Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette (映画 賭ケグルイ 絶体絶命ロシアンルーレット, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Closet revolutionary or compulsive gambler, Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe) continues to be a thorn in the side of the Student Council in the sequel to hit movie Kakegurui, itself a sequel to a two-series live action drama adapted from the manga by Homura Kawamoto. Set as the opening expositionary narration explains at school for the elite Hyakkaoh Academy where social hierarchy is determined by skill in gambling, Ultimate Russian Roulette (映画 賭ケグルイ 絶体絶命ロシアンルーレット, Eiga Kakegurui: Zettai Zetsumei Russian Roulette) sees the rattled Student Council making a counterproductive and potentially ruinous decision in bringing back a previously exiled player in the hope of permanently neutralising Yumeko. 

Makuro Shikigami (Ryusei Fujii) was suspended some years ago for his part in the “House Pets’ Curse” which led to most of the school being demoted to its lowest, near untouchable ranks. At Hyakkaoh Academy, students are required to pay a tithe to the Council and those who can’t pay end up as “House Pets”, humiliatingly treated as cats and dogs. Yumeko’s friend Meari (Aoi Morikawa) fears she may have fallen foul of the curse herself having hit a lengthy losing streak, but it’s not until Shikigami begins twisting the situation to his advantage that Yumeko is snared by his manipulative trap. 

Yumeko, meanwhile, is in the middle of a depressive episode largely down to her reluctance to take part in the school’s upcoming sports’ day. Just as in the previous film her long game was better cakes in the cafeteria, her end goal here is trying to get the event cancelled by whatever means possible. In any case, we also witness another dark side to the oppressive rule of the Student Council as a demoted Maeri finds herself in a literal chain gang forced into hard labour building the facilities for the sports festival in what seems to be a minor dig at preparations for the Olympics. Yumeko and Meari are, however, responsible gamblers in that they refuse to bet on other people’s safety or at least refuse to be complicit in games which are designed to inflict harm or cruelty on others. 

As Shikigami explains in his opening monologue, the skills needed for gambling are strategy, ability to read your opponents, and a killer instinct. This is something Yumeko knows well, she plays players not games and sees straight through Shikigami realising that his crazed psychopathy is an act to mask the meticulous quality of his external manipulations. Nevertheless she is also caught out by her unwillingness to put her friends in danger, willingly sacrificing herself instead. The Student Council too are seemingly caught off guard little realising that Shikigami presents just as much of a threat to their authority as Yumeko and is equally uncontrollable with far fewer principles. Still as Student Council President Kirari (Elaiza Ikeda) ominously reflects, “there must be chaos before order”. 

In any case, they find themselves awkward allies in facing off against Shikigami in the promised game of Russian roulette mediated through a card game but played for real. The Student Council leaves itself surprisingly vulnerable in a loophole which allows House Pets to challenge them directly overruling all of the other school regulations, while Shikigami too falls victim to his own arrogance never quite expecting to be challenged having achieved his primary goals of seizing control of the school via the Council. The only way to beat him is to play him at his own game, disrupting his self-serving plotting and tendency to cheat in an insult to the art of gambling while undermining his confidence in his own intellectual superiority. “Only a twisted mind could beat you” he says of Yumeko believing himself to be a twisted mind though as it turns out perhaps not quite twisted enough. 

Temporarily siding with authority in order to put a stop to Shikigami’s authoritarian potential, Yumeko does not so much challenge the system as work around it while protecting herself and her friends from Shikigami’s machinations. What she defends is in a sense gambling itself, rejecting Shikigami’s intention to subvert it to his own advantage. Maintaining the same absurdist, manga-esque aesthetic as the first film complete with cartoonish CGI pupil shrinking, slick onscreen graphics, and even this time a random musical number, Hanabusa significantly ups the ante with bomb threats and unexpected Satanism while leaving the door open for the next instalment with Yumeko’s final instruction to “Bring on the Madness”. 


Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

International trailer (English subtitles)

Town Without Sea (夏、至るころ, Elaiza Ikeda, 2020)

“Happiness is something you don’t notice even if it’s right next to you” the hero of actress Elaiza Ikeda’s directorial debut Town Without Sea (夏、至るころ, Natsu, Itaru Koro) is told by a strangely perceptive small child. The nature of happiness is something that seems to be bothering him while he contends with adolescent anxiety little knowing what to do with the further course of his life while fearful in the knowledge that his relationship with his childhood best friend must necessarily change. 

