Smokin’ on the Moon (ニワトリ★スター, Kanata Wolf, 2017)

Smokin' on the Moon posterSlacker drama has become a mainstay of the Japanese indie scene as aimless young men drift freely in a society which promises them little and threatens to take much. Even so they’ve rarely been quite so genially lost as the pair at the centre of Kanata Wolf’s Smokin’ on the Moon (ニワトリ★スター, Niwatori★Star) whose relatively serene life of stoner bliss is radically derailed after a dramatic encounter with a psychotic yakuza drug dealer. Dreaming of escape, a better life somewhere else, the pair find themselves taking very different paths as they reflect on their familial pasts, broken dreams, and future promises.

34-year-old Sota (Arata Iura) and his younger unofficial roommate and official best friend Rakuto (Ryo Narita) live a “simple” life of casual work which pays for rent and getting stoned if not much else. They are broadly “happy” with their aimless drop out lives and determined not to get involved with the shadier sides of their underworld existence by avoiding the pull of hard drugs and gangster hang outs. All that ends up going by the wayside when their dealer, Jay (Peron Yasu), is offed by sadistic yakuza Hatta (Kanji Tsuda) who makes a point of dropping in on the boys to ask them if they know where Jay might be in order to make sure they don’t. Being directly confronted with gangster violence sparks Sota into a series of epiphanies as he suddenly realises that the stoner life is not a good fit for a man of 34, while Rakuto, who has few other options, considers throwing his lot in with Hatta if only to remain on the sidelines of organised crime.

Sota, son of an Osakan okonomiyaki restaurant owner (Eiji Okuda), left home in flight of family legacy, bored with boring small-town life and resentful of his “destiny” as the heir to a family business. Eight years in Tokyo, however, have been largely wasted, squandered away on constant evasion with nothing more to show for his time than a few crazy stories and a deeply held friendship. Sota does at least have a safety net, he can always go home to a family that will welcome him with open arms. Rakuto is not so lucky. Harbouring deep seated resentment towards his mother who was unable to protect him from a violent step-father, Rakuto fled Okinawa to escape the memory of a traumatic childhood which is perhaps why he finds himself becoming a surrogate father to a little boy whose mother, as it turns out an old friend of his, desperately tries to kick a crack habit given to her by an unforgiving city even as it crushed her dreams of musical success.

Discovering an old report card on which he’d written that his greatest ambition was to work hard for his family, Rakuto decides he needs to buck up and become a responsible husband and father who can provide a stable home for a woman and a child. There are, however, few opportunities for middle-school dropouts and even those there are Rakuto has already disqualified himself from thanks to his stoner looks which include fiery red hair and several prominent tattoos (prohibited in almost every conceivable “decent” job in Japan). Thus he feels his only option is to become a kind of errand boy for Hatta, naively believing he will allow him to remain in the shallower end of the gangster pool just dealing weed and making deliveries rather than pushing hard drugs or getting involved in violence. While Sota finds peace in the country, Rakuto begins to build the family life he’d always dreamed of while trying to cope with the constant anxieties of being an underling to a bunch of unhinged crooks.

Wolf shifts registers throughout – starting off in stoner comedy where our heroes inhabit a bohemian world of gay bars and randy landladies, shifting into crime thriller as the nasty gangsters rear their heads, and then finally ending up in masculine melodrama as Sota recounts the sad story of his friend who, despite his good heart, finds himself a victim of fate rather than of himself or even of his society. Mixing strange animation and surrealist diversions with an affecting tale of friendship, Smokin’ on the Moon is another sad story of those unable to find their place in the world taking refuge in each other only to find a melancholy compromise even as fate threatens to rob them of the little joys they’ve found.


