Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2019)

The thing about hotels is, people often go to them when they want to be someone else, so how can you be on the look out for suspicious behaviour when everyone is to some degree acting out of character? Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best known authors particularly praised for his elaborately plotted mysteries. In contrast to some of his famous detective novels, Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル) leans into his softer side, taking its cues from Agatha Christie in its ultimately cheerful exploration of the strange world of hotels while praising the detective acumen both of cynical policemen and eager to please hoteliers. 

The police are hot on the trail of a serial killer and, due to clues found at the previous crime scenes, have concluded the next killing will take place at the Hotel Cotesia Tokyo. To scout out the potential crime scene, the detectives have co-opted the hotel’s basement as an incident room and are preparing to go undercover to keep an eye on things upstairs. Dishevelled detective Nitta (Takuya Kimura) has been assigned to the front desk because of his English skills apparently honed while living abroad in his youth, and is to be paired with earnest hotelier Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) who will do her best to turn him into a first rate hotelman. 

As might be expected, Nitta and Naomi do not exactly hit it off. Gruff and given to giving everyone in 50m radius the hard stare, Nitta is a shaggy haired middle-aged man in creased suits and shiny shoes. The first thing Naomi makes him do is get a haircut which does wonders for his image, but also plays into the peculiar art of masquerade which defines hotel life. Nitta is in the habit of calling the guests “customers” which instantly irritates Naomi who has spent the entirety of her professional life learning to be deferent. She reminds him that in here the guests are in charge, they make the rules and therefore can never break them. Her job is to provide the best service, which means she often has to set her personal pride aside and allow the sometimes unpleasant clientele, the ones who like to come to posh hotels to throw their weight around and abuse the staff, to get away with being obtuse because that’s just part of her job. 

That’s a big ask from Nitta who is both a proud man and a justice loving policeman to whom the idea of letting people act badly is almost anathema. To do his job, however, he’ll have to learn to bear it or risk letting a potential serial killer slip through his fingers. What Naomi realises is that they’re more alike than they first seemed. Both of their jobs rely on an astute assessment of their targets, even if they come at it from opposite ends. Naomi knows that each of her guests is wearing a kind of mask, taking on a slightly different persona when they enter her hotel, but her job is to see past it without ever letting on. A good hotelier knows what the guest wants before they do and is always ready to provide it, that’s the nature of service. So Naomi trusts her guests and is careful not to judge them. Nitta, meanwhile, is a policeman so he’s trained to question everything and suspect everyone. His job is to unmask and confront his suspects with who they really are. 

They both, however got into this game essentially because they want to protect people even if she wants to protect them inside and he out. Which means of course that they can work together after all, learning a little something from each other along the way. Naomi, well versed in the liberties often taken by her guests, is nearly taken in by an obvious scam that only Nitta is quick enough to catch thanks to his cynical policeman’s logic. He’s also first to suspect that there’s something not quite right with a harmless little old lady, and though Naomi senses it too she’s minded to let it go and doubles down on being the perfect servant thanks to her animosity towards Nitta. That “not quite right”, however, proves to be a slight misreading of the guest who, like many Nitta encounters, is pretending to be something they’re not for reasons that prove perfectly understandable once revealed. 

But then, Higashino characteristically pulls the rug out from under us and asks if we haven’t been suckered in buying all those reasonable excuses. Thanks to his conversations with Naomi, Nitta begins to get a grip on the crime, while she struggles with her conscience after learning that her guests may be in much more danger than she thought. Staking all on justice, the pair of them vow to abandon their respective professions if a guest gets hurt, but fail to realise that the crime may hit far closer to home than they’d anticipated. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a strangely whimsical admiration for the weird world of hotels where no one is quite the same person they were before they walked through the revolving doors.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Crimes That Bind (祈りの幕が下りる時, Katsuo Fukuzawa, 2018)

Crimes that bind posterDetective Kyoichiro Kaga has become a familiar screen presence over the last decade or so in a series of films and TV dramas starring popular actor Hiroshi Abe which might make it something of a surprise that The Crimes That Bind (祈りの幕が下りる時, Inori no Maku ga Oriru toki) is, after a fashion, a kind of origin story and touted as the culmination of the long running franchise. Another of prolific author Keigo Higashino’s key detectives, Kaga’s stalking ground has always been Nihonbashi where he has managed to make himself a friendly neighbourhood cop but, as it turns out, dedication is not the only reason he’s refused promotions and transfers to stay in what is, professionally at least, something of a backwater.

In fact, the film begins way back in 1983 when a young woman, Yuriko (Ran Ito), ran away from her husband and son to become a bar hostess in Sendai offering only the explanation that she felt herself unworthy of being a wife and mother. Some years later in 1997, she met a nice man – Watabe, but died of natural causes in 2001 at which point we discover that she is none other than the long lost mother of our master detective whom she abandoned when he was only eight years old. Being a compassionate man, Kyoichiro Kaga is not angry with his mother only sorry he did not get to see her before she passed and eager to meet the man who made her last years a little happier. Only, it appears, Watabe has also disappeared without trace. The only thing the Mama-san at the bar where Yuriko worked can remember about him is that he once said he often went to Nihonbashi. Kaga searches for the next 16 years with no leads, which is when the main case kicks into gear with the discovery of a badly decomposed body of a woman in a rundown Tokyo flat.

Of course, the two cases will turn out to be connected, giving Kaga an opportunity to investigate himself and come to terms with his difficult family circumstances including his strained relationship with his late father whose coldness he blames for driving his mother away. Parents and children will indeed develop into a theme as Kaga digs into why his mother might have done the things she did while also trying to reverse engineer his clues to figure out why he seems to be at the centre of an otherwise completely unrelated case.

Meanwhile, pieces of the puzzle seem to drop into place at random such as the fortuitous discovery of an old woman claiming to have lost her memory so that she can stay in hospital who may or may not be linked to one of the prime suspects – a top theatre director also known to Kaga thanks to a chance encounter some years earlier. In a neat twist, the theatre production she is currently trying to put on is Love Suicides at Sonezaki – a sad tale of young lovers, an adopted son of a merchant and a courtesan, who realise that they have no freedom to pursue their desires and so decide that their only solution is double suicide. The truth that Kaga uncovers leads him in much the same direction only the love at stake is familial rather than romantic and built on the strange filial interplay of the connection between a parent and a child.

It is quite literally “crimes that bind”, but Kaga’s repeated mantra that lies are the shadow of truth, illuminating as much as they conceal, does not quite fit with the incident he has been investigating which largely hinges on coincidences which place him, improbably, at the centre and tip him off to the hidden connections which will crack the case. Which is to say, the solution lies in the killer overplaying their hand (though for reasons unrelated to crime) and thereby undermining their carefully won subterfuge. Torn between solving the murder and exploring Kaga’s melancholy backstory, The Crimes That Bind finds itself falling between two stools even as its twin plot strands begin to dovetail as neatly as one assumes they eventually will, laying bare the central themes of parental sacrifice and belated filial gratitude. Playing best to those already invested in the Kaga franchise, Katsuo Fukuzawa’s adaptation may serve as a fitting conclusion (to this arc at least) but cannot quite overcome its over-reliance on confessional flashback as method of investigation or the improbable qualities of its admittedly twist filled central mystery.


International trailer (English 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)

Fullmetal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師, Fumihiko Sori, 2017)

Fullmetal Alchemist posterEvery so often a film comes along which makes you question everything you thought you knew. Fullmetal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師, Hagane no Renkinjutsushi) is just such as film but less for the philosophical questions fans of the source manga may have been expecting, than for the frankly incomprehensible fact that it exists at all. Produced not by a major studio but by Square Enix – best known as a video game studio but also the publisher of manga magazine Monthly Shonen Gangan in which the series was originally serialised, and effects studio Oxybot Inc., Fullmetal Alchemist is not the big budget extravaganza a franchise of this size might be expected to generate but a cut price blockbuster attempting to pack a much loved, long running saga into just over two hours.

For the uninitiated, the movie begins with the little Elric Brothers – Ed and Al, who live in the countryside with their doting mother while their father is away. When their mother is struck down by a sudden illness and dies, the boys raid their dad’s Alchemy library for clues as to how to bring her back. There is, however, a taboo surrounding human transmutation and when the brothers cast their spell they pay a heavy price – Al loses his entire body though Ed manages to save his soul and bind it to a suit of armour by sacrificing his own right arm.

Many years later, Ed (Ryosuke Yamada) and Al (Atomu Mizuishi) are still looking for the mythical “Philosopher’s Stone” which they believe will allow them to cast another spell and get their fleshy bodies fully restored. This takes them to a small town where they encounter a dodgy priest and their old commander, Captain Roy Mustang (Dean Fujioka), who wants to bring them back into the State Alchemist fold. The priest’s stone turns out to be a fake though his connections to the film’s shady antagonists are all too real, and the brothers are soon faced with another dilemma in their quest to restore all they’ve lost.

Sori shifts away from the frozen Northern European atmosphere of the manga for something sunnier and less austere, shooting in Italy’s Volterra with its narrow medieval streets and iconic Tuscan red roofs. He is, however, working on a budget and it shows as his cast are costumed at cosplay level with awkward blond wigs attempting to recreate the manga’s European aesthetics. Al, rendered entirely (and expensively) in CGI, is deliberately kept off screen while the quality of the effects often leaves much to be desired.

Al’s frequent absence is a major problem seeing as the series’ major theme is brotherhood and Ed’s tremendous sense of guilt over his brother’s condition coupled with his recklessness in his need to put things right is only explained in a piece of bald exposition following a fight between the pair after Al’s mind has been corrupted by a mad scientist who implied that he may not really be “real” after all. While Al’s false memory paranoia may be among the more interesting issues the film attempts to raise, it’s quickly pushed into the background, eclipsed by the ongoing conspiracy narrative which places the Elric Brothers in a difficult position regarding their need to get their body parts back. 

A symptom of the attempt to condense such a much loved and well known manga into a two hour movie, there is rather a lot of plot going on and numerous side characters on hand to enact it. Though fans of the original manga may be pleased to see their favourite characters have made it into the movie, they maybe less pleased about how one note they often are or the various ways their personalities have needed to shift in order to fit into the new narrative arcs the film employs. Aside from the young and pretty cast, Fullmetal Alchemist also finds room for a host of veteran talent from the ubiquitous Jun Kunimura in a small role to Yo Oizumi turning villainous and Fumiyo Kohinata at his most Machiavellian.

Extremely silly, poorly put together and burdened with some very unfortunate wigs, the Fullmetal Alchemist live action adaptation is as much of a misfire as it’s possible to be but viewers hoping for a continuation to the tale would do well to stay tuned for a post-credits sting strongly hinting at a part two.


Streaming worldwide on Netflix.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Christmas on July 24th Avenue (7月24日通りのクリスマス, Shosuke Murakami, 2006)

Christmas July 24th AvenueThey do Christmas a little differently in Japan. Rather than a celebration of family and commercial excess, Christmas is an occasion for romance much like the Western Valentine’s Day. Strangely, Japanese cinema has been slow to warm to the idea of the Christmas date movie though Christmas on July 24th Avenue (7月24日通りのクリスマス, 7 gatsu 24 ka dori no Kurisumasu) tries its best to plug the gap. Starring the ever reliable Miki Nakatani, Christmas on July 24 Avenue is a grown-up romance filtered through the innocence of the shojo manga its heroine has come to love.

Sayuri Honda (Miki Nakatani) is a 24 year old office lady who dreams of romance but has come to believe that she just isn’t destined for a great love of her own. Obsessed with a manga she’s loved since childhood which is set in Lisbon, Sayuri has begun to notice the various similarities between her hometown of Nagasaki and the Portuguese capital, living part-time in a kind of sunbaked European fantasyland. When her long lost high school crush, Satoshi (Takao Osawa), resurfaces as a famous architect with a bestselling book out, Sayuri’s dreams of romantic fulfilment are suddenly reawakened.

Constructed with obvious projected wish fulfilment, Sayuri’s arc is the rom-com classic of shy girl gets handsome boy after a series of coincidences and misunderstandings. Bespectacled and reserved, Sayuri’s major selling point is her propensity to suddenly fall over and make a spectacle of herself which she does in spectacular fashion during one of the amateur dramatic plays she helps out with. Embracing an unwelcome genre norm, Sayuri’s journey towards true love begins with prettying herself up – swapping her glasses for contacts, getting a more sophisticated haircut, and dressing in more typically elegant girlish outfits over her practical, dowdy tastes.

Rather than allow Sayuri to realise she’s fine as she is and doesn’t need to change herself for a man, the arc is Sayuri abandoning her anxieties to become the kind of person she thinks Satoshi would like. While all of this is going on there’s another potential suitor hanging around in the form of Yoshio (Ryuta Sato) – a geeky guy who works in a bookstore and has been nursing a crush on the oblivious Sayuri for years. Several times Yoshio confesses his love, and several times Sayuri fails to understand him. His being a pure love, Yoshio decides to help Sayuri find happiness no matter who with.

Sayuri sees her own situation mirrored in that of her brother. Where Sayuri sees herself as plain and undesirable, her brother is handsome and popular with the ladies – the kind of “prince” she herself dreams of. Despite having a long history of dating remarkable girls, Koji’s new girlfriend (Juri Ueno) is a virtual clone of Sayuri – mousy with glasses and a talent for mumbling. Oddly, Sayuri is not worried by this development in the way that might be expected, but only outraged at her brother’s breaking of romantic protocol in taking up with someone who is nowhere near his league. Resenting that a girl just like her has improbably managed to bag a prince, Sayuri treats her potential new sister-in-law with scorn and contempt whilst continuing to blame her own failure to do the same on her plainness and reserve.

Truth be told, Satoshi is a predictably dull love interest – a cardboard cutout prince of the kind familiar to shojo romance. Additional spice is added in an extra-marital affair between Satoshi and an old flame with whom he apparently has some unfinished business but even this hint of impropriety does not seem to put Sayuri off. Her final revelations tend towards realising that there’s nothing wrong with plain dowdy girls hooking handsome guys, even though she is no longer a plain and dowdy girl herself and her prince is also responsible for a crisis in the marriage of a friend. She has this revelation through a lengthy speech at someone else’s wedding which she has nearly derailed by provoking a crisis of confidence in the bride.

Based on a short story by Shuichi Yoshida – best known for socially conscious crime thrillers such as Villain, Rage, and Parade, Christmas on July 24th Avenue is a consciously cute affair filled with quirky details which attempt to recreate the world of shojo manga but cannot make up for the soulless quality of its romance. A lack of chemistry between Nakatani and Ozawa prevents the love story from taking off while the second lead is kept hovering the background but more sweet joke than credible option. Reaching an improbably neat conclusion in which everything is forgiven and everyone lives happily ever after, Christmas on July 24th Avenue fulfils its promise of magical romance filled with cheerful Christmas carols and twinkling lights but proves disappointing after all the fancy wrapping.


30 second trailer (no subtitles)

Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (春子超常現象研究所, Lisa Takeba, 2015)

haruko's paranormal laboratory posterIn the brave new Netflix era, perhaps it’s not unusual to hear someone exclaim that their most significant relationship is with their television, but most people do not mean it as literally as Haruko, the heroine of the self titled Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (春子超常現象研究所, Haruko Chojogensho Kenkyujo). Lisa Takeba returns with her second film which proves to be just as strange and quirky as the first and all the better for it. Haruko’s world is a surreal one in which a TV coming to life is perfectly natural, as is the widespread plague of “artistic” behaviour which involves robbing the local 100 yen store for loose change and randomly setting fire to things. Yet Haruko’s problems are the normal ones at heart – namely, loneliness and disconnection. Takeba’s setting may be a strange fever dream filled with fiendishly clever, zany humour but the fear and anxiety are all too real.

As a teenager, Haruko (Moeka Nozaki) was something of a loner. Being the daughter of a teacher and having a strong interest in UFOs and other supernatural entities, she had few friends and longed for something “exciting” to happen. Sadly, something quite exciting did happen, but it involved a suicide and her brother apparently being abducted by aliens. Ten or fifteen years later, Haruko still maintains her “Paranormal Laboratory” and intense interest in aliens with a view to maybe finding out what happened to her brother, but her external life is less satisfying. Her main hobby is lying around watching her 1950s black and white CRT TV and swearing loudly at the ridiculous images it projects. Her TV, however, has finally had enough and upon hearing 1000 dirty words from Haruko, springs into life as a handsome young man with telebox for a head.

An usual genesis for a relationship, but then when you spend all of your spare time googling paranormal events and harping on your teenage failures, beggars can’t be choosers. Haruko’s growing relationship with TV (Aoi Nakamura) follows the classic amnesiac mould as the two begin living together and eventually become an odd kind of couple. TV’s central operating system is pulled together from what he’s observed over the airwaves which means he has a slightly less realistic view point than your average guy. Though originally content to fall into the stereotypically “female” role, staying home cooking meals and tidying up while Haruko goes to work, he soon becomes depressed out of boredom and loneliness before eventually being made to feel inadequate when someone refers to him as a “freeloader”. Like many a spouse whose decision to stay home has not been entirely their own, TV has a lot of skills including the ability to speak 12 languages fluently, but what finally gets him a job as a TV star (yes, a TV on TV!), is his sex appeal and exotic appearance.

TV also thinks he can remember his “family” which lends a bittersweet dimension to his relationship with Haruko as she helps him look for the wife and child that might be waiting for him. Haruko’s relationship with her own family is strained. Complaining that her family are “annoying” she leaves her well meaning father standing on the doorstep when he’s come out of his way to deliver some of her favourite cup cakes which he’s baked for her himself. Haruko’s mother has since passed on but her feeling of familial disconnection stems right back into her childhood and one strange UFO hunting night during which she discovered something about her brother which may explain his long term absence. This potentially rich seam is merely background to Haruko’s life (something which she later realises as she figures out that her brother may have been watching over her in disguise all these years), but that her brother has felt the need to hide himself away following a traumatic childhood incident is certainly a sad mirror for Haruko’s own ongoing psychological isolation.

Takeba piles jokes on top of jokes in this strange world where ‘50s “Videodrome” TVs with Yubari Film Festival tags still work and play adverts in which cheap whiskey “for the needy” is advanced as a good father’s day present, and an idol retires from the top band KKK48 live on air. Freak shows, extreme cosplay, marital disconnect, “artistic” robbery and arson, and a very dedicated NHK man, pepper the scene but the outcome is a young woman stepping away from her romantic fantasies towards something more real, realising she doesn’t really need to meet aliens so much as she needs to pay more attention to the “normal” world. Quirky to the max and riffing off just about every aspect of Japanese pop culture from Sailor Moon to J-horror, Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory is a charming, if surreal, take on an early life crisis which must be seen to be believed.


Currently available to stream in the UK from Filmdoo.

Original teaser trailer (dialogue free)

Mozu the Movie (劇場版MOZU, Eiichiro Hasumi, 2015)

mozu-posterThe criticism levelled most often against Japanese cinema is its readiness to send established franchises to the big screen. Manga adaptations make up a significant proportion of mainstream films, but most adaptations are constructed from scratch for maximum accessibility to a general audience – sometimes to the irritation of the franchise’s fans. When it comes to the cinematic instalments of popular TV shows the question is more difficult but most attempt to make some concession to those who are not familiar with the already established universe. Mozu (劇場版MOZU) does not do this. It makes no attempt to recap or explain itself, it simply continues from the end of the second series of the TV drama in which the “Mozu” or shrike of the title was resolved leaving the shady spectre of “Daruma” hanging for the inevitable conclusion.

Six months on from the climatic events at the end of season two, Kuraki (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has become a drunk, Ohsugi (Teruyuki Kagawa) has left the force for the private sector, while Akeboshi (Yoko Maki) is still preoccupied with the strange phone calls she sometimes receives and the fate of her long lost father last seen on the deck of a sinking submarine. The dreams of the citizens of Tokyo are being haunted by the mysterious face of “Daruma”, but this is quickly superseded by an explosion in an office building which turns out to be a diversionary exercise as the autistic daughter of a refugee with diplomatic immunity is kidnapped by terrorists.

At this point, Kuraki appears at the scene, beats the bad guys into submission and rescues the girl, Elena, and her mother who are then taken into protective custody. However, things go south when Ohsugi’s daughter and Akeboshi are taken by the bad guys in the hope of an exchange forcing the gang to take Elena to a neighbouring Asian nation.

Mozu the movie suffers from many of the same problems which plagued the generally impressive TV series in its wildly inconsistent tone and increasingly convoluted, often bizarre plot twists. Assuming the audience will be familiar with the TV series, the film provides no recap, leaving the casual viewer completely lost amongst the numerous numbers of subplots held together by Kuraki’s need to find the answers behind the death of his wife at the site of a suicide bombing and the drowning of his daughter a year or so before. Likewise, Akeboshi’s familial concerns – her absentee father whose dark past was hinted at in the previous series and her close relationship with her two neices, is glossed over, as is Ohsugi’s ongoing battle to win back the respect of his teenage daughter. When a key character suddenly and quite unexpectedly appears to save the day (and then disappears again), the casual viewer has a right to be utterly baffled.

Where the central tone is one of cool noir supported by occasionally poetic camera work, Nishijima’s laid back minimalism gives way to broad, over the top villainy from Hasegawa’s Higashi as well as the punkish Mozu copycat who kickstarts the action. Kuraki remains an unbeatable super agent, taking out bad guys with well placed kicks to the chest and enduring numerous acts of torture whilst remaining doggedly fixed on his quest to find out the truth about his wife and a possible conspiracy plaguing Japanese society. Ohsugi is still the bumbling cop but equally committed to protecting his daughter while Akeboshi is underused, her slow burn romance with Kuraki simmering away in the background.

What remains is a collection of impressive action scenes and mysterious conversations offered with portentous seriousness. The purpose of Elena’s kidnapping is predictably grim yet reduced to a single sentence shortly before Kuraki apparently saves the day once again through undisclosed means. The central conspiracy in this conspiracy thriller, that Japan has been manipulated by a shadowy figure literally cannibalising his own children, fades into the background as Kuraki is left to affirm that all that remains now is chaos. Mozu the movie is season three with all the important bit stripped out – strange, confusing, and ultimately hollow. Yet for those well versed in the Mozu universe, it may provide a degree of closure to its ongoing mysteries, even if ultimately unsatisfying.


Original trailer (no 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)

Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


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)