Approaching the final year of high school, taiko-enthusiast Sho (Yuki Kura) has no dreams or aspirations and has been avoiding thinking about what to do after graduation. Pressed by his teacher, all he can offer is that he’d like to become “air”, which is in its own way slightly alarming though it hints at his sense of emptiness and despair. His childhood best friend, Taiga (Roi Ishiuchi), meanwhile has a clearly defined, extremely sensible life plan which is why he’s abruptly giving up taiko so he can attend cram school and get into uni with the aim of becoming a civil servant. As we discover, Sho has been something of a follower making most of his existing decisions based on whatever Taiga was going to do, but he can’t merely follow him this time and will have to come to some sort of decision about his individual future. 

“I can’t walk alone. I don’t know what to do” he confesses to a surprisingly sympathetic teacher (Kengo Kora), while as it transpires Taiga is having similar thoughts. The two boys are much more co-dependent that they assumed, but that very co-dependency begins to drive them apart when coupled with their adolescent anxiety. Taiga fears that he is simply too “boring”, giving up taiko because his carefully honed technique cannot measure up to Sho’s anarchic power. According to him he took up taiko after spotting Sho playing at a festival thinking he looked so “free and cool”, yet Sho equally thinks he’s not as a good a drummer and cannot match Taiga’s meticulous training. Taiga is shifting away from their friendship because he secretly feels inferior and wants to leave before being around Sho makes him feels miserable, a logic Sho is not fully equipped to understand. 

“Why does everybody quit?” he asks in exasperation, meeting a strange young woman who like them wants to pull away from something before she ends up hating both it and herself. Likened by Taiga to the kind of manic pixie dream girl who frequently turns up during the last summer of high school in manga, Miyako (Nari Saito) does not quite come between the two boys in the expected way but does bring out their contradictory qualities before abruptly disappearing from the narrative, ahead of the pair in suddenly deciding that she’ll figure something out on her own. Having decided all he wants is a future of ordinary happiness, Taiga can’t help resenting his friend feeling that whatever decision he makes, getting a job or going to uni, he’ll wind up happy whereas he presumably will not with his unexciting yet sensible life as a civil servant. 

There is an undeniably homoerotic quality to the boys’ friendship, their brief falling out almost like a lovers’ tiff in its melancholy intensity. Sho necessarily fears the loss of his friend, perhaps instinctively knowing he’s chosen a path he likely cannot follow and feeling rejected because of it. He obsessively meditates on the meaning of “happiness” unable to settle on a means of achieving it while unsure of what exactly it means. He asks his friends and family but discovers that happiness means different things to different people, may change over time or not quite be what you first thought it was, or be as simple as a sunny day in your hometown. He does however begin to accept that even if separated, his relationship with Taiga will not necessarily change they will still be “together” if more in spirit than body. Recalling something Taiga had said about the sea which he has never seen, he makes his choice defiant in its independence. Hailing from Fukuoka herself, Elaiza Ikeda’s remarkably assured directorial debut crafts a warm, empathetic coming-of-age tale centring on the intense friendship between two men but discovering a sense of wonder and contentment in the everyday as its conflicted hero finds a sense of rootedness in the strength of his relationships that grants him the freedom to roam. 


Town Without Sea streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Daihachi Yoshida, 2020)

“Landscapes don’t stay the same” laments a young woman in Daihachi Yoshida’s slick corporate drama, Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Damashie No Kiba), though the more things change the more they stay the same and the push and pull of traditionalists and modernisers seems set to be an unending battle. If someone were brave enough to think of it, there may be a third way, but one thing is clear – it’s adapt or die for the printed word and the real war is over who makes it onto the page and how they do it. 

When the CEO of a major family-owned publishing house dies of a heart attack while walking his dog, it throws the entire industry into disarray and even makes it onto the national news where pundits discuss who might be most likely to succeed while pointing out that publishing is already in crisis seeing as most novels are serialised in literary journals and magazine readership is on its way out. Earnest editor Megumi (Mayu Matsuoka) is forever told that old and new is a false dichotomy and in some ways it may be, but century-old literary journal Kunpu Review is quite clearly mired in a traditionalist past woefully out of touch with contemporary society. 

This Megumi learns to her cost when pulled straight from the CEO’s funeral to a 40th anniversary event marking the debut of their best-selling author Daisaku Nikaido (Jun Kunimura). Encouraged by rival editor Hayami (Yo Oizumi), she gives her honest opinion on Nikaido’s work pulling him up on the latent sexism in his novels by suggesting his sexual politics are at best old-fashioned. This is of course a huge faux pas and a moment of minor embarrassment for all concerned, though it will also become a repeated motif Megumi again trying to bring up a younger author on his subpar portrayal of women but finding her concerns falling on deaf ears. 