Smokin’ on the Moon screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 10th July at 9.15 pm plus Q&A with director Kanata Wolf

(Kanata Wolf (かなた狼) previously known as Yuichiro Tanaka (たなか雄一狼). Surname is Wolf as per official website).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lost Paradise in Tokyo (ロストパラダイス・イン・トーキョー, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2010)

lost paradise in Tokyo posterHappiness seems an elusive concept for a group of three Tokyoites each chasing unattainable dreams of freedom in a constraining society. The debut feature from Kazuya Shiraishi, Lost Paradise in Tokyo (ロストパラダイス・イン・トーキョー) is much more forgiving of its central trio than many an indie foray into the forlorn hopes of modern youth but neither does it deny the difficulty of living in such frustrating circumstances.

Mikio (Katsuya Kobayashi) has a soul crushing job as a telephone real estate salesman at which he’s not particularly good and is often subject to trite rebukes from a patronising boss who breaks off from the morning mantra to enquire how the funeral went for Mikio’s recently deceased father only to then remark that Mikio’s dad won’t be able to rest in peace unless Mikio bucks up at work. At home, Mikio has just become the sole carer for his older brother, Saneo (Takaki Uda), who has severe learning difficulties and has been kept a virtual prisoner at home for the last few years. Saneo, however, is still a middle-aged man with a middle-aged man’s desires and so Mikio decides to hire a prostitute to help meet his sexual needs.

“Morin-chan” (Chika Uchida) as she lists herself, is also an aspiring “underground idol” known as Fala who makes ends meet through sex work. Depite Mikio’s distaste for the arrangement, Morin is a good companion to Saneo, calming him down and helping to look after him while Mikio is at work. In her life as Fala, Morin is also the subject of a documentary about underground idols and when the documentarians stumble over her double life they make her a surprising offer – allow herself to be filmed and they will give her a vast amount of money which might enable her to achieve her dream of buying a paradise island.

Mikio is doing the best he can but is as guilty of societal stigma relating to the disabled as anyone else and his guilt in feeling this way about his own brother coupled with the resentment of being obliged to care for him has left him an angry, frustrated man. Asked at work if he has any siblings Mikio lies and says he’s an only child, denying his brother’s existence rather than risk being associated with disability. At home he can’t deny him but neither can he be around to keep an eye on him all day and so there have been times when he’s had to literally (rather than metaphorically) lock his brother away.

Longing for freedom, Mikio wants out of his stressful, soul destroying job and the responsibility of caring for his brother while Morin is trapped in the world of “underground idols” who are still subject to the same constraints as the big studio stars only without the fame, money, or opportunities. As one of the documentarians points out, Morin (or Fala) is really a little old for the underground idol scene, her days limited and dreams of mainstream success probably unattainable. For as long as she can remember she’s dreamed of a paradise “island” where she can she live freely away from social constraints and other people’s disapproval.

Mikio had got used to thinking of his brother as a simple creature whose life consisted of needs and satisfactions but the entry of Morin into their lives forces him to consider what it is that his brother might regard as “happiness” and if such a thing can ever exist for him. Morin wants the three of them to go her paradise island where Saneo can live his life freely away from the unforgiving eyes of society but unbeknownst to any of them they may have already found a kind of paradise without realising.

Later Mikio admits that he and his father were content to lock Saneo away because they feared they wouldn’t understand him. Once Saneo hurt someone, not deliberately, but through being unable to express himself in the normal way and not fully understanding that his actions would cause someone else pain. Rather than deal with the problem, Mikio’s father decided to hide his son away – less to protect Saneo from himself, than in wanting to avoid the stigma resulting from his existence. Saneo, however, may not be able to express himself in ways that others will understand but is still his own person with his own hopes and ideas as his final actions demonstrate. Only once each has come to a true understanding of themselves and an abandonment of fantasy can there be a hope of forward motion, finally rediscovering the “lost paradise” that the city afforded them but they were too blind to see.


Available to stream in most territories via FilmDoo.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Sea and Poison (海と毒薬, Kei Kumai, 1986)

the sea and poison posterWhen thinking of wartime atrocity, it’s easy enough to ascribe the actions of the perpetrators to a kind of madness, to think that they have in some way moved away from us to become some kind of “other”. In thinking of those who transgress our notions of humanity as inhuman or “evil” we can absolve ourselves of their crimes, believing that they are not like us and we are not like them. The truth is never so simple and as long as we continue to other these dark parts of ourselves, we will not be able to overcome them. The Sea and Poison (海と毒薬, Umi to Dokuyaku), adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, shows this delusion of inhumanity for what it is in taking as its central concern the real life case of the doctors at a Kyushu university who committed heinous acts of experimentation on eight American prisoners of war in late 1945. Rather than focus of on those who took the decision that the experiments should take place, Endo and Kumai examine the motives of those on the fringes who merely went along with them finding that they did so for petty, essentially human motives.

Shot in a crisp black and white, the film opens in a caged cell where an American officer is interrogating a young man still in a student’s uniform. Suguro (Eiji Okuda) is the first of several witnesses to the deaths of eight American servicemen during alleged vivisection at the hospital at which Suguro had worked. Young and naive, Suguro is the most sympathetic of three witnesses we will encounter but his essentially compassionate nature puts him at odds with his colleagues who abhor “sentimentality” and regard his emotionality as a childish weakness. It is through Suguro that we discover that the hardness that has apparently led to these horrific betrayals of the physicians’ code are not born of the war, or of militarism, or of adherence to some ideal like god or country but are a natural extension of the hyper-rational attitude of the medical profession.

Suguro’s colleague, Toda (Ken Watanabe), is his polar opposite, viewing Suguro’s sense of compassion as a ridiculous but somewhat endearing character trait. A textbook nihilist, Toda takes the view that as death comes to us all, the when and why are essentially unimportant. When so many are dying in air raids or on the battlefields, what does it matter that some also die in hospitals. Yet Toda is, in someways, the most ruminative among the hospital staff. In the diary he keeps, Toda attempts to dissect himself and his ongoing lack of feeling. Telling the interrogators that he began the diary because he had begun to find himself “creepy”, Toda asks why it is he feels nothing in relation to his fellow men. Surely it must be right that one should feel some degree of empathy? Toda volunteers for the experiments in part to test his own hypothesis but discovering that he still feels no pity for these men, he wonders if these ideas of morality are a kind of affectation seeing as others too can commit such acts of extreme cruelty and think nothing of it.

In this, Toda earns our sympathy, seeming at least to want to feel something even if he does not. Nurse Ueda (Toshie Negishi), by contrast, is the most human and also the most repugnant of our three witnesses. Her concerns are petty and ordinary, born of jealousy and resentment. Returning again to the scene of a botched surgery, Kumai shows us Ueda calling the operating theatre and being told to give a patient a dose of morphine by a harried doctor still panicked by the ongoing OR drama. Following her instructions, Ueda fills a syringe but the vial is knocked out of her hand by the German wife of the head doctor, Hilda, who was once a nurse herself and likes to help out on the wards. Hilda is a severe woman but not a cold one, she cares for the patients but perhaps with a more rigorous adherence to the nurses’ code than the less experienced team at the hospital. Hilda tries to get Ueda fired for her “mistake”, scolding her by asking (in German) if she is not afraid of God, and expressing concern that she thought so little of giving a fatal dose of morphine to a suffering patient.

Ueda’s decision to attend the experiments is a form of backhanded revenge – Hilda, whom everyone regards as some kind of annoyingly saintly figure, has no idea her husband would be involved in something so against her deeply held ideals, but Ueda also offers another reason when she says that the doctors exist in another, more rarefied world to the rank and file ward staff. This idea is echoed again by the head nurse, Ohba (Kyoko Kishida), who states that nurses must do as the doctors tell them without asking questions. Ohba rounds out the just following orders contingent but the first half of the film has already shown us that the medical profession is corrupt and cannot be trusted.

The old Dean has had a stroke and there is a mini war of succession in play between the heads of surgery divisions one and two. Dr. Hashimoto (Takahiro Tamura) had been the favourite but his star is fading. In an effort to improve his chances, he decides to move up an operation on a friend of the Dean – a young woman with advanced TB. Meanwhile, Suguro’s patient, an old woman who also has TB has been earmarked for “experimental surgery”. The old woman has not been properly briefed on the risks of the operation in which she has only a five percent chance of survival and has only agreed to it because the doctor, whom she trusts implicitly, has told her it’s her only chance. The Dean’s friend is “Mrs. Tabe”, and she is “important”. The old woman is only “the welfare patient” and therefore not important at all.

Suguro, anxious to save the old woman to whom he has developed an attachment, wants the operation to be postponed, at least until she’s potentially strong enough to survive but Dr. Shibata (Mikio Narita) is only interested in using her as a potential candidate for experimentation which he claims will help future treatment of TB but also, of course, improve his career prospects. Mrs. Tabe’s mother asks the doctor if her operation carries any risk but the assistant laughs in her face, claiming the operation is so simple even a monkey could do it and pretending to be insulted that she has so little faith in her physicians. The operation goes wrong and Mrs. Tabe dies which is bad news for Dr. Hashimoto but rather than offer his apologies to the relatives, he tries to cover it up. So that it won’t look like she died on the table, they take the body back to her room and hook it up to a drip, insisting to Mrs. Tabe’s mother and sister that all is well while planning to announce that Mrs. Tabe died of complications from the operation early the following morning.

This level of callousness and self interest is echoed in Dr. Shibata’s justification that the old woman is going to die anyway and therefore the operation is worth a shot even though he believes it will kill her and is not in any way attempting to save her life (though it would be a nice bonus). Unlike Toda’s nihilism, Shibata’s practicality has no human dimension, he thinks in numbers and statistics, deciding who is a “real patient” and who is not. This same justification is used when recruiting doctors for the experiments. The US servicemen are downed aircrew from the bombers which have been making raids overhead for months. A court in Tokyo has ruled the random bombing contravenes international law and has sentenced the airmen to death. Seeing as the airmen will die anyway, might it not be “better” for their deaths to “benefit” medical science? The operations will be conducted under anaesthetic and so the men will not be in pain or know their fates which might, perhaps, be better than a firing squad.

The reality is not so convenient. Asked if his agreement was partly revenge, Suguro replies that, no, he felt no hate, he was just too mentally and physically exhausted to resist. Threatened by soldiers with guns he capitulates but refuses to assist in the room on the day, remaining a passive witness cowering at the edges. Before the operation, Dr. Gondo (Shigeru Koyama) makes small talk with the subject in English, asking about his hometown to which the airman, poignantly, says he’d like to return. The surgery is not like that conducted on Mrs. Tabe. The airman gets only ether and he struggles as the cloth is placed over his mouth, requiring four people – two doctors and two nurses, to hold him down until he stops kicking. This is no gentle death, this is murder.

A possible “justification” lies in the fact that the operating room is also filled with soldiers who laugh and jeer, snapping away on their brand new German-made camera. Tanaka, the officer in charge, asks for the airman’s liver after the operation, joking that he’d like to feed it to his men. The liver is indeed delivered to the horrified faces of the soldiers waiting for the party they’ve organised to begin, though it is not clear whether Tanaka really intends to feast on it or keep it as some sort of grim souvenir. Gondo, looking at the liver, remarks that they’ve all grown used to corpses but that “sentimentality” is never far away. Nevertheless, he appears to feel no real remorse for the heinous act of killing in which he has just been involved.

Adopting Endo’s Christianising viewpoint, the interrogations take place in a ruined church, a statue of the Virgin Mary directly above Ueda as she gives vent to her impure thoughts. The trio are being judged, not only by God but by us – or “society” as Suguro later puts it. The central proposition is that prolonged exposure to death on a mass scale – firstly as members of the medical profession, and later as victims of war, has led to an inhuman, nihilistic viewpoint in which we are all already dead and that, therefore, nothing really matters anymore. It isn’t clear who suggested this be done or why, but it is clear that Hashimoto collaborated in an effort to save his career by allying himself with the military – something he misses out on anyway when Shibata steals his thunder. Suguro is powerless to resist, Toda a melancholy sociopath, Ueda a vengeful woman, and Ohba a willing disciple of a beloved doctor, but none is a zealot to a regime or true believer in militarism. This is the dark heart of humanity – selfishness and cowardice, petty jealousies and ambitions. Kumai paints this scene of desolation with intense beauty, which only makes it all the more painful.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

If Cats Disappeared From the World (世界から猫が消えたなら, Akira Nagai, 2016)

If Cats Disappeared from the worldWhat would you give to live another day? What did you give to live this day? What did you take? Adapting the novel by Genki Kawamura, Akira Nagai takes a step back from the broad comedy of Judge for an Iwai-inflected tale of life thrown into sharp relief by impending death. Less a maudlin meditation on the will to life, If Cats Disappeared from the World (世界から猫が消えたなら, Sekai kara Neko ga Kieta nara) is an existential journey into the mind of a man who believed himself an irrelevance, beloved by no one and living an unfulfilling existence, only to rediscover his essential place in the world at the moment he’s about to vacate it.

An unnamed 30 year old postman (Takeru Satoh) has a freak bicycle accident and is subsequently informed that he has an aggressive brain tumour which may take his life at any moment. Following this traumatic news, the postman returns home to discover his own doppelgänger there, waiting for him. The doppelgänger tells him that he will die tomorrow, unless the postman accepts the offer the doppelgänger is about to make him. There are too many unnecessary and irritating things in the modern world, in return for postponing the postman’s death sentence, the doppelgänger will erase one thing from human society – if only the postman will agree.

As in many similarly themed films of recent times, memories are stored not on hard drives or even in notebooks but in seemingly irrelevant objects with unexpected sentimental value. Quite literally “material culture”, it is the objects which provide the path back to the past and their destruction represents not only the severing of a connection but a kind of erasure of the past itself.

The doppelgänger sets about deleting various items at will which might previously have seemed irrelevant to the postman but turn out to have fundamental connections to the most important aspects of his life. The first item to go is phones (all phones, not just mobiles) which reminds him of his first love (Aoi Miyazaki) whom he met after she dialled a wrong number and recognised the score to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis which he happened to be watching at the time. Phones and movies – the second item on the doppelgänger’s hit list, brought the two together but it couldn’t have happened without the cinephile best friend (Gaku Hamada) the postman met at university who has been his movie mule ever since.  Delete the phone and the movies and the postman loses his first love and best friend to win the right to live on alone for just one day. Cats turn out to have an even more essential role in the postman’s life, one which is painful for him to consider but impossible to ignore.

The protagonist’s occupation, which becomes his name and defining feature, is an ironic one. A mere conveyor of items charged with other people’s memories. he feels like an empty vessel, trapped in an existence devoid of meaning. Yet his strange doppelgänger pushes him to reconsider his place in the world, re-entering a sphere he had long absented himself from. Remembering long forgotten yet life changing holidays with the love of his life or finally coming to understand the silent signs of devotion in his emotionally distant father (Eiji Okuda), the postman finally writes his own letter, the first and last of his life, answering the questions he never wanted to ask.

Finally learning to accept his fate, the postman rediscovers the meaning of life. He may leave with regrets and dreams never to be fulfilled, but wants to believe his life has made a difference, meant something at least. Only as he’s about to leave it does the postman feel himself connected to the world, finally noticing the beauty all around him.

On learning of his condition, the postman’s first thoughts turn to all the movies he’ll never see and the books he’ll never read. The doppelgänger’s determination to delete the movies provokes a quietly passionate defence of the arts but, apparently, they are not worth dying for. Nagai films with a low-key dreaminess as magical realism mixes with wistful nostalgia in the melancholy world of a man who has no future finally falling in love with the past. A celebration of the interconnectedness of all things in a world of increasing isolation, If Cats Disappeared from the World advises you make the most of your time, making the difference only you can make before it’s too late.


Hong Kong trailer (English subtitles)

The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Kei Kumai, 2002)

The Sea is WatchingAkira Kurosawa’s later career was marred by personal crises related to his inability to obtain the kind of recognition for his films he’d been used to in his heyday during the golden age of Japanese cinema. His greatest dream was to die on the set, but after suffering a nasty accident in 1995 he was no longer able to realise his ambition of directing again. However, shortly after he died, the idea was floated of filming some of the scripts Kurosawa had written but never proceed with to the production stage including The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Umi wa Miteita) which he wrote in 1993. Based on a couple of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto, The Sea is Watching would have been quite an interesting entry in Kurosawa’s back catalogue as it’s a rare female led story focussing on the lives of two geisha in Edo era Japan.

Throughout this tale of love bought and love lost, we mainly follow the kindly geisha Oshin (Nagiko Tono) who ends up helping a nervous young man one night when he crashes into her geisha house in an attempt to avoid being picked up by the police. It seems he’s been out drinking with friends for the first time and, after having drunk far too much, may have stabbed another customer (though he can’t quite remember). Oshin comes up with a plan by cutting off his topknot and passing him off as one of her regular customers but Funosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) is not a born dissembler and remains sitting bolt upright before heading home at the first light of day.

Something passes between the two in the night and Oshin unwisely begins to fall in love. Though she begs him not too, Funosuke repeatedly visits her claiming to enjoy her company. However, though the other girls at the geisha house are in favour of Oshin’s love across the class divides romance and go to great lengths to help her, Funosuke is just a feckless boy completely unaware of the way he’s been toying with people’s hearts. Later, Oshin meets another damaged man, Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), and begins to fall in love again but can a put upon geisha ever believe the words of men who think they can trade money for love?

Kurosawa has sometimes had the charge of misogyny thrown at him, somewhat unfairly, as his films are often very masculine in nature. The Sea is Watching, conversely, is the story of two women, Oshin and her fellow geisha Okikuno (Misa Shimizu), who claims to have come from a wealthy samurai background. Oshin is still young, her kindness and softness have not yet been eroded by the often harsh and cruel world in which she lives. She contents herself with romantic dreams of finding a man who will rescue her from this unpleasant way of life. Okikuno, by contrast, is older, harder, more experienced in the ways of the world, and therefore more inclined to towards pragmatism. She finds her salvation in self deception about the past whereas Oshin’s fantasies are all focussed on her future. In many ways the women are mirrors of each other but they also have a tight, sisterly bond in which each seems to understand the other perfectly without the need for explanation.

Structurally, the film feels unbalanced as it focusses more heavily on Oshin in the early stages only to gradually shift through to Okikuno by the end. The thematic split between Oshin’s twin tales of love doesn’t quite help, though it does add a degree of pathos to the situation as Okikuno can see that Oshin’s happy ever after is an unlikely prospect, but still somehow wants to make it happen. Oddly, Kumai chooses not to emphasis the relationship between the two women until the very end, preferring to deal with each of their disappointments and dead end romances separately, but the film does finally come together when they are trapped alone in the geisha house following a freak flood.

In many ways, filming the unfinished work of a great director is an entirely thankless task – every fault is because you aren’t him and every success is down to the departed genius, but Kumai does what he can to both honour Kurosawa’s memory and put his own stamp on the material. There are frequent Kurosawa-esque compositions and the final, deliberately unreal scene of the geisha house underwater framed against the starry sky also has a suitably Kurosawan feeling. That said, something about The Sea is Watching never quite catches fire, its symbolism feels underworked and the final, climactic scene lacks the power it seems to want to have despite Misa Shimizu’s impressive performance. Not drowning, but waving, The Sea is Watching is an uneven experience but makes up for its tonal problems through the strong performances of its cast and powerful, expressionist imagery which allow it to successfully ride the waves of the emotional storms at its centre.


The Sea is Watching is available on DVD with English subtitles in the US and UK from Sony Pictures Entertainment.

US release trailer: