My Friend “A” (友罪, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

My Friend A posterThe Japanese justice system is founded on the idea of confession and atonement, that if you admit your crime and show remorse you will be forgiven. The truth, however, is much more complex and those whose lives have been tainted by transgression are often rejected by a still unforgiving society. Director Takahisa Zeze describes his adaptation of Gaku Yakumaru’s novel My Friend “A” (友罪, Yuzai) as a picture of the world he longs to see at the end of the Heisei era, one which is less judgemental and more compassionate where the bonds between people can perhaps overcome the traumatic past.

In the present day, two very different men – failed journalist Masuda (Toma Ikuta) and the sullen and mysterious Suzuki (Eita), are inducted as probationary workers at a small factory. Suzuki’s determination to keep himself to himself does not endear him to the other workers who become convinced that he is hiding something from them. Suzuki is indeed hiding something, though his reasons for avoiding human contact are various and complex. When a young child is found murdered nearby in a method which echoes a notorious killing from 17 years previously, Masuda is contacted by an old colleague (Mizuki Yamamoto) investigating the case and begins to wonder if the secret Suzuki seems to be burdened by might have something to do with one crime or both.

In actuality, Masuda does not seem to believe that Suzuki is involved with the recent killing even if he comes to the conclusion that he is almost certainly the teenager convicted of the earlier crime. Nevertheless, he develops an awkward “friendship” with him which is partly exploitative as he ponders writing an exposé on the injustice that allows someone who committed such heinous acts, even in childhood, to start again with a new identity. “Injustice” becomes a persistent theme as seen in the melancholy tale of taxi driver Yamauchi (Koichi Sato) who is carrying the heavy burden of being the father of a son (Hoshi Ishida) who killed three children as a joy riding delinquent. Hounded by one parent, and accidentally harassing the others through his relentless attempts to apologise for his son’s transgression, Yamauchi has ruined his family through his own need for personal atonement. Having divorced his wife and lost touch with his son, he is enraged to learn that he plans to marry and will soon be a father. Even if his wife-to-be knows of his past and accepts it, Yamauchi believes his son has lost the right to live as other people live and finds it extraordinarily offensive that a man who took the lives of children would have a child of his own.

Yamauchi seems to want to put his family back together but only succeeds in tearing it apart. Corrupted families loom large from the mysterious photograph of the smiling boy surrounded by the scratched out faces of his parents and sibling found among Suzuki’s belongings, to the reform school boy taunted with the accusation that he might not have turned to drugs if only his parents had loved him more. Suzuki fixates on his reform school teacher Shiraishi (Yasuko Tomita), but she in turn has neglected her own daughter in her fierce desire to save the souls of these violent young men many of whom have become the way they are because they believe that they are worthless and no one cares about them. Meanwhile, Miyoko (Kaho) – a young woman drawn to Suzuki’s silent solidarity, struggles to escape her own traumatic past partly because she was shamed in front of her family who then were also shamed by her inescapable transgression.

Unlike Suzuki, Miyoko has committed no crime but is haunted just the same. As is Masuda though his guilt is real enough if of a more spiritual kind as he struggles to accept his role in the death of a friend who committed suicide when they were just children. Then again, Masuda’s struggle, like Yamauchi’s, is perhaps a solipsistic one in which what he is really mourning is not his friend but the vision of his idealised self. On visiting his late friend’s mother, Masuda bristles when she talks about his journalistic career and her hope that he is still “strong and just” like the teenage boy she believes stood alongside her lonely son when the truth is that he abandoned his friend when he needed him most because he was too cowardly to risk becoming a target himself. Despite his high ideals, Masuda had been working at a scandal rag and his only real piece of ethical journalism was a confessional about the destructive effects of high school bullying. He remains conflicted in his friendship with Suzuki not quite because he fears his dark past but because he fears his own moral cowardice – something he is reminded of when a housemate points out that no-one likes Suzuki and that if Masuda sides with him, no one will like him either. 

The question that is asked is whether discovering someone’s dark secret necessarily changes who they are now and if it is ever really possible for those who have in some way transgressed to return to society. As Suzuki puts it to Masuda in reflecting on their unavoidable commonality, they’re each men who rarely unpack their suitcases, always on the run from an unforgiving present. Yet there is perhaps hope despite Masuda’s ongoing diffidence in his eventual (self) confession and belated solidarity with a man he later recognises as a “friend” in acknowledgement of the unconditional bonds of genuine friendship.