Part of the problem is that authors, and particularly well-established ones, rarely undergo a rigorous editing process such as they might outside of Japan. Kunpu is so desperate to keep Nikaido on side that they treat him as a mini god, wasting vast amounts of their budget expensing him for “research” holidays and a healthy interest in fine wines. They simply wouldn’t have the courage to tell him that his drafts are improvable or that elements of his writing may cause offence. 

Hayami, the tricky editor of rival culture mag Trinity, is by contrast deliberately looking for the modern but in other ways is not so different from Kunpu. Poaching an up and coming author Megumi had pitched but was rejected, Hayami embarks on an elaborate PR campaign casting the young and handsome Yajiro (Hio Miyazawa) as a literary idol star. But Yajiro seems to be uncomfortable with the attention, unprepared to deal with demands of being a prominent writer and resenting Hayami’s attempts to manipulate his image by forcing him into photoshoots dressed in outfits he would never wear. Hayami also engineers a publicity stunt implying Yajiro is in a relationship with his other protege, a young model and unexpected firearms enthusiast (Elaiza Ikeda) who is later arrested after shooting a stalker with a homemade pistol. 

What happens to Saki Jojima is either an unintended consequence or direct result of Hayami’s inability to fully control the situation, but it also creates both crisis and opportunity for Trininty when Hayami breaks protocol and decides to run Saki’s issue rather than pulling it entirely with an apology as is usual in Japan when a celebrity is the subject of scandal. This places him in direct opposition to the traditionalist Kunpu, horrified and insistent that his decision stains the integrity of the publishing house. Like Hayami, however, new CEO Tomatsu (Koichi Sato) is determined to do things differently and prepared to take a gamble, secretly working on his own plan to streamline the business and build their own production/distribution facility in Yokohama. 

Everyone is so absorbed in their own plotting that they fail to notice others plotting around them. Megumi, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the survival of her father’s old-fashioned book shop which itself badly needs another literary hit because half the customers are kids who come in to browse the manga and then download the good ones when they get home. One young woman looking for a particular novel even explains that she only wants to read it because there’s no movie or drama adaptation. With all this finagling, it’s easy to think everyone’s forgotten about the books while Megumi desperately tries to get someone to let her do some actual editing because they’re all too busy mollycoddling their authors. Nevertheless there’s more to the Kunpu vs Trinity battle than it first seems as they vie for the future of Japan’s publishing industry little suspecting that there may be another contender with a less acrimonious solution. “If something could be updated it should be” Megumi insists, a sentiment which apparently goes both for dinosaur writers unwilling to reckon with their latent misogyny and the book business itself. 

Once again adapting a literary source, Yoshida’s gentle farce quietly builds the tension with courtly intrigue as the wider society remains rapt over the succession crisis at a publishing firm while its ambitious courtiers plot amongst themselves in order to steal the throne. Casting Yo Oizumi in the role he apparently inspired in the book is another masterstroke of meta commentary as his thrill-seeking manipulator plays the long game but even if the prognosis for Japan’s publishing industry may be bleak there is unexpected glee to be had in the eventual triumph of a righteous underdog over a thoroughbred plotter. 


Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction screens on Aug. 26 and 28 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Little Monster (となりの怪物くん, Sho Tsukikawa, 2018)

A wilfully self-contained high school girl falls for a big-hearted classmate, but struggles to understand that they are in essence fighting different battles in their parallel quests for acceptance. Adapted from the hit shojo manga by Robico, Sho Tsukikawa’s My Little Monster (となりの怪物くん, Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun) is in many ways a typical high school rom-com in which a repressed young woman begins to deal with her abandonment issues essentially by mothering a displaced young man whose “problematic” big-heartedness sees him regarded as a “monster” by a still conservative society. 

Opening with a flashback presumably set in the present day, an older Shizuku (Tao Tsuchiya) now wearing a lawyer’s pin listens wistfully to Kana Nishino’s 2010 hit Best Friend and reflects on a time when all she cared about was studying, rejecting all human connection. Until that is she met the titular “monster” Haru (Masaki Suda) and suddenly found herself surrounded by people. Haru, as we discover, got into a fight on the first day of school and never actually showed up for classes. Because Shizuku should have been his desk neighbour, the panicked teacher asks her to take the handouts etc to his home in the hope he’ll one day return. Shizuku has no interest in doing as the teacher has tasked her but fulfils her duty, only to unexpectedly encounter Haru who then decides they must be “friends” based on a primary school understanding that friends take each other notes and homework when one of them is sick. 

It turns out that Haru hasn’t been coming to school because it bothers him that everyone finds him scary because of his lack of impulse control. He desperately wants to make friends and thinks he has some in a trio of local boys but Shizuku can see right away that they are essentially bullying him for money and tries to explain that “real” friends don’t sponge off each other. Perhaps because of his innate kindness, Haru is completely guileless and sees the best in everyone unable to understand when he’s being taken advantage of. Despite herself, Shizuku begins to feel protective assuring Haru that he will one day be surrounded by people who understand him unwittingly echoing the words of his late aunt who was the only other person who’d ever rooted for him. Straightforward as ever, Haru immediately confesses his love and so their awkward high school romance begins. 

Shizuku, however, is still largely uninterested in love. She has devoted herself to studying and only cares about coming top in the school exams. As we discover this is less because of academic ambition than practical application. She studies hard and immediately sees results. It’s the sure thing, something which is completely within her own control, unlike other people’s feelings which are necessarily messy and unpredictable. There is however an uncomfortable conservatism in the centring of Shizuku’s trauma solely in the fact that her mother works outside the home and is therefore not present in her life in the way that mothers are expected to be in a patriarchal society while her family set up is regarded as unusual in that her father, having failed several times in business, is a househusband. 

Meanwhile, she remains fairly blinkered to Haru’s parallel familial disconnection in that he has apparently been disowned by his authoritarian father for his free-spirited ways. Taken to a birthday party held for Haru’s older brother Yuzan (Yuki Furukawa), Shizuku begins to realise there is a large class difference between them but reacts badly, confused that he is rejecting the very things she’s striving for in refusing to reconnect with his father, ignoring the fact that he has separated from him because he is essentially abusive. He refuses to let Haru be Haru, trying to straight-jacket him into conventionality by forcing him to clamp down on his noisy impulsivity, something which he seems unable to do even if he wanted to. Shizuku fails to realise the hurt she deals him in refusing to understand his reluctance, unable to see that it amounts to a rejection from the one person he assumed had completely accepted him. 

What she discovers is that you won’t always be forgiven for momentary thoughtlessness and in the end you have to let people be what they are, which throws into light the problematic “monster” of the title which is how Haru is often seen by others, a quality brought to vivid life in Suda’s manic performance. A rival suitor, Yamaken (Yuki Yamada), selling himself as the slow and steady candidate perhaps more suited to Shizuku in being more like herself, describes their relationship as a “make-believe friendship” rather than a real romance, something she has to accept may have a grain of truth in it in her inability to fully understand the person she claims to love, but nevertheless comes to the conclusion that while Yamaken may make her feel at ease in herself it’s the stressful stimulation with the intense yet passionate Haru that she truly craves. That aside, their romance is a fairly cool affair and its resolution too contrived to have any kind of impact which is perhaps why Tsukikawa resorts to anime-style imagery including a flying leap of love accompanied by bright sunshine flooding in from behind. Nevertheless, in true shojo fashion My Little Monster celebrates not only its heroine’s gradual path towards an embrace of the chaos of being alive, but also the power of friendship and acceptance as the gang find a place to belong in each other and with it a more concrete sense of self.


Singapore release trailer (English/Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Kana Nishino – Best Friend

Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Shinji Hamasaki, 2020)

©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

“What’s important is purpose, to live for something. Without it you’re as good as dead” according to the hero of madcap existentialist farce Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Ichido Shinde Mita). The feature debut from ad director Shinji Hamasaki pits a rebellious student against her overly literal, authoritarian dad as the pair begin to come to a kind mutual understanding only once he “dies” after being tricked into taking an experimental drug in order to unmask conspiracy within his own organisation. 

College student Nanase (Suzu Hirose) intensely resents her father (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the CEO of Nobata Pharmaceuticals which he has long been pressuring her to join. She’s currently the lead singer in death metal band Soulzz only according to a record scout at one of their shows their problem is that they’re all “zz” and no soul. Meanwhile, Nobata has assigned an underling, Matsuoka (Ryo Yoshizawa), to shadow her partly because Matsuoka too has very little presence and is in fact nicknamed “ghost” for his essential invisibility. The trouble starts with the escalation of a corporate feud as Nobata’s old buddy Tanabe (Kyusaku Shimada) starts manoeuvring to get his hands on the company’s research into an anti-ageing serum codenamed “Romeo”, planting a mole inside the organisation. As a consequence of his research another of the scientists nicknamed “Gramps” has stumbled on another drug which renders someone temporarily “dead” for a period of two days, naming it “Juliet”. Watabe (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a consultant Nobata has brought in to streamline the business, convinces him to take the experimental drug in order to flush out the mole while secretly working with Tanabe to take over the company by forcing through a merger while Nobata is out of action. 

A typical socially awkward scientist, Nobata believes that life is about experiment and observation, a belief system which has thoroughly irritated his daughter who still lives at home but has divided the territory in half with clearly marked red tape. Nanase’s animosity towards her father apparently stems back to the death of her late mother Yuriko (Tae Kimura), angry with him that he never left his desk and didn’t make it to the hospital in time to see her before she passed away. “Life’s not a lab experiment” she sings, recalling her childhood during which her overly literal father took away life’s magic by patiently over explaining fairytales, scoffing that Prince Charming probably didn’t revive Sleeping Beauty with a kiss but a transfer of static electricity, while continuing to order her around in fatherly fashion now she’s all grown up. Perhaps still stuck in a petulant adolescence she started the band to vent her frustrations with the world in the form of a death metal “mass”, but she’s growing up. Her bandmates are getting jobs or getting married, she’s still stuck with no real clue about what it is she actually wants to do with her life except that she doesn’t want anything to do with Nobuta Pharmaceuticals.  

Once her father “dies”, however, she begins to gain a new appreciation for his life philosophy able to see but not hear his “ghost” while his body lies on a table in the office cafeteria. Nobata went into pharmaceuticals to help people, but has been led on a dark and vacuous path pursuing anti-ageing technology which is in itself a rejection of change and transience. Ending all her sentences with the word “death”, that’s not something Nanase can get behind. She believes in growing old gracefully, that they make drugs not to cheat death but to be able to spend longer with those they love. As her father had advised Matsuoka to do, she begins to find her purpose, rediscovers her soul, and figures out what it is she’s supposed to do with her life.

Matsuoka, however, seems to be permanently “invisible” despite the tentative romance that develops as he and Nanase attempt to subvert the conspiracy to stop them doing her dad in for good, brushing up against the venal Tanabe who seems set to muster all his corporate advantages against them partly because of an old grudge against Nobata. Of course, you have to wonder why the conspirators didn’t just poison him rather than having him go Juliet and then entering a race against time to cremate him before he wakes up, but as Nobata reminds us there are many things which science cannot explain. A cheerfully silly Christmas tale of rediscovering what it means to be “alive” in the presence of death, Not Quite Dead Yet is zany seasonal fun but with plenty of soul as its heroes learn to shake off cynical corporatism for a healthy respect of the values of transience.


Not Quite Dead Yet screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2019)

Gambling, the ultimate act of faith or the height of anarchic genius? Based on the hit manga which has already been adapted as a popular TV anime, Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ) is the sequel to two seasons of a live action TV drama set in a school where hierarchy is decided not by grades or by fists, but by prowess at the gaming tables. Those who lose so badly they bankrupt themselves become a kind of subhuman underclass, tied up like dogs and routinely humiliated, while the Student Council becomes a stand in for an oppressive social order ruling over all and enforcing the law with an iron hand. 

Into this high stress environment walks Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), a transfer student to the elite Hyakkaou Private Academy determined to bend its rules to her own advantage. Meanwhile, Student Council President Kirari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda) is forced to deal with a new and unexpected threat – The Village, a small cult made up of students who have rejected the system, dropped out to live a hippy lifestyle in the grounds, and refuse to participate in “meaningless” games of chance. Their priest-like leader, Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa), once beat Kirari at cards becoming something like a god of gambling, but lost his zeal for the game after losing the only thing he ever cared about. 

Where he opposes the system passively yet pointedly, Yumeko rebels in her own, fiercely individualistic way by superficially conforming, becoming a top gambler, but only because she is exercising a free choice to do so. She plays for kicks alone, and generally wins because she isn’t stressed enough about losing to let it bother her. This individualist streak makes her a hidden threat against Kirari, but one that might in itself be an interesting gamble for the infinitely bored Student Council President. 

While Yumeko’s individualism threatens to unbalance the system, The Village presents a collectivist threat, agitating wholesale revolution and an end to the oppressive rule of the Student Council which renders losers inhuman. Yet there’s an essential irony in The Village’s creepy monotony that stands in stark contrast to Yumeko’s seeming conformity but insistence on her own freedom. Your life’s your own, she later explains, it’s annoying if people try to manipulate it. In this instance she’s talking not about the “life plans” handed out by the Student Council, but the egotistical desire to “save” the lives of others without considering if they want them saved or if you’re merely infringing on their personal freedom in attempting to make choices for them based entirely on your own value system. 

Murasame perhaps bet something he shouldn’t have and technically won, but ended up losing anyway which is what has made him turn against gambling. Yumeko, meanwhile, believes that the only way to be truly free to entrust yourself to luck and destiny. That is, however, somewhat disingenuous, because what Yumeko excels at is mind games, essentially manipulating those around her in order to win. Yumeko plays players, not cards, and is rarely played herself. Unlike Murasame’s righthand woman Arukibi (Haruka Fukuhara), she doesn’t care that much what people think. Arukibi, meanwhile, is desperate for approval and is playing her own game just to get someone’s attention which makes her a volatile, if easily manipulated, opponent.

Essentially, Murasame wants freedom outside of the system where Yumeko has found it within, but her philosophy is perhaps the more dangerous in that it proposes total freedom that has no regard for the systems of governance. Then again, maybe this is all a long con to get better cakes in the cafeteria, merely gaming the system rather than actively undermining it. Nevertheless, for Yumeko life is risk, rebelling against an oppressive social order through the anarchic individualism of living by “chance”. Living in a society as highly regimented as this is a high stakes game, but you can’t win if you don’t play, and you need to play smart. That’s the peculiar irony of life at Hyakkaou Private Academy where the Student Council literally owns your future but you can win it back by playing them at their own game. Bet your life, win your freedom Yumeko seems to say but she still makes sure to bring cake for everyone, not just the “winners” or the privileged few. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Sadako (貞子, Hideo Nakata, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

(C)2019 "Sadako" Film PartnersJust over 20 years ago, Hideo Nakata’s Ring became an international phenomenon and kick started a J-horror boom that continued to define the nation’s cinematic output for the following decade. The J-horror boom, however, eventually imploded after a series of diminishing returns turned the figure of the long-haired ghost into something of a self parody. Even so, Sadako has continued to haunt Japanese cinema like the malevolent spirit we all know her to be and now she’s back with a brand new curse.

Adapted from the 2013 novel Tide by Ring author Koji Suzuki (though in actuality an almost entirely original story), “Sadako” (貞子) is set firmly in the present day and twenty years after the mysterious chain video curse took so many lives. Our heroine, Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda), is a clinical psychologist working in a regular hospital where she tries to help those with physical ailments maintain their mental health. New to the job, she is currently struggling with a doctor’s major dilemma in figuring out how to keep a personal distance from her patients who have a natural tendency to latch on to a caregiver even while knowing that the relationship must necessarily remain a professional one.

The trouble starts when a mysterious, mute young girl is brought into the hospital. Mayu is unable to get through to her and she doesn’t even seem to know her name but the mystery is partially solved when the police turn up with evidence that suggests the girl is the daughter of a woman who set fire to her apartment, killing herself and five others in a danchi blaze. Prompted by the detectives, the girl reveals that the woman was indeed her mother who referred to her as “Sadako” though the girl states that it is not her name. In any case, the police are none the wiser. Meanwhile, Mayu is also dealing with a personal problem as her feckless younger brother Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), who had given up his studies to become a YouTube star, has gone missing after filming himself exploring the “creepy” abandoned apartment building where Sadako was kept in confinement by her apparently “freaky” mother, a failed psychic.

The original Sadako curse might have been well and truly played out, but Sadako once again decides to get out of her well and shame mankind with a very particular mission of highlighting persistent child abuse and neglect which, sadly, continues to be a pressing social issue in contemporary Japan where several child abuse scandals have made headline news in recent months. This time she doesn’t really appreciate being caught on video which is where Kazuma gets himself into trouble, but is busying herself calling the souls of all abandoned children to a creepy cave which used to be a shrine for the souls of ascetic monks who died while undergoing spiritual training on the island.

Meanwhile, Mayu bonds with the little girl who seems to sense her own innate sense of loneliness as a woman who was herself “abandoned” as child. Raised in secret by her mother who was convinced she is the reincarnation of the legendary “Sadako” and feared her strange powers, the little Sadako remains somehow trapped between the human world and the supernatural, in need of rescue by a sympathetic, maternal figure.

Perhaps in keeping with the 20th anniversary celebratory nature of the project, Nakata sticks largely to late ‘90s aesthetics complete with a familiar J-horror score, muted colour scheme, dimmed lighting, and generally eerie atmosphere. He is not attempting to reinvent the wheel but only to turn it a few more times, even having one of his victims baldly recite the “original” Sadako legend for Mayu’s benefit before adding a few new details as she goes about her investigation of the creepy cave. Nevertheless, the archetypal long-haired ghost maintains her appeal as she evolves once again, revamped for a new generation’s anxieties and re-emerging from the well of despair with rage and vengeance on her mind. Filled with creepy dolls, scattered sutras, and a healthy amount of plot holes, Nakata’s return to the Ring franchise cannot recapture the magic of the original but does its best to ape its charms with yet another exploration of flawed motherhood retooled for more a more anxious age.


Sadako screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Singapore release trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Images: (C)2019 “Sadako” Film Partners

Room Laundering (ルームロンダリング, Kenji Katagiri, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

Room Laundering posterIn the olden days, when there had been a traumatic incident, holy people would be brought in to perform some kind of ritual to “purify” the air so life could go back to “normal”. These days people don’t believe in ghosts, or at least not in ghosts of that kind, but there is still a degree of discomfort involved in spending time in a place where something unpleasant has happened. Japanese rental laws state that a prospective renter/buyer should be informed if something untoward has occurred in the property, but the law only requires you to tell the next person in line. Therefore, if you can find a person willing to spend a few days in an apartment with a troubled past, they could be quite a useful asset to the unscrupulous estate agent.

Miko Yakumo (Elaiza Ikeda) is just such a woman and has therefore found herself falling into a “room laundering” career thanks to her uncle Goro (Joe Odagiri), a roguish real-estate-broker-cum-underworld-fixer with a sideline in fake IDs for undocumented migrants. Miko’s father died when she was five, and her mother disappeared without warning a few years later leaving her with her grandmother who died when Miko was 18. She’s now 20 and is nominally in her uncle’s care but having dealt with so much loss and abandonment, she prefers to keep to herself, always closed off with a pair of headphones blocking her ears, speaking to no one. The apartment “job” therefore suits her well enough with its clear stipulation to avoid mixing with the neighbours, but there’s one big drawback. Miko has recently developed the ability to see ghosts which is sometimes a problem given the circumstances her new places of residence became vacant.

A tale of learning to deal with the past, Room Laundering (ルームロンダリング) takes its heroine on some long, strange journeys but despite its death laden themes and Miko’s emotional numbness it has its essential warmths even if they’re sometimes harder to see. Miko’s travels chart a course of modern loneliness as she encounters those who’ve found themselves passing away alone, in pain and in sadness – old ladies whose bodies weren’t found until they’d almost all rotted away, neglected children who starved to death after being abandoned, businessmen who killed themselves after getting into debt, a catalogue of human misery seemingly without end. Miko doesn’t find the ghosts scary because she thinks real people are scarier. They lie, and they leave, and they let you down. At least the ghosts will stick around even if you wish they wouldn’t.

Even so, interacting with the recently deceased begins to reawaken Miko’s sense of vitality. Drinking with (or more accurately on behalf of) an insecure punk rocker (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) who took his own life before sending off his demo tape proves an oddly fulfilling experience for the otherwise introverted young woman, while staying in the apartment of a murdered cosplayer (Kaoru Mitsumune) gives her a sense of purpose when she decides to help the unfortunate woman move on by unmasking the real killer. Meanwhile, she also breaks her non-fraternising rule to chat to the geeky boy next-door (Kentaro Ito) and starts to wonder if maybe not all the living are so bad after all.

In dealing with the legacy of abandonment while literally living a transient life, Miko is forced to confront the ghosts of her past and exorcise them in order to escape her self imposed limbo. Only by being on her own can she reach the realisation that she is not alone. Meanwhile, Uncle Goro’s originally shady looking services for migrants without the proper papers begin to look more altruistic than they first seemed. He, like Miko, is helping himself by helping others who are also trapped in a kind of limbo only a more prosaic earthbound one of rigid bureaucracies and xenophobic exploitation. Goro maybe a dodgy estate agent with a sideline in forcing grannies out of their homes to pave the way for “redevelopment” but at least he’s found a better system of room laundering than his colleague who generally just rents to foreigners and visa overstayers he can either evict or extort if things go wrong. It just goes to show a little bit of empathy goes a long way. After all, you’re a long time dead.


Room Laundering was screened as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Many Faces of Ito (伊藤くん A to E, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2018)

Many Faces of Ito posterRyuichi Hiroki’s career has been oddly varied, but he’s never been one to avoid straying into uncomfortable areas. Adapted from the novel by Asako Yuzuki, The Many Faces of Ito (伊藤くん A to E, Ito-kun A to E) explores the risks and rewards of modern existence through the prismatic viewpoint of five women messed around by the same terrible man as he seems to breeze through life buoyed up by the sense of superiority he gains through their unwavering appreciation. Then again perhaps his air of ultra confidence is yet another mask for his insecurity as he paints every failure as a conscious rejection, sneering superciliously at the desires of others while wilfully negating his own. Our guide, a blocked TV drama scriptwriter, may have imagined this entire scenario as she attempts to break through her own sense of painful inertia but it remains true that the world she inhabits is far from kind to women seeking the key to their own destinies.

32-year-old Rio (Fumino Kimura) won a scriptwriting competition which developed into a top TV hit some years previously but has struggled to replicate her success and now makes her living teaching screenwriting and acting as an expert on love for women captivated by the idealised romance of her debut “Tokyo Doll House”. Her longterm editor/producer (and former lover but that’s a problem we’ll get to later) encourages her to mine her romance sessions for possible material through interviewing women with unusual romantic dilemmas on the pretext of helping them find a way out. Rio, now jaded and cynical, is of a mind to make money from other people’s misery and the advice she gives is less in service of her clients and more in that of the story as she tries to engineer “naturalistic” drama but as in all things, her writing becomes increasingly personal and she is in effect in dialogue with herself.

Unbeknownst to Rio, each of the four women she decides to interview is involved with the same man – Ito (Masaki Okada), who is, because coincidence is real, a student in her screenwriting class. With his patterned black and white shirts and handsome yet somehow anonymous appearance, Ito is earnest but superior, shifting from over eager puppy to dangerously possessive stalker. 28-year-old Tomomi (Nozomi Sasaki) has been carrying a torch for him for five years longing for an intimacy that will never develop while Ito insensitively tells her about his crush on a workplace colleague, Shuko (Mirai Shida). Shuko is in no way interested in his advances but Ito refuses to take no for an answer, eventually forcing her to leave the company because of his constant harassment. Wounded, he retreats to university “friend” Miki (Kaho) who he knows has been nursing a long time crush and is shy and naive enough for him to push around without much resistance. Luckily (in one sense) Miki has a devoted roommate, Satoko (Elaiza Ikeda), who is keen to look out for her friend but there is perhaps more to this relationship than meets the eye and Satoko’s jealously eventually pulls her too into Ito’s web of romantic destruction.

The question Rio finds herself asking if each of these women, and she herself in her failure to get over the betrayal of her producer Tamura (Kei Tanaka) who eventually broke up with her to marry someone else, is in a sense complicit in their own inability to move forward. It’s almost as if their collective sense of low self-esteem and fear of rejection has conjured up its own mythical monster in the figure of Ito who displays just about every male failing on offer. He uses and abuses and when rejected proudly states that he never wanted that anyway because he’s simply far too good for whatever it is that you might prize. Yet through battling his cruelty and emotional violence, each of the women is able to cut straight through to the origin of all their problems, correctly identifying what it is that ails them and committing to moving forward in spite of it even if the part of themselves they most feared was the one the saw mirrored in Ito’s insecurities.

The “battle” between Ito and Rio comes out as a draw which sees them both lose but only provokes a final confrontation which is as much with Rio herself as it is with the Itos of the world. Ito rejects his failure, sneers at the TV industry and claims to have loftier goals but Rio has figured him out by now and correctly assesses that his life philosophy is to back away from the fight to avoid the humiliation of losing. Pushed by the unexpectedly profound interventions of fellow writer KazuKen (Tomoya Nakamura) who reminds her that she was once a writer unafraid to bare her soul, Rio realises that a life without risk is mere emptiness and the soulless (non)existence of a man like Ito is no way to live. To be alive to is open yourself up to pain, but if you refuse to engage in fear of getting hurt you might as well be dead and if what you want is to make art you’ll have to lift the lid on all that personal suffering or you’ll never be able to connect. Each of our timid ladies finds themselves ready to stand tall, no longer willing to afford the likes of Ito the esteem which allows him to sail on through papering over his lack of self-confidence by sapping all of theirs. The masks are off, and the game is on.


Currently streaming on Netflix in most territories along with the companion TV drama.

Original trailer (no subtitles)