns to the role with which he’s become most closely associated and once again captures Yukawa’s detached, though not necessarily uncaring, exterior with ease. He’s ably assisted by a fairly starry supporting cast which includes veteran actress Jun Fubuki, Tora-san’s Gin Maeda and the relatively young actress Anne (Watanabe) as well as the returning Yuriko Yoshitaka as the reluctant Detective Kishitani and cameo appearances from Kazuki Kitamura and Tetsushi Tanaka as Kyohei’s father.

Midsummer’s Equation is Higashino in a more forgiving mood as his hardline moralism never really kicks in and he’s content to merely be sorry for this rather complicated mess of affairs. Here, there’s hope for the future and the possibility of a path forward now that long buried secrets have been uncovered and the truth set out to bloom in the sunlight. He makes it plain that secrets are the root of all evil and that only by embracing the truth, and all of the truth, can you ever be able to make informed choices about your future. This is a lesson that Yukawa wants to pass on to little Kyohei who might be too young to understand the exact implications of his role in the affair (though he seems to have figured some of it out), but will undoubtedly have a few questions as he grows up. A well crafted addition to the series, Midsummer’s Equation proves another enjoyable excursion for Yukawa which succeeds not only in terms of its intricately plotted mystery but also as an intriguing and emotionally satisfying character drama.


The Hong Kong release of Midsummer’s Equation includes English subtitles.