Sekigahara (関ヶ原, Masato Harada, 2017)

Sekigahara posterWhen considering a before and an after, you’d be hard pressed to find a moment as perfectly situated as the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原). Taking place on 21st October 1600 (by the Western calendar), Sekigahara came at the end of a long and drawn out process of consolidation and finally ended the Sengoku (or “warring states”) era, paving the way for the modern concept of “Japan” as a distinct and unified nation. In actuality there were three unifiers of Japan – the first being Oda Nobunaga who brought much of Japan under his control before being betrayed by one of his own retainers. The second, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued Oda’s work and died a peaceful death leaving a son too young behind him which created a power vacuum and paved the way for our third and final creator of the modern Japanese state – Tokugawa Ieyasu whose dynasty would last 260 years encompassing the lengthy period of isolation that was finally ended by the tall black ships and some gunboat diplomacy.

Loosely, we begin our tale towards the end of the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kenichi Takito) though, in a nod to the novel, director Masato Harada includes a temporal framing sequence in which our author depicts himself as a boy during another war sitting in these same halls and hearing stories of heroes past. As well he might given where he was sitting, the narrator reframes his tale – our hero is not the eventual victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but a noble hearted retainer of the Toyotomi, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada).

Riding into battle, Mitsunari reminds his men that this is a war of “justice and injustice” – they cannot lose. Yet lose they do. The narrator recounts Mitsunari’s improbable rise as an orphan taken in by Hideyoshi on a whim who nevertheless became one of the most powerful men in late 16th century Japan. Despite his loyalty to his master, Mitsunari cannot abide the cruelty of the samurai world or its various modes of oppression both in terms of social class and even in terms of gender. He resents the subversion of samurai ethics to facilitate “politics” and longs to restore honour, justice, and fairness to a world ruled by chaos. Rather than the bloody uncertainty and self-centred politicking that define his era, Mitsunari hopes to enshrine these values as the guiding principles of his nation.

On the other hand, his opponent, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho) is famed for his intelligence and particularly for his political skill. Hoping to swoop into the spot vacated by Hideyoshi which his young son Hideyori is too weak to occupy, Ieyasu has been playing a long game of winning alliances and disrupting those other candidates had assumed they had secured. Unlike Mitsunari, Ieyasu is ruthless and prepared to sacrifice all to win his hand, caring little for honour or justice or true human feeling.

The framing sequence now seems a little more pointed. Sekigahara becomes a turning point not just of political but ideological consolidation in which Mitsunari’s ideas of just rule and compassionate fair mindedness creating order from chaos are relegated to the romantic past while self interest triumphs in the rule of soulless politickers which, it seems, travels on through the ages to find its zenith in the age of militarism. Mitsunari is the last good man, prepared to die for his ideals but equally prepared to live for them. His tragedy is romantic in the grander sense but also in the more obvious one in that his innate honour code will not let him act on the love he feels for a poor girl displaced from Iga whose ninja service becomes invaluable to his plan. With a wife and children to consider, he would not commit the “injustice” of creating a concubine but dreams of one day, after all this is over, resigning his name and position and travelling to foreign lands with the woman he loves at his side.

Working on a scale unseen since the age of Kurosawa, Harada patiently lays the groundwork before condensing the six hours of battle to forty minutes of fury. The contrast between the purity of the past and the muddied future is once again thrown into stark relief in the vastly different strategies of Ieyasu and Mitsunari with Ieyasu’s troops armed to the teeth with modernity – they fire muskets and shout cannon commands in Portuguese while Mitsunari’s veteran warriors attempt to face them with only their pikes and wooden shields. Unable to adapt to “modern” warfare and trusting too deeply in the loyalty of his comrades, Mitsunari’s final blow comes not by will but by chance as a young and inexperienced vassal vacillates until his men make his decision for him, betraying an alliance he may have wished (in his heart) to maintain. Goodness dies a bloody death, but there is peace at last even if it comes at a price. That price, for some at least, may have been too great.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Seto and Utsumi (セトウツミ, Tatsushi Omori, 2016)

seto-and-utsumiThere are two very distinct sides to the career of Tatsushi Omori. Brother of the well known actor, Nao, Omori may be best known to certain audiences for his hard hitting, often gloomy and pessimistic dramas of human misery such as festival favourite Ravine of Goodbye or the little seen The Whispering of the Gods which proved so controversial that his only option of screening the film involved erecting a tent where he could show it himself. However, a closer look at his filmography discovers a steady strain of laid-back comedy such as the Tada’s Do It All House series in which two brothers played by Eita and Ryuhei Matsuda act as bumbling handymen-cum-detectives-cum-whatever-you-need-them-to-be. It might be less surprising therefore that his latest effort is an adaptation of Kazuya Konomoto’s comedy manga Seto and Utsumi (セトウツミ, Setoutsumi) which revels in the everyday absurdity of teenage life in Southern Japan.

Seto (Masaki Suda) and Utsumi (Sosuke Ikematsu) are ordinary high school boys heading into their final year with the exam season and the end of their youthful, carefree days looming. Utsumi is a quiet, serious sort who generally doesn’t like a lot of company. Seto, by contrast, is a real live wire and not exactly a top student. Nevertheless, they found each other by a river one day and have been more or less inseparable ever since. Every day after school they meet and hang out in the same spot over looking the water where they shoot the breeze about various ordinary things from a non-argument over a girl to venus fly traps, Buddhist terminology, and ghosts.

Like many teenagers, Seto and Utsumi kill time doing nothing in particular and their conversations are generally inconsequential. Yet for all of their inherent randomness and absurdity, there’s a layer of poignancy underpinning each of them as the boys let slip various aspects of their private, interior lives. Seto’s big life drama involves the possible separation of his parents following the illness of the family cat which everyone in the family decided to indulge seeing as the poor thing didn’t have long left, but against expectation it’s two years later, the cat is still alive and Seto’s father is growing ever more resentful at spending so much money on luxury cat food. Seto’s family are a rowdy bunch, just as prone to drama as he is yet for all their complaining they seem fairly close – close enough for Seto to complain about the constant random text updates from his mother (a trait which Seto seems to have inherited himself).

Utsumi, by contrast, is much more aloof and keeps himself to himself. When Seto complains after his mother spots the boys at the river with bags full of shopping in her hands he remarks sadly that he rarely eats at home, implying it must be nice to have someone cook you a meal everyday. His approach to life is cerebral, calculating odds and planning angles, as he reveals to Seto in a piece of possibly not very helpful dating advice. Utsumi’s unseen parents are, presumably, just as aloof as he is, austere and religious. Nevertheless, in Seto he’s found a true sparring partner and someone he can waste time with amiably.

Utsumi’s parents are useful for one thing, they belong to the temple in which Seto’s crush, Kashimura (Ayami Nakajo), lives. Seto has been secretly trying to brush up on Buddhist terminology to impress her, but predictably she prefers the cool indifference of Utsumi to his friend’s energetic banter. Utsumi isn’t interested in Kashimura in any case, but not even this possible subject of conflict is big enough to seriously risk damaging the two boys’ friendship. As one character remarks towards the end of the film, it really is a once in a lifetime connection.

Omori keeps things simple, mostly sticking to static shots of the boys sitting on the steps near the river but he makes the stillness add to the sense of the absurd running through the quiet backwater town. After beginning with accordion music and ride through the canals, Seto and Utsumi’s first conversation takes place in front of an unintentional audience of a perfectly motionless older man, staring vacantly out at the river. The man turns out to have a valid (if sad) reason for being where he is, but the presence of the balloon animal vending clown from Eastern Europe (called Mr. Balloon) is a little harder to explain given that other than Seto, Utsumi, the aforementioned man, a high school bully, Seto’s mum, and a senile grandpa, no one else comes anywhere near this tranquil spot for the entire film. Using occasional dissolves and superimpositions to create a fleeting, dreamlike atmosphere with a handful of cutaways and flashbacks for comedic context, Seto and Utsumi is a truly charming ode to teenage friendship in all its pleasantly ridiculous absurdity.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

There are also a few bonus web episodes of Seto and Utsumi enjoying even more pointless conversations:

No. 1 – Kendama (a kind of Japanese cup and ball game) (English subtitles)

No. 2: Timing (English subtitles)

3. Standing Ovation (no subtitles but you don’t really need them)