Happiness (ハピネス, SABU, 2016)

happiness still“Memories are what warm you up from the inside. But they’re also what tear you apart” runs the often quoted aphorism from Haruki Murakami. SABU seems to see things the same way and indulges an equally surreal side of himself in the sci-fi tinged Happiness (ハピネス). Memory, as the film would have it, both sustains and ruins – there are terrible things which cannot be forgotten, no matter how hard one tries, while the happiest moments of one’s life get lost among the myriad everyday occurrences. Happiness is the one thing everyone craves even if they don’t quite know what it is, little knowing that they had it once if only for a few seconds, but if the desire to attain “happiness” is itself a reason for living could simply obtaining it by technological means do more harm than good?

A man gets off a country bus carrying a large, mysterious looking box. He stops into the only visible building which happens to a be a “convenience” store housing a wizened old woman who tells the man to just take the bottle of water he is trying to buy because once she gets rid of everything in the shop she can finally die and escape her misery. The man leaves the money anyway and exits the shop, only to make a swift return, take a large helmet studded with old-fashioned round typewriter keys out of his box and place it on the old woman’s head. After the man makes a few adjustments the old woman is thrown into reverie, remembering a time when she was just a small child and her mother greeted her when she arrived home all by herself. Overwhelmed with feeling her mother’s love, the old woman comes back to life and rediscovers a zest for living which she’d long since given up.

So begins the strange odyssey of Kanzaki (Masatoshi Nagase) who finds himself in one of Japan’s most depressed towns where everyone hangs around listlessly, sitting in waiting rooms waiting for nothing in particular, passing the time until it runs out. Suggesting one of the women in the strange waiting area might like to try on the helmet, Kanzaki gets himself arrested but after the police try it out too he comes to the attention of the mayor who invites him to stay hoping the “happiness machine” can help revitalise the dying community and stop some of the young people blowing out of town looking for somewhere less soul-destroying to call home. Kanzaki’s request to access the town census, however, hints at an ulterior motive and it’s as well to note that a happiness machine could also be a sadness machine if you run it in reverse.

SABU’s long and varied career has taken him from men who can’t stop running to those who can’t start, but the men and women of Happiness are impeded by forces more emotional than physical manifesting themselves through bodily inertia. Like many towns in modern Japan, the small village Kanzaki finds himself in is facing a depopulation crisis as the old far outweigh the young and the idea of the future almost belongs to the past. Those who don the happiness helmet regain access to a long-buried memory which reminds them what it feels like to live again. Almost reborn they start to believe that true happiness is possible, that they were once loved, and that their lives truly do have meaning. Yet they can experience all of this joy only because of the intense collective depression they’d hitherto been labouring under. Happiness is only possible because of sorrow, and so the two must work in concert to create a kind of melancholy equilibrium.

Melancholy is a quality which seems to define Kanzaki, inventor of a machine he says can make people happy. As it turns out, his motives were not exactly all about peace and love but a means to an end, his own sorrows run deep and his solution to easing them is a darker one than simply becoming lost in his happy memories. Turning his own machine against itself, he forces a man to relive what he claims is the worst night of his life – one which he could not forget, and one which plagues him every night before he tries to go to sleep. Showing him happy memories too only seems to deepen the pain, though the explanation they eventually offer for his subsequent actions makes him a victim too, betrayed by those who should have protected him and eventually taking his revenge on innocents whose only crime was to be a happy family in front of a man from an unforgiving one.

Painting his world in an almost comforting green tint which can’t help but recall the dull but calming colours of a hospital, SABU channels Roy Andersson by way of David Lynch in his deadpan detachment which becomes humorous precisely because of its overt lack of comic intent. The clues are planted early from a flash of Kanzaki’s wedding ring but refusal to answer question about his family to his hangdog expression and general air of someone who carries a heavy burden, but SABU neatly changes gear surreptitiously to explore what the true explanation is for Kanzaki’s strange machine and improbable arrival in such a small, uninteresting town. Memory is a cruel burden, offering both joy and sorrow, but there can be no happiness without suffering and no life without a willingness to embrace them both the same.


Happiness was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Busan trailer (no subtitles)

Topless (トップレス, Eiji Uchida, 2008)

toplessFollowing the surreal horror film The Greatful Dead and cynical industry exposé Lowlife Love, Eiji Uchida is not generally known for straightforward naturalism but his 2008 movie Topless (トップレス) maybe among the most refreshingly straightforward, naturalistic depictions of lesbian life in modern Japan. Inspired by the writings of Pudding Watanabe, Topless, despite the title and suggestive poster, immediately jettisons preconceptions and sets about exploring the lives of young men and women in the city, just trying to make it in an often hostile society.

Forthright Natsuko (Mina Shimizu) splits up with her high school sweetheart Tomomi (Erika Okuda) but continues to pine after her even once Tomomi reveals that she’s got herself a boyfriend and plans to try the conventional life for a while. This heavy emotional blow provokes a kind of crisis in the otherwise certain Natsuko who finds herself musing on the fate on older lesbians and expressing sympathy for those who decide it’s just easier to enter a marriage of convenience than try to live alone. For the moment, Natusko lives with her understanding flatmate, Koji (So Sakamoto), who’s been nursing a long time crush on her even if he knows she’s gay and it’s impossible. A chance meeting with a high school girl, Kana (Aya Omasa), who’s come to Tokyo to find the mother who abandoned her to run off with a lesbian lover ten years ago only deepens Natsuko’s contemplative mood as she starts to wonder about where her life will take her if she chooses not to follow the accepted path.

Topless is less about romance than it is about acceptance and identity. Natsuko maybe a member of her university’s lesbian society but she’s about as far from a flag waver as it’s possible to be and just wants to live her life without thinking too much about the big stuff. Bar one woman (a new addition and not a student) the other girls are also just hanging round to have fun, aren’t particularly interested in activism and don’t feel themselves to be part of a movement defined by their sexuality. Natsuko certainly refuses to be defined by hers though her recent falling out with Tomomi has shaken her to the core and forced her into a consideration of her own hopes and desires for the future.

Tomomi claims to still love Natsuko but also that it “can’t be helped” because they’re both women and it’s just not possible. Natsuko tries to come to terms with her friend’s decision whilst nursing a broken heart but struggles to overcome her feelings of jealously towards Tomomi’s new boyfriend. Koji, Natsuko’s roommate, can’t understand why a lesbian would marry a man but being a man himself he can’t appreciate the societal necessities which make trying to live a life outside the mainstream particularly hard for women. As Natsuko points out, women earn less and living is expensive, it’s difficult to live out and proud in a hostile society, and then there’s the fear of growing old without children or an extended family network to fallback on. Though she sympathises with all of these factors on an intellectual level and then eventually even contemplates trying out life with a man herself,  it’s not something Natsuko could ever do and a part of her can never forgive Tomomi for doing it even if she does understand why someone might.

Kana’s quest for her long lost mother gets lost between the meatier subplots but proves enlightening in the unexpected bond between the troubled schoolgirl and the shaken if confident Natsuko. Still nursing deep scars from her abandonment, Kana claims to hate lesbians but grows to like Natsuko, the only person willing to help her track down her mother in a totally unfamiliar world. Despite Koji’s protestations that Natsuko will be angry if she hears any of Kana’s anti-gay sentiments, she listens patiently to Kana’s complaints stopping only to tell her she understands why she feels that way but that she also thinks she’s wrong. Trying to help Kana understand why her mother made the decisions that she did and see that there’s nothing wrong with two women loving each other, Natsuko changes hearts and minds just by being patient and kind.

In the conventional sense Topless offers no happy endings but it does advocate first and foremost for a kind of self acceptance and finally allowing old wounds to scar over, closed but not forgotten. Normalising lesbian life with ease, Uchida proceeds with a straightforward approach which sidesteps the obvious in order to provide a more nuanced portrait of life and love among the young people of Tokyo each trying to navigate the difficult process of learning to live as an independent person constrained by social conventions. Admittedly low budget but tastefully done and anchored by a standout performance from Mina Shimizu, Topless is a refreshingly down to earth look at gay life in the big city which refuses to give in preconceptions and expectations.


Short clip from the film (English subtitles)

United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Koji Wakamatsu, 2007)

Koji Wakamtasu had a long and somewhat strange career, untimely ended by his death in a road traffic accident at the age of 76 with projects still in the pipeline destined never to be finished. 2008’s United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Jitsuroku Rengosekigun Asama-Sanso e no Michi) was far from his final film either in conception or actuality, but it does serve as a fitting epitaph for his oeuvre in its unflinching determination to tell the sad story of Japan’s leftist protest movement. Having been a member of the movement himself (though the extent to which he participated directly is unclear), Wakamatsu was perfectly placed to offer a subjective view of the scene, why and how it developed as it did and took the route it went on to take. This is not a story of revolution frustrated by the inevitability of defeat, there is no romance here – only the tragedy of young lives cut short by a war every bit as pointless as the one which they claimed to be in protest of. Young men and women who only wanted to create a better, fairer world found themselves indoctrinated into a fundamentalist political cult, misused by power hungry ideologues whose sole aims amounted to a war on their own souls, and finally martyred in an ongoing campaign of senseless death and violence.

Dividing the narrative into three distinct acts, Wakamatsu begins with a lengthy history lesson starting right back in 1960 with the birth of the student movement and the first casualty of the unborn revolution as a young woman loses her life protesting the rise of tuition fees. Despite the lack of success, the student movement intensifies during the turbulent 1960s with the renewal of the ANPO treaties and the perceived complicity of the Japanese government with America’s anti-communist warfare in Asia. Mixing archive footage with reconstructions and on screen text detailing timelines, names and affiliations these early segments are hard to follow but bear out the complexity and chaos which contributed to the inefficacy of the student movement. Soon, each of the leaders we have been introduced to has been removed from the scene leaving the older but inexperienced Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki) in charge of what was then the Red Army Faction.

Mori had only recently rejoined the movement after leaving in disgrace at fleeing a protest and thereby evading arrest. The Red Army Faction then merges with another sect, the Revolutionary Left Wing (RLF), to form the United Red Army. Led by Mori and a female commander, Nagata (Akie Namiki), the United Red Army holes up in a cabin in the woods in order to undergo military training for the upcoming armed insurrection. Prior to this, there had been a series of purges and executions in the city producing an atmosphere of terror and paranoia which only intensifies in the incestuous and claustrophobic environment of the ascetic mountain retreat.

Out of his depth and eager to prove himself, Mori’s revolutionary consciousness developes into a dangerous cult of personality in which his iron rule is more akin to fundamentalist religion than a serious political movement intended to change the world for the better. Wakamatsu’s depiction of these events is as terrifying as it is absurd. Maoist doctrine becomes a holy scripture as each of these would be revolutionaries is forced to undergo self criticism in order to devote themselves fully to the revolution and become a “true communist”. Brainwashed and naive, the cadre comply seeming not to realise that no self criticism they can offer will ever be good enough for Mori’s constant need for identity erasure and that each fault they offer will only be used to form the basis of the next charge levelled against them. What begins as questioning develops into screaming before descending into bloody violence and eventually murder.

If Mori’s fault is a kind of madness born of fear and insecurity, it is Nagata whose mania takes on an almost gleeful quality. A plain woman with unremarkable features and a sharp personality, Nagata, as she’s portrayed in the film, displays extreme issues relating to femininity. When an idealistic young woman arrives dressed in typical city fashions necessary to blend in with the capitalist bourgeoisie, Nagata wastes no time in berating her for her stylish clothes and makeup. Threatened both by the woman’s conventional beauty and high ranking position in another faction, Nagata takes especial care to make sure she herself remains on top. Despite being in a relationship with one cadre member and later leaving him for Mori (because it’s “right from the communist perspective”), Nagata cannot bear any hint of sexual activity and it is an ill judged kiss which ends up leading to the first set of mercilessly violent self criticism sessions eventually resulting in death as both parties are beaten and then tied up in the freezing mountain air where death by exposure is all but inevitable.

Mori declares that “leadership means beating” but when this is no longer enough the death sentences come thick and fast. Eventually, some members manage to escape and the mountain hideout is discovered. Splitting up and heading on the run, Mori and Nagata are captured while a group of five break into a mountain lodge where they take the caretaker’s wife hostage and remain under siege for nine days until the police eventually break in, arrest the terrorists and rescue the woman all of which became the first such event to be live broadcast on Japanese TV. The Asama-Sanso incident, as it came to be known, sealed the fate of the left wing protest movement in Japan as the terrorist violence of the renegade protestors forever coloured public perception.

Wakamatsu does not end his story here – returning to the captions which opened the film, he reveals to us the legacy of the failed student protest movement in the overseas activities of the Japanese Red Army, most notably in North Korea and the Middle East. The protest movement in Japan resulted in abject failure – the ANPO treaty survives, the Sanrizuka villages were destroyed and an airport built, the capitalist future arrived at speed heading into the bubble economy where the only revolution was consumerism. The glorious future of which these young people dreamed, free of class, gender, and social inequality, would not materialise as their idealism devolved into introspective dogmatic rhetoric, violence and murder. Trapped inside a fundamentalist cult, the true tragedy is that this was a children’s revolution – the vast majority of its victims under 25 years old, one just 16 and forced to participate in the death of his own brother. How much good could each of these socially conscious young people have gone on to do if only they’d found a less destructive cause? Would anyone want to live in the world born of this revolution? Contrasting the joyous camaraderie of the peaceful protests with the escalating, internecine violence of the URA, Wakamatsu’s vision of the movement he was once a part of is a necessarily bleak one but resolute in its gaze. Ugly, cold and unforgiving United Red Army is a warning from history which has only sympathy for those caught up in its terrible machinations.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Kichitaro Negishi, 2009)

Villon's Wife2009 marked the centenary year of Osamu Dazai, a hugely important figure in the history of Japanese literature who is known for his melancholic stories of depressed, suicidal and drunken young men in contemporary post-war Japan. Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Villon no Tsuma: Oto to Tampopo) is a semi-autobiographical look at a wife’s devotion to her husband who causes her nothing but suffering thanks to his intense insecurity and seeming desire for death coupled with an inability to successfully commit suicide.

Beginning in the immediate post-war period of 1946, Sachiko (Takako Matsu) is a fairly ordinary housewife with a young son who generally waits around the house for her husband’s return. Only, she’s married to one of the most brilliant writers of the age, Joji Otani (Tadanobu Asano), whose book on the French poet François Villon is currently a best seller. Despite his obvious literary talents, Otani is a drunkard who spends most of his time (and money) in bars and with other women. When he crashes home one night only to be pursued by two bar owners who reveal that he ran off with their takings (around 5000 yen), Sachiko is not exactly surprised but still embarrassed and eventually takes matters into her own hands by volunteering to offer herself as a “hostage” by working at the bar until the debt is repaid.

“Men and women are equal now, even dogs and horses” says one customer, impressed with this sudden arrival of a beautiful woman in a low life drinking spot. To her own surprise, Sachiko actually enjoys working at the bar, it gives her purpose and proves more interesting than being stuck at home waiting to see what her drunken fool of a husband has got up to next. She’s good at it too – Sachiko is a beautiful and a fundamentally decent and kind person, in short the sort of woman that everyone falls a little bit in love with. That said, she isn’t a saint. She’s perfectly aware of the power she is able to wield over men and is unafraid to make use of it, though only when absolutely necessary.

Otani himself is a fairly pathetic figure. He may be a great artist but he’s a hollow human being. He admits the reason for all of his vices is fear – he’s a afraid to live but he’s also afraid to die. He seems to love his wife, though he’s insecure about losing her and dreads the embarrassment involved in becoming a cuckold. So afraid to face the possibility of failure, Otani satisfies himself in an underground world of drunks and easy women rather than facing his own self loathing as reflected in the faces of his unconditionally loving family.

Perhaps because Villon’s Wife is a commemorative project, the film has been given the prestige picture treatment meaning the darker sides of Dazai’s original novella have been largely excised. The chaos of the post-war city with its starving population, soldiers on the streets and generalised anxiety is all but hidden and some of the more serious travails Sachiko undergoes in devotion to her husband as well as Otani’s tuberculosis (from which Dazai also suffered in real life) have also largely been removed. What remains is the central picture of a self destructive husband and the goodly wife who’s trying to save him from himself but risks her own soul in the process.

The one spot of unseemliness of post-war life that the film lets through is in a brief scene which features a group of pan pan girls hanging around ready to try and snag some passing GIs. Sachiko buys some lipstick from them to use in attempt to convince an ex who is also a top lawyer to try and help her husband after his latest escapade lands him in jail on a possible murder charge. After visiting him, Sachiko wanders out slightly dazed to see the pan pans atop a military jeep cheerfully waving and shouting “goodbye” in English. Sachiko is confused at first but eventually shouts “goodbye” back in a way which is both excited and a little bit sad, perhaps realising she is not so different from them after all. Finally she wipes the lipstick from her face and leaves the small silver tube behind where the pan pans were sitting, hoping to bury this particular incident far in the past.

In actuality the pan pan girls are depicted in a fairly matter of fact way rather than in the negative light in which they are usually shown, just another phenomenon of occupation. At the end of the film Otani calls himself a monster whilst acknowledging that he’s a terrible father who would steal the cherries from his own son’s mouth. Sachiko replies that it’s OK to be a monster – as long as we’re alive, it’ll be alright. Oddly for someone so suicidal, this fits in quite well with Dazai’s tenet of embracing the simple gift of a dandelion. The film ends on an ambiguous note in which there seems to have been some kind of restoration but it’s far from a happy one as the couple remain locked in a perpetual battle between light and darkness albeit with the balance a little more equalised than it perhaps was before.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Villon’s Wife includes English subtitles.