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)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2017)

Mary and the witch's flower posterWhen Studio Ghibli announced that it would be ceasing production, it couldn’t help but feel like the end of an era. The studio which had made Japanese animation an internationally beloved art form was no more. Into the void stepped a brand new animation studio which vowed to pick up the Ghibli gauntlet – Studio Ponoc was formed by former Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura who enlisted a host of other ex-Ghibli talent including Arrietty director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. 

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Mary to Majo no Hana), Ponoc’s first feature is, like Yonebayashi’s When Marnie was There, an adaptation of a classic British children’s novel. Part of the ‘70s children’s literature boom, Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick was more or less forgotten until the film, paradoxically, brought it back into print. Like many post-war children’s novels, The Little Broomstick is the story of a clever and kind little girl who thinks she doesn’t quite fit in. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is no different in this regard, even in updating the tale (seemingly) to the present day as its spiky heroine finds herself taking on mad scientists and crazed witches in a strange fantasy realm all while trying to get used to the comparatively gentle rhythms of country life.

Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki) is bored. She hates her frizzy red hair which a horrible local boy, Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki), uses as justification to describe her as a “red haired monkey”, and fears that the rest of her life will merely be a dull exercise in killing time until its inevitable conclusion. Mary has just moved in with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake) in the country while her parents are apparently working away and, as she still has a week left of summer holidays until school starts, she’s desperate for something to do. Unwisely following two cats into a misty forest, she chances upon a mysterious flower – the “Fly By Night” which blooms only once every seven years. With no respect for nature, Mary picks herself some of the pretty bulbs to take back to the gardener but unwittingly opens up a portal to another world. Taking hold of an abandoned broomstick, she finds herself swooped off to Endor College – an elite institution of witchcraft and wizardry where she dazzles all with her magical skills. Thinking she’s finally found her place, Mary is content to go along with everyone’s assumption that she is the new student they’ve been waiting for but on closer inspection, Endor College is not quite all it seems.

Mary’s initial dissatisfaction with herself is somewhat sidelined by the narrative but there’s something particularly poignant about her loathing of her red hair. In British culture at least, those with red hair often face a strange kind of “acceptable” prejudice, bullied and ostracised even into adulthood. Thus when Peter calls Mary a “red haired monkey” it isn’t cute or funny it’s just mean and she’s probably heard something similar every day of her life. When she rocks up at Endor and they tell her that her red hair makes her special and is the sign of high magic potential, it’s music to her ears but it’s also, perhaps, reinforcing the idea that simply having red hair makes her different from everyone else.

Feeling different from everyone else perhaps allows her to look a little deeper into the world of Endor than she might otherwise have done. Despite her conviction that she doesn’t fit in and is of no use to anyone, Mary is never seriously tempted by the promises of Endor which include untold power as well as a clear offer of acceptance and even respect. When she realises that the couple who run the school – a witch and a scientist, have been abusing their powers by committing heinous acts of experimentation on innocent “test subjects”, Mary learns to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves even if she couldn’t have done it for herself.

Messages about the seductive power of authoritarian regimes exploiting feelings of disconnection, the scant difference between magic and science, and the need for respect of scientific ethics in the pursuit of knowledge, all get somewhat lost amid Mary’s meandering adventures, as does Mary herself as her gradual progress towards realising that she possessed her own “magic” all along ticks away quietly in the background. Yet the biggest problem Mary and the Witch’s Flower faces is also its greatest strength – its ties to Studio Ghibli. With echoes of Yonebayashi’s previous adaptations of classic British literature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower also indulges in a number of obvious Ghibli homages from the Ponyo-esque flying fish and Laputa influenced design of Endor to the overt shot of Mary riding a deer on a rocky path, and the unavoidable girl+broomstick echoes of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Even if Mary and the Witch’s Flower cannot free itself from the burden of its legacy, it does perhaps fill the void it was intended to, if in unspectacular fashion.