My Friend “A” was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)

March Comes in Like a Lion (3月のライオン, Keishi Ohtomo, 2017)

march comes in like a lion posterShogi seems to have entered the spotlight of late. Not only is there a new teenage challenger hitting the headlines in Japan, but 2017 has even seen two tentpole Japanese pictures dedicated to the cerebral sport. Following the real life biopic Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow, March Comes in Like a Lion (3月のライオン, Sangatsu no Lion) adapts the popular manga by Chica Umino in which an orphaned boy attempts to block out his emotional pain through the taxing strategising becoming a top player entails. Shogi, however, turns out to be a dangerous addiction, ruining lives and hearts left, right and centre but, then again, it’s not so much “shogi” which causes problems but the emotional volatility its intense rigidity is often masking.

Rei Kiriyama (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lost his family at a young age when both parents and his little sister were tragically killed in a car accident. Taken in by a family friend, Rei takes up shogi (a game also apparently beloved by his late father) in the hope of being accepted in his new home. A few year’s later, Rei’s plan has worked too well. Better than either of his foster-siblings, Kyoko (Kasumi Arimura) and Ayumu, Rei has become his foster-father’s favourite child causing resentment and disconnection in the family home. Believing himself to be a disruptive influence among those he loves (even if he suspects they still do not love him), Rei removes himself by deciding to live independently, shunning all personal relationships and dedicating his life to the art of shogi.

Everything changes when Rei is taken for a night out by some senior colleagues and is encouraged to drink alcohol for the first time despite being underage. A kindly young woman who lives nearby finds Rei collapsed in the street and takes him home to sleep things off. The oldest of three sisters, Akari (Kana Kurashina) has a habit of picking up strays and determines to welcome the lonely high schooler into her happy home. Suddenly experiencing a positive familial environment, Rei’s views on interpersonal connection begin to shift but people are not like shogi and you can’t you can’t expect them to just fall into place like a well played tile. 

Like Satoshi, the real life subject of which is also echoed in March through the performance of an unrecognisable Shota Sometani who piles on the pounds to play the sickly yet intense shogi enthusiast and Rei supporter Harunobu Nikaido, March dares to suggest that shogi is not an altogether healthy obsession. Koda (Etsushi Toyokawa), Rei’s foster-father, is a shogi master who trained both his children to follow in his footsteps only to pull the rug from under them by ordering the pair to give up the game because they’ll never be as good as Rei. Thinking only of shogi, he thinks nothing of the effect this complete rejection will have on his family, seeming surprised when neither of his children want much more to do with him and have been unable to move forward with their own lives because of the crushing blow to their self confidence and emotional well being that he has dealt them.

Kyoko, Rei’s big sister figure, remains resentful and hurt, embarking on an unwise affair with a married shogi master (Hideaki Ito) who is also emotionally closed off to her because he too is using shogi as a kind of drug to numb the pain of having a wife in a longterm coma. Believing himself to be a disruptive influence who brings ruin to everything he touches, Rei has decided that shogi is his safe place in which he can do no harm to others whilst protecting himself through intense forethought. He is, however, very affected by the results of his victories and failures, feeling guilty about the negative effects of defeat on losing challengers whilst knowing that loss is a part of the game.

Drawing closer to the three Kawamoto sisters, Rei rediscovers the joy of connection but he’s slow to follow that thread to its natural conclusion. His shogi game struggles to progress precisely because of his rigid tunnel vision. Time and again he either fails to see or misreads his opponents, only belatedly coming to realise that strategy and psychology are inextricably linked. Yet in his quest to become more open, he eventually overplays his hand in failing to realise that his viewpoint is essentially self-centred – he learned shogi to fit in with the Kodas, now he’s learning warmth to be a Kawamoto but applying the rules of shogi to interpersonal relationships provokes only more hurt and shame sending Rei right back into the self imposed black hole he’d created for himself immersed in the superficial safety of the shogi world.

As Koda explains to Kyoko (somewhat insensitively) it’s not shogi which ruins lives, but the lack of confidence in oneself that it often exposes. Rei’s problem is less one of intellectual self belief than a continuing refusal to deal with the emotional trauma of losing his birth family followed by the lingering suspicion that he is a toxic presence to everyone he loves. Only in his final battle does the realisation that his relationships with his new found friends are a strength and not a weakness finally allow him to move forward, both personally and in terms of his game. Rei may have come in like a lion, all superficial roar and bluster, but he’s going out like a lamb – softer and happier but also stronger and more secure. Only now is he ready to face his greatest rival, with his various families waiting in his corner silently cheering him on as finally learns to accept that even in shogi one is never truly alone.


Released in two parts – 3月のライオン 前編 (Sangatsu no Lion Zenpen, March Comes in Like a Lion) / 3月のライオン 後編 (Sangatsu no Lion Kouhen, March Goes Out Like a Lamb).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

HENTAIDA (I am a Pervert) (変態だ, Hajime Anzai, 2016)

B2_0912_OLYou can’t call your film “I am a Pervert” and not expect a certain sort of reaction. Then again, the debut feature from illustrator Hajime Anzai isn’t quite sure what reaction it wants. Part indie journey movie about a conflicted folk singer and part coming of age comedy in which a middle-aged man is forced to own his “perversion” following a horrific bear attack, HENTAIDA (I am a Pervert) (変態だ) is nothing if not perverse.

The nameless protagonist (Kenta Maeno) begins his feature-length voiceover by letting us in on his ignominious teenage history. A shy and lonely boy, he had no girlfriends or even friends of any kind. He took to his room and practiced guitar while the others his age misspent their youths in more exciting ways. No great academic success either, he took a year out to resit his college exams but even then only got into a second-rate institution. It was, at least, in Tokyo – his dream city, and therefore a partial answer to his dreams but when he overslept and missed orientation he found himself on a different path altogether when a large woman with giant frizzy hair press ganged him into joining the university’s rock group.

Bored with his lessons, the protagonist starts to enjoy playing in a band even if he was kind of forced into it. When the bandleader is arrested, the remaining members form a new mini group – The Rejection Letters, and go on to some minor success. Life, however, comes to the protagonist’s bandmates who cut their hair and get regular jobs after uni like you’re supposed to. Now calling himself “Reject Letter”, (or just “Reject” to his friends), the protagonist has been married for five years and has a young son. He’s happy, but he cannot rid himself of the need to visit regularly with an old groupie, Kaoruko (Tsukifuna Sarara), who happens to be a dominatrix (and his sometime manager).

Shooting in black and white, Anzai breaks into colour only twice – during a lengthy and exaggerated sex scene, and then again on a scene of extreme violence. The implication is that Reject’s world is cold and grey, devoid of sensation outside of physical communion with his wife and the final, visceral shock which leads to the inevitable declaration that he is indeed a “pervert”. Truth be told, Reject’s “perversion” is not such a serious one – his early relationship with Kaoruko awakened him to sadomasochism and he has been unable to give up this part of his life or indeed share it with his wife, continuing an “arrangement” if not quite an affair whilst being consumed by shame.

Events come to a head when Reject is invited to perform at a Christmas gig way up in the snowy mountains with some other acts from the circuit both musical and variety. Under the twin tortures of a very boring coach companion and Kaoruko’s desire to provide some “excitement”, Reject’s mind begins to crack. Remembering his wife’s desire to come see him play, he becomes paranoid that she’s hiding somewhere in the (extremely sparse) crowd and will therefore discover the existence of Kaoruko. His shame is so great that he doesn’t seem to realise it might be perfectly normal for his wife to meet his manager and not realise she’s also a dominatrix, and so he steals Kaoruko away and runs off up a snowy trail to certain doom where a very strange adventure awaits him.

Anzai tries to have it both ways, so to speak, in mixing an arty, ironic aesthetic with strange sex scenes running from the semi-explicit weirdness of the consensual lovemaking between Reject and his loving wife, and the slightly less consensual one with a rapidly disintegrating Kaoruko in subzero, bear infested territories. Modesty fog couples with a man throwing vibrators at a rampaging bear as odd mirrors of the implicit and explicit while Reject progresses towards his end goal of being able to own his “perversion” though it’s far from clear whether it’s loud and proud or a grudging confession considering what there is lying in wait in the woods. Perhaps too strange and lowkey for its own good, HENTAIDA (I am a Pervert) does at least live up to its name if only in its bizarre tale of a repressed man’s passage to some kind of self acceptance through a surreal, shame filled adventure.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Love & Peace (ラブ&ピース, Sion Sono, 2015)

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Another day another Sion Sono – review of Love & Peace from the London Film Festival up at UK Anime Network. Quite liked this one, shame it’s not out in time for Christmas.


Last time we met Sion Sono it was for a street style rap musical about gang warfare. Before that we’ve mostly been admiring him for his epic and irreverent tale of panty shot perverts and bizarre religion Love Exposure, bloody serial killer true crime thriller Cold Fish or poetic exploration of a woman looking for love in all the wrong places in Guilty of Romance, not to mention a tale of teenage rage and post Earthquake anxiety in Himizu or state of the nation address in Land of Hope. Recently prolific and varied enough to give even Takashi Miike a run for his money, it should come as no surprise that Sono’s latest effort is, essentially, a family film about a man’s love for his pet turtle.

Ryoichi Suzuki is a mild mannered office worker with dreams of becoming a rock star. Belittled by his colleagues, Ryoichi has no friends – that is until he falls hard for a tiny turtle sold by a strange man on a rooftop. Hatching plans together for Ryoichi’s rise to superstardom the pair become inseparable. However, after another round of humiliation at work Ryoichi flushes “Pikadon” down the toilet! Full of remorse, Ryoichi pines for his lost friend meanwhile, Pikadon arrives at the lair of a mysterious sewer dweller who rescues broken and discarded creatures. When Pikadon is given a “wish” pill by mistake, Ryoichi’s life soon begins to change!

In case it needs saying, Love & Peace is in no way a “serious” film – much as that may sound like a pejorative comment, all that means is that it’s delightfully absurd and heaps of fun and where it harks back to some of Sono’s key concerns it does so in a light hearted, even mocking manner. The plot maybe conventional in a lot of ways – down trodden loser suddenly makes something of himself with magical help but ends up becoming arrogant and forgetting his true self before being redeemed by a massive fall from grace but as usual Sono has managed to bring something new to even this comparatively tired tale.

Largely, that’s thanks to his bizarre side story of the land of misfit toys being cared for by a mysterious yet kindly old man who lives in a tiny alcove in one of Tokyo’s sewer complexes. Cheerfully harking back to some of those classic ‘80s kids movies, the strange collection of broken robots, damaged cat toys and lovelorn dolls do their best to tug at the heart strings with their stories of loss and abandonment while the mysterious old man keeps them going with tales of hope and magic pills which grant the power of speech or wishes.

However, as Ryoichi’s dreams grow bigger so does Pikadon himself and its not long before the cute little turtle’s devotion to his master becomes a dangerous threat to the entire city. Ryoichi chose the name “Pikadon” seemingly at random and without realising that it’s become a byword for the atomic bomb. Thus Ryoichi’s eventual ballad of love and regret for his lost turtle buddy is misunderstood as a lament for modern Japan and a pledge to “never forget” the wartime nuclear attacks. Of course, this “subversive political rock song” becomes a giant hit catapulting Ryoichi on the road to superstardom. However, there is more heartbreak for Pikadon to come as he’s continually betrayed by the ever more ambitious Ryoichi who’s only too quick to sell out his beloved friend to get ahead with cruel and potentially tragic consequences.

Of course, the one thing that needs mentioning is the amazing music in the film including the title song which is tailor made for waving a lighter in the air and is sure to become your latest ear worm. Ryoichi only writes a few songs but Sono also manages to throw in a musical self reference to a previous film that makes for a fun Easter Egg for his avid fans to find and the rest of the soundtrack is equally catchy too.

In short, Love & Peace is the Christmas themed punk rock kid’s movie you never knew you needed. Yes, it goes to some very dark places – the least of which is the accidental destruction of the city of Tokyo by the now colossal kaiju incarnation of Pikadon whose only wish is to make his best friend’s rockstar dreams come true, but it does so with heart. In true family film fashion, it addresses the themes of true friendship, the importance of being true to yourself and that the love of man and turtle can be a beautiful, if terrifying, thing. Strange, surreal and totally mad, Love & Peace is the ideal Christmas gift for all the family and Sono’s most enjoyably bizarre effort yet.


I wrote this review before I’d seen Tag which is also “enjoyably bizarre”, it has to be said. Love & Peace will be released in the UK in 2016 courtesy of Third Window Films.

Some other Reviews of Sion Sono movies written by me: