Harmful Insect (害虫, Akihiko Shiota, 2001)

“We’re only in seventh grade, why does Sachi have to suffer so much?” a well-meaning friend eventually asks as she comforts the heroine of Akihiko Shiota’s Harmful Insect (害虫, Gaichu), even as her mother turns away from her too fragile herself to be of much use. Sachiko (Aoi Miyazaki) does indeed suffer, continually victimised by the world in which she lives and having that victimisation used against her, rejected by her peers and almost blamed for the misfortunes which befall her as if she were the one at fault simply for existing. 

Shortly after the opening scene in which 13-year-old Sachiko’s mother (Ryo) attempts to take her own life, we see the girls at school gossiping about her while she’s still in earshot not entirely sympathetic as they remark on the fact her father left the family while implying that her mother is some kind of broken-hearted love fool driven to suicide over the loss of a man. Sachiko quickly becomes the woman of rumour, but in a motif which will be repeated the teens talk but never listen swapping stories between themselves and embellishing them as they go. It’s uncertain how much truth there is in the legend of Sachiko but it’s clear that they disapprove of her, adopting a puritanical moralising mindset in which they simply shun her for being something other. Only Natsuko (Yu Aoi) tries to stop them, reaching out to Sachiko even as Sachiko rejects her but is ultimately able to offer little help when even Sachiko’s mother is ill-equipped to protect her. 

The truth is that Sachiko is never safe anywhere. Everywhere she goes, she becomes a target for predatory men of all ages. A schoolboy on a bike harasses her by asking childish questions about her period, while sleazy salarymen repeatedly proposition her for sex, and even her mother’s new boyfriend in a doubly destructive act of betrayal cannot be trusted. She says little and keeps to herself, her silence and her isolation a kind of defiance and defence mechanism. After dropping out of school, she starts hanging around with a drop out 20-something (Tetsu Sawaki) and his homeless friend (Koji Ishikawa) who seems to have learning difficulties, discovering that they support themselves through staging accidents for compensation money. She considers doing the same thing, not for the money but craving the thrill of a near death experience only to find herself unable to go through with it. 

Meanwhile, she continues a letter-based correspondence with her former teacher with whom she is rumoured to have had an affair. Mr. Ogata (Seiichi Tanabe) later resigned for obvious reasons and now has a low-grade job at a nuclear plant. He answers her letters when he can, mostly offering paternalistic platitudes but like her absent parents is unable to provide her with the guidance she is seeking. What she seems to be looking for is the kind of parental input that would allow her to feel protected, safe, but no one is really there for her. She resents her mother’s emotional dependency and tendency to involve herself with unsuitable men, but worries she’s becoming the same striking out for an early independence but discovering only danger and futility. 

She asks herself if vice is the essence of human existence, then is goodness only the quality of not being entirely bad? Her view of the world already coloured with nihilistic despair. The men who misuse her feel they have no real need to justify their actions, but simultaneously blame her for tempting them though she does nothing other than exist remaining silent in order to avoid attracting attention. Then again even she doesn’t quite understand, asking her teacher why it is he can’t forgive himself simultaneously accepting that what happened between them, whatever that was, was wrong enough to warrant forgiveness but unable to grasp why he cannot let go of his guilt, continuing with this half-hearted correspondence unable to grant her the care that she is seeking. Wandering between flashbacks and brief vignettes of her life, Shiota captures Sachiko’s sense of total aloneness as even her sole source of sanctuary is taken from her leading to an explosive act of partially self-destructive violence that sends her forever on the run. The choice she makes at the film’s conclusion, be it in submission or defiance, is hers alone but in its own way a tragedy dragging her deeper into dangerous despair with escape an ever distant possibility.


Harmful Insect streams in the US until Dec. 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2002 NIKKATSU / TBS / SONY PCL

Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン, SABU, 2005)

hold-up-downReteaming with popular boy band V6, SABU returns with another madcap caper in the form of surreal farce Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン). Holding up is, as usual, not on SABU’s roadmap as he proceeds at a necessarily brisk pace, weaving these disparate plot strands into their inevitable climax. Perhaps a little shallower than the director’s other similarly themed offerings, Hold Up Down mixes everything from reverse Father Christmasing gone wrong, to gun obsessed policemen, train obsessed policewomen, clumsy defrocked priests carrying the cross of frozen Jesus, and a Shining-esque hotel filled with creepy ghosts. Quite a lot to be going on with but if SABU has proved anything it’s that he’s very adept at juggling.

Christmas Eve – two guys hold up a bank whilst cunningly disguised as Santas, but emerging with the money they find their getaway car getting away from them on the back of a tow truck. Still dressed as Father Christmases, the guys head for the subway and decide to stash the cash in a coin locker only neither of them has any change. After robbing a busker at gunpoint for 800 yen, the duo get rid of the loot but the guy chases after them at which point they lose the key which the busker swallows after being hit by a speeding police car. Trying to cover up the crime the two policeman bundle him into the car but crash a short time later at which time the busker gets thrown in a lake and then retrieved by a defrocked priest under the misapprehension that he is Japanese Jesus!

Following SABU’s usual spiralling chase formula, events quickly escalate as one random incident eventually leads to another. Christmas is a time of romance in Japan, though encountering the love of your life during a bank robbery is less than ideal. After a love at first sight moment heralded by a musical cue, the thieves head back on the run with the girl in tow but the course of true love never did run smooth. If romance is one motivator – death is another. On this holiest of days, our defrocked priest is caught in a moment of despair, contemplating the ultimate religious taboo in taking his own life and ending the torment he feels in having failed God so badly. Therefore, when our scruffy hippy busker washes up right nearby he draws the obvious conclusion – Jesus has returned to save him! Attempting to make up for his numerous mistakes, the priest is determined to save and preserve his Lord, but, again, his clumsiness results in more catastrophes.

The situation resolves itself as each of the players winds up at the same abandoned hot springs resort which turns out to be not quite so closed down as everyone thought. Filled with ghostly charm, the gloomy haunted house atmosphere sends everyone over the edge as they thrash out their various issues as if possessed by madness. Culminating in a sequence of extreme slapstick in which everyone fights with everyone else and frozen Jesus plays an unexpectedly active part, Hold Up Down brings all of its surreal goings on to a suitably absurd conclusion in which it seems perfectly reasonable that those wishing to leave limbo land could take a 2.5hr bus trip back to the afterlife.

Pure farce and lacking the heavier themes of other SABU outings, Hold Up Down, can’t help but feel something of a lightweight exercise but that’s not to belittle the extreme intricacy of the plotting or elegance of its resolution. An innovativeIy integrated early fantasy sequence begins the voyage into the surreal which is completed in the strangely spiritual haunted house set piece as the disillusioned priest spends some time with congenial demons before attempting to make his peace with God only for it all to go wrong again. If there is a god here, it’s the Lord of Misrule but thankfully they prove a benevolent one as somehow everything seems to shake itself out with each of our troubled protagonists discovering some kind of inner calm as a result of their strange adventure, as improbable as it seems (in one way or another). Christmas is a time for ghost stories, after all, but you’ll rarely find one as joyful as Hold Up Down.


Scene from the end of the film:

Audition (オーディション, Takashi Miike, 1999)

audition-posterReview of Takashi Miike’s Audition (オーディション) – first published by UK Anime Network.


The world was a much more innocent place back in 1999. Takashi Miike already had 34 films to his name before Audition became his breakout hit even whilst seeing him branded “sick” by a disgusted audience member at the film’s otherwise successful screening at the Rotterdam film festival. Based on the book of the same name by Japan’s master of the nasty psychological thriller Ryu Murakami, Audition is the twisted romantic nightmare to end all twisted romantic nightmares.

Aoyama is a widower with an almost grown-up child. Now that his parental responsibilities are changing, and spurred on by his encouraging son, Aoyama perhaps feels ready to move into another phase of his life by considering the idea of getting married again. However, Aoyama is a sensitive and romantic man who’s actually a little naive when it comes to matters of the heart and obviously hasn’t had much experience in the dating world in the last twenty years. He turns to an old friend who happens to be a casting director and comes up with the novel (if somewhat inappropriate) idea of letting Aoyama sit in on an audition to look for a new wife.

In glancing over the headshot resumés, one catches his eye – that of a former ballet dancer who equates having had to abandon her dream of becoming a professional dancer because of an injury with a sort of spiritual death. This deep sense of loss strikes a chord in the widowed Aoyama and despite his friend’s warnings that she gives him the creeps, Asami is the one he’s set his heart on. However, Asami is not the sweet and innocent girl she first appears to be…

In the intervening 15 years since its original release, Audition has amassed something of a reputation which is to say that viewers will almost certainly be aware of its “extreme” nature. However, Audition arguably works best when seen blind as it begins as a fairly straightforward romantic drama in which a broken hearted widower begins to live again thanks to the attentions of a shy young woman. Of course, Miike is peppering the otherwise anodyne love story with subtle (and not so subtle) clues all the way through, planting doubts in our minds right away. Is Aoyama just an old fool who’s lost his head over a young beauty or is he right to grow suspicious in the face of the ever increasing, yet circumstantial, evidence of Asami’s strangeness?

Is Asami hiding a dark secret, or is Aoyama projecting his fears of romantic entanglements onto her  silhouette and therefore creating, in some sense, a villainess worthy of his anxieties? According to Miike himself, Audition is not a horror movie (Japanese horror movies are linked with the supernatural and Audition’s terrors are very much of the real world) – Murakami in fact wrote the book as a strange kind of “love letter” to a woman he had wronged. Miike sought to envisage her reply and gives her an opportunity to offer a series of extremely dark explanations of her own. Neither Aoyama or Asami have been honest with themselves or each other. Aoyama is looking for a cookie cutter ideal to fit into the pre-made box marked “wife”, and well, it would be better not to go into all the various ways Asami has misrepresented herself but she does have a point when she calls Aoyama on how easy it was to make him fall for her meek and feeble innocent act.

Asami and Aoyama are always working at cross purposes to each other, engaged in a macabre dance where Asami leads by stealth, waltzing Aoyama into her spider’s web of vengeance by neatly subverting his ideas of femininity. However, this is not to cast Asami as a vile temptress or the predatory female born of male fears of emasculation (though these ideas are definitely in play), nor is she an avenging feminist warrior so much as a lonely, damaged woman. At the very end of the film the pair have perhaps reached a kind of understanding as, according to Asami, only in extreme pain does one understand one’s own mind. Left maimed and helpless, each is scarred and broken but alive and, perhaps, at peace at last.


Audition is now re-released on blu-ray in the UK from Arrow Films in a significantly better transfer than the previous US blu-ray from Shout Factory.