Mary and the Witch’s Flower will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Altitude Films in May 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2017)

survival family posterModern life is full of conveniences, but perhaps they come at a price. Shinobu Yaguchi has made something of a career out of showing the various ways nice people can come together to overcome their problems, but as the problem in Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー) is post-apocalyptic dystopia, being nice might not be the best way to solve it. Nevertheless, the Suzukis can’t help trying as they deal with the cracks already present in their relationships whilst trying to figure out a way to survive in the new, post-electric world.

Receiving a package from grandpa fills the Suzukis with horror more than gratitude. Mum Mitsue (Eri Fukatsu) can’t bring herself to cut the head off a fish and the sight of the giant bug that crawls out of the lettuce is just too much to bear. Her teenage daughter, Yui (Wakana Aoi), is not very excited either, tapping her smartphone with her fake nails, while her son Kenji (Yuki Izumisawa) spends all his time alone in his room with headphones permanently attached. Mr. Suzuki, Yoshiyuki (Fumiyo Kohinata) – the family patriarch, is a typical salaryman, obsessed with work and often in bed early.

All that changes one day when Yoshiyuki’s alarm clock does not go off. There’s been a power outage – nothing works, not the TV, not the phone, not even the tower block’s elevator. Being the salaryman champ he is, Yoshiyuki tries to make it into to work in other ways but the power’s out across the city and there’s nothing to be done. Everyone is sure the power will come back on soon, but days pass with the consequences only increasing as supermarket shelves become bare and water frighteningly scarce. After his boss decides to take his chances in the mountains and a neighbour dies as a direct result of the ongoing power shortage, Yoshihyuki decides to take the family on the road to find Mitsue’s country bumpkin father in the hope that he will have a better idea of how to survive this brave new world.

Yaguchi is quick to remind us all of the ways electricity defines our lives, even if we’ve begun to forget them. Not only is it a question of mobile phones being out and lifts being out of order, but gas appliances are also electric ignition as are the pumps which drive the water system. So used to the constant stream of electricity, no one quite realises what its absence means hence Yoshiyuki’s big idea is to get a plane from Haneda airport. Ridiculous as it may seem, he’s not the only one to have underestimated the part electricity plays in flight and the aviation industry as the airport is swamped by people trying to escape the rapidly disintegrating city. Credit cards no longer work leading to long checkout lines as the old ladies with their abacuses make a startling return to checkouts while bemused shoppers attempt to use the ATM machine to get more cash.

Cash itself still has worth, at least for a time. Eventually the barter system takes over as food and water become top price commodities. A very flash looking man tries to trade genuine Rolex gold watch and later the keys to his Maserati for food but is roundly informed that none of his hard won prizes is worth anything in this new back to basics era. Thanks to Mitsue’s housewife skills of frugality and haggling, the family are able to get themselves a small stockplie of resources but find themselves tested when the less fortunate ask them for help.

The crisis brings out both the best and the worst in humanity. As the family make their escape from the city on a series of bicycles, they pass a succession of salesmen all upping the price of bottled water by 100% each time. Profiteering is rife as the unscrupulous procure ordinary foodstuffs to be sold for vast amounts of money. Yet the Suzukis rarely find themselves on the wrong side of trickery and even encounter a few kindly souls willing to help them on their journey such as a gang of cycle wear clad survival experts and a very forgiving farmer who takes the family in when they help themselves to one of his escaped pigs (a sequence which allows Yaguchi to go on another Swing Girls-style pig chase only without the slo-mo and classical music).

Forced to reconnect, the family become closer, gradually coming to know and accept each other whilst finding new and unknown talents. Living simply and harmoniously has its charms, ones that don’t necessarily need to disappear if the power ever comes back on. The only certainty is that you can’t survive alone, and who can you count on if you can’t count on family?


Screened as the opening night movie of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Masayuki Suo, 2014)

lady-maikoWhen Japan does musicals, even Hollywood style musicals, it tends to go for the backstage variety or a kind of hybrid form in which the idol/singing star protagonist gets a few snazzy numbers which somehow blur into the real world. Masayuki Suo’s previous big hit, Shall We Dance, took its title from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song featured in the King and I but it’s Lerner and Loewe he turns to for an American style song and dance fiesta relocating My Fair Lady to the world of Kyoto geisha, Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Maiko wa Lady) . My Fair Lady was itself inspired by Shaw’s Pygmalion though replaces much of its class conscious, feminist questioning with genial romance. Suo’s take leans the same way but suffers somewhat in the inefficacy of its half hearted love story seeing as its heroine is only 15 years old.

Country bumpkin Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) arrives in the elegant Kyoto geisha quarters with only one hope – to become a maiko! However, despite the scarcity of young girls wanting to train, Haruko’s hopes are dashed by the head geisha who finds it impossible to understand anything she’s saying thanks to her extraordinarily rare accent which is an odd mix of north and south country dialects. Luckily for her, a linguistics professor who has an unhealthy obsession with rare dialectical forms overhears her speech patterns and is instantly fascinated. Striking up a bet with another tea house patron, Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa) takes on the challenge of training Haruko to master the elegant Kyoto geisha accent in just six months.

The teahouses and the culture which goes with them are a part of the old world just barely hanging on in the bright new modern era. Haruko first became infatuated with all things maiko thanks to an online blog kept by the teahouse’s only current star, Momoko (Tomoko Tabata) – the daughter of the proprietor still only a maiko at age thirty precisely because of the lack of candidates to succeed her. Despite this intrusion of the modern, the way of the geisha remains essentially the same as it has for centuries with all of the unfairness and exploitation it entails. Hence, most of the women working in the teahouses are part-timers brought in for big events with only rudimentary training and even those who have spent a significant amount of time learning their craft lament that they don’t get paid a real salary and even their kimono and accessories technically belong to the teahouse.

Despite being on the fringes of the sex trade, as the professor’s assistant takes care to warn Haruko, there’s still something glamorous about the the arcane teahouse world bound up in ancient traditions and complicated rituals of elegance. Haruko faces a steep learning curve as a clumsy country girl who doesn’t even know how to sit “seiza” without her legs going numb. Learning to speak like a Kyoto native may be the least of her worries seeing as she has to learn how to dress in kimono, play a taiko drum and shamisen, and perform the traditional dances to perfection.

This is a musical after all and so the maiko dance routines eventually give way to more conventional choreography and large scale broadway numbers. The title song is particularly catchy and resurfaces at several points though the score as a whole is cheerful and inventive, incorporating a classic broadway sound with modern twist fused with the traditional music of the teahouse. Naoto Takenaka makes a typically creepy appearance displaying a fine voice for a comic number dedicated to the art of being a male maid to a geisha house but the big set piece is reserved for a comic take on the “Rain in Spain” in which the linguistics professor oddly wonders where all the water goes when it’s “pissing it down in Kyoto”. Unfortunately much of this revolves around linguistic jokes which are impossible to translate though the scene as a whole does its job well enough in introducing us to Haruko’s travails in the world of elocution. Other routines featuring the backstories of some of the minor characters also have a pleasantly retro quality inspired by period cinema complete with painted backdrops and old fashioned studio bound cinematography.

Though charming enough, Haruko’s progress is perhaps too conventional to move Lady Maiko far beyond the realms of cheerful fluff. Though Suo wisely keeps the romance to a minimum, Haruko’s growing feelings for the professor as well as a possible connection with his assistant are a little uncomfortable given her youth and the age differences involved even if the professor remains completely unaware. Unlike the source material Haruko’s passage is otherwise presented without complication (save for brief forays into the darkside of the geisha trade) as the country girl makes good, achieving her goals through hard work, perseverance, and the support of the community. In the end it’s all just far too nice, but then that’s not such a bad problem to have and there are enough pretty dance routines and warmhearted comedy to charm even the most jaded of viewers.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

No More Comics! (コミック雑誌なんかいらない!, Yojiro Takita, 1986)

No More ComicsThe word “paparazzo” might have been born with La Dolce Vita but the gossip hungry newshound has been with us since long before the invention of the camera. Yojiro Takita’s 1986 film No More Comics! (コミック雑誌なんかいらない, Komikku zasshi nanka iranai AKA Comic Magazine) proves that the media’s obsession with celebrity and “first on the scene” coverage is not a new phenomenon nor one which is likely to change any time soon.

Kinameri (Yuya Uchida) is a hack reporter on a gossipy news magazine programme which reports on all the sordid personal details of the private lives of celebrities. In a bit of neat meta commentary, we first meet him when he’s doggedly following real life top actress of the time Kaori Momoi (making a brief self cameo) as she tries to board a plane at the airport. Kinameri keeps on asking his inappropriate questions about her alleged relationship with a screenwriter whilst Momoi successfully ignores him before finally reaching the relative sanctuary of the security cordon preventing Kinameri from actually boarding the plane with her. Of course, his interview attempt has failed but he plays the footage on the programme anyway justifying her silence as a lack of denial and that he has therefore “proved” that the rumours are true.

Kinameri is both respected and ridiculed by his colleagues who praise his probing journalistic techniques which see him doggedly refusing to give up on a story but also find his intensity amusing seeing as he’s mostly chasing cheating spouses rather than uncovering the next great political scandal like his heroes who exposed Watergate. Having graduated from a top Japanese university in political sciences, this is far from the line of work Kinameri would want to be doing and its vacuity coupled with his own failed ambitions push him further and further into a spiral of self loathing and depression.

It’s not only celebrities either. Even if you could make a case that those in the entertainment industry have entered into a pact with the media and are, therefore, fair game, civilians and particularly victims of crime should be off limits. Kinameri will literally stop at nothing to scratch a up a story including attending the funeral of a murdered 14 year old girl and quizzing her mother over the rumours that the girl had been engaging in prostitution to try and elicit some kind of social commentary about the youth of today. After his programming starts to decline in popularity he’s relegated to the late night slot which involves visiting various shady places such as strip clubs, snack bars that are actually yakuza hang outs, and even the set of a porn film where he gets a cameo feeling up the lead actress in the front of a convertible.

While all of this is going on, Kinameri is also receiving some bothersome cold calls offering to sell him gold as an investment proposal. His elderly neighbour is visited by a woman from the company and does actually buy some but Kinameri smells a rat and his journalistic instincts kick back in. His bosses at the network aren’t convinced though – dodgy gold dealers doesn’t sound like a ratings winner after all and even when Kinameri agrees to even shadier assignments so he can pursue his leads, they still aren’t really behind him. Eventually they catch up but it’s almost too late.

Kinameri keeps doing what he’s paid to do, even if he clearly despises everything about it. Asking trivial and ridiculous questions and being ignored anyway, conducting a vacuous meet and greet with a gang of up and coming idol stars, even posing as a gigolo – there are no lengths to which he will not sink in pursuit of his story. By the film’s finale he’s still the frontline reporter, looking on while a vicious yakuza (played by a young Takeshi Kitano) commits a brutal murder right in front of the cameras. No one is moving, no one is trying to stop this, everyone is manoeuvring to get the best coverage. Kinameri has had enough and, with a look of rage and contempt on his face, he launches himself through the widow in a last minute attempt to make a difference but once again, lands up flat on his face and, finally, excluded from the action.

Years ahead of its time, No More Comics! takes an ironic look at invasive media coverage of celebrity gossip which clogs the airwaves while the real story is wilfully ignored. Ironically, Kinameri even becomes something of a celebrity himself, well known for his dogged interviewing style. He receives countless answerphone messages from “fans” (somehow ringing his personal phone number) either praising his efforts or berating him for not pushing his targets harder. When a young aspiring journalist stops him in the street and asks for advice, Kinameri doesn’t even answer but just walks away with a look of contempt and sadness on his face. Finally, after his mad dash into a crime scene in the final reel, he becomes the news himself. All of his fellow reporters suddenly want to know “what happened”, “what was it like”, “did you go in to save him or for the story?” etc. Still stunned and probably in need of medical attention, Kinameri looks directly into the camera, puts his hand across the lens and states “I can’t speak fucking Japanese”.

Filled with rage and shame, No More Comics! is a Network-esque satire on the world of live broadcast reporting exposing the seedier sides of journalistic desperation. Ahead of its time and sadly still timely in the age of 24hr coverage which mainly consists of the same trivial stories repeated ad nauseum, its messages are needed more than ever.


Unsubtitled trailer: