The City Of Betrayal (裏切りの街, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

city of betrayalWhat is it that makes one person betray another? Following Love’s Whirlpool, playwright and Be My Baby author Daisuke Miura returns to the world of messy modern love with a tale ridden with infidelity and the impossibility of trust. Despite being in outwardly successful relationships, the central characters find themselves seeking something, trying to eclipse some element of dissatisfaction which is more with themselves than with their partners by burying it in a meaningless affair which only becomes less meaningless as time goes on. Formerly a TV drama now recut for the big screen The City of Betrayal (裏切りの街, Uragiri no Machi) is a melancholy and contemplative piece but one which shares Miura’s rather depressing view of romance with its inherent difficulties and contradictions.

Yuichi (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a young man with a part-time job he never bothers to go to and a successful girlfriend, Satomi (Eriko Nakamura), who is content to pay all the bills and even give him pocket money to out drinking with his friends. Bored at home, Yuichi checks porn sites and chats on a meet up board for casual sex. When he sees a message from “Tomo” popup wondering if anyone nearby is up for some no strings fun, he jumps right on it. Yuichi tells “Tomo” that he works in mass communications and reassures her that he’s not all that bad looking so there’s nothing to worry about.

“Tomo” claimed to be 30 and in the fashion business, but really she’s Tomoko Hashimoto (Shinobu Terajima), a 40 year old housewife who is convinced her husband has been having an affair. Tomoko is not unhappy with Koji (Mitsuru Hirata) – a salaryman of a similar age to herself, he’s a good man, considerate and well mannered if a little dull. Like Yuichi and Satomi, Tomoko and Koji enjoy a full relationship and get on pretty well even if there are the usual little niggles hiding beneath the cheery facade.

Despite having met up for casual sex, the start of Yuichi and Tomoko’s affair is a slow one in which Tomoko originally changes her mind, aware of the large age difference between herself and Yuichi and afraid it would put him off. Spending time together just as friends, the pair grow closer before heading into a love hotel for an experience which is not altogether successful. Still, they continue to meet up at regular intervals behind their partners’ backs.

The cheating and the subterfuge doesn’t sit well with either of them, but their secret affair fulfils needs which weren’t being met elsewhere. Neither Yuichi or Tomoko is particularly unhappy in their relationships but each were in their own way deeply unhappy. Yuichi’s masculine pride is hurt by his girlfriend’s status as the breadwinner while he cannot seem to get his act together, find a job, and make a success of himself. Later on he tells Tomoko that part of the reason he liked spending time with her was that she never scolded him for being the way he is, she just accepted him at face value. Tomoko by contrast, was perhaps looking either for revenge against her possibly adulterous, sometimes neglectful husband or a something more straightforward than her slightly strange marital arrangements. Though Koji is generally attentive and a goodhearted, kind person his ministrations sometimes have the whiff of manipulation and Tomoko has reasons to be suspicious of his ongoing friendship with someone called “Tamura” from “work” whom no one else at work seems to know.

In actuality it turns out that there are no faithful relationships, as one character puts it “there are many truths”. A man can love his wife and his mistress and that’s not necessarily a contradiction, much as it might seem so to the accidentally adulterous Yuichi. Despite the bond generated by their shared loneliness, the relationship between Yuichi and Tomoko remains casual, in one sense, though Yuichi eventually contemplates leaving his girlfriend and suggesting Tomoko leave her husband to allow them to start a new life together, probably knowing that it’s impossible. A lengthy post-credits sequence seems to provide a melancholy if reassuring coda as the lovers return to their respective spheres each having achieved a kind of “success”, though perhaps are no more fulfilled in themselves than they had been before. Another despairing look at modern love from Miura, The City of Betrayal is human at heart, rather than moralistic, arguing for the mature view whilst at the same time offering an ambivalent defence of conventionality.


The City of Betrayal was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Seto and Utsumi (セトウツミ, Tatsushi Omori, 2016)

seto-and-utsumiThere are two very distinct sides to the career of Tatsushi Omori. Brother of the well known actor, Nao, Omori may be best known to certain audiences for his hard hitting, often gloomy and pessimistic dramas of human misery such as festival favourite Ravine of Goodbye or the little seen The Whispering of the Gods which proved so controversial that his only option of screening the film involved erecting a tent where he could show it himself. However, a closer look at his filmography discovers a steady strain of laid-back comedy such as the Tada’s Do It All House series in which two brothers played by Eita and Ryuhei Matsuda act as bumbling handymen-cum-detectives-cum-whatever-you-need-them-to-be. It might be less surprising therefore that his latest effort is an adaptation of Kazuya Konomoto’s comedy manga Seto and Utsumi (セトウツミ, Setoutsumi) which revels in the everyday absurdity of teenage life in Southern Japan.

Seto (Masaki Suda) and Utsumi (Sosuke Ikematsu) are ordinary high school boys heading into their final year with the exam season and the end of their youthful, carefree days looming. Utsumi is a quiet, serious sort who generally doesn’t like a lot of company. Seto, by contrast, is a real live wire and not exactly a top student. Nevertheless, they found each other by a river one day and have been more or less inseparable ever since. Every day after school they meet and hang out in the same spot over looking the water where they shoot the breeze about various ordinary things from a non-argument over a girl to venus fly traps, Buddhist terminology, and ghosts.

Like many teenagers, Seto and Utsumi kill time doing nothing in particular and their conversations are generally inconsequential. Yet for all of their inherent randomness and absurdity, there’s a layer of poignancy underpinning each of them as the boys let slip various aspects of their private, interior lives. Seto’s big life drama involves the possible separation of his parents following the illness of the family cat which everyone in the family decided to indulge seeing as the poor thing didn’t have long left, but against expectation it’s two years later, the cat is still alive and Seto’s father is growing ever more resentful at spending so much money on luxury cat food. Seto’s family are a rowdy bunch, just as prone to drama as he is yet for all their complaining they seem fairly close – close enough for Seto to complain about the constant random text updates from his mother (a trait which Seto seems to have inherited himself).

Utsumi, by contrast, is much more aloof and keeps himself to himself. When Seto complains after his mother spots the boys at the river with bags full of shopping in her hands he remarks sadly that he rarely eats at home, implying it must be nice to have someone cook you a meal everyday. His approach to life is cerebral, calculating odds and planning angles, as he reveals to Seto in a piece of possibly not very helpful dating advice. Utsumi’s unseen parents are, presumably, just as aloof as he is, austere and religious. Nevertheless, in Seto he’s found a true sparring partner and someone he can waste time with amiably.

Utsumi’s parents are useful for one thing, they belong to the temple in which Seto’s crush, Kashimura (Ayami Nakajo), lives. Seto has been secretly trying to brush up on Buddhist terminology to impress her, but predictably she prefers the cool indifference of Utsumi to his friend’s energetic banter. Utsumi isn’t interested in Kashimura in any case, but not even this possible subject of conflict is big enough to seriously risk damaging the two boys’ friendship. As one character remarks towards the end of the film, it really is a once in a lifetime connection.

Omori keeps things simple, mostly sticking to static shots of the boys sitting on the steps near the river but he makes the stillness add to the sense of the absurd running through the quiet backwater town. After beginning with accordion music and ride through the canals, Seto and Utsumi’s first conversation takes place in front of an unintentional audience of a perfectly motionless older man, staring vacantly out at the river. The man turns out to have a valid (if sad) reason for being where he is, but the presence of the balloon animal vending clown from Eastern Europe (called Mr. Balloon) is a little harder to explain given that other than Seto, Utsumi, the aforementioned man, a high school bully, Seto’s mum, and a senile grandpa, no one else comes anywhere near this tranquil spot for the entire film. Using occasional dissolves and superimpositions to create a fleeting, dreamlike atmosphere with a handful of cutaways and flashbacks for comedic context, Seto and Utsumi is a truly charming ode to teenage friendship in all its pleasantly ridiculous absurdity.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

There are also a few bonus web episodes of Seto and Utsumi enjoying even more pointless conversations:

No. 1 – Kendama (a kind of Japanese cup and ball game) (English subtitles)

No. 2: Timing (English subtitles)

3. Standing Ovation (no subtitles but you don’t really need them)

La La La at Rock Bottom (AKA Misono Universe, 味園ユニバース, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2015)

プリントNobuhiro Yamashita has made something of a career out of championing the underdog and La La La at Rock Bottom (味園ユニバース, Misono Universe) provides yet another foray into the lives of the disposed and degraded. With a lighter touch than some of his previous work, the once again musically inflected film is another testament to the power of redemption and that you can still turn your life around if you only have the courage to take the chance.

The film begins with a young man being released from prison. The guard apologises about the smell of mothballs emanating from the man’s jacket, usually the family bring clean clothes. No family has come for this inmate though – just a couple of cool seeming characters who profess their gratitude for “what you’ve done for us” but the reunion is anything but warm. A little while later the man is unceremoniously bundled into a car and taken off to a quiet place where he is beaten half to death by thugs using baseball bats. After waking up, he stumbles around and eventually chances on a summer festival with a band playing on the mainstage. Zombified, the man grabs the mic and starts singing before promptly collapsing again.

The band’s manager, a young girl, takes the man home whereupon she discovers he’s lost his memory. Giving him the ironic nickname of “Pooch” (Kasumi also has a habit of picking up stray dogs), the band and local villagers quickly “adopt” the confused stranger and let him work at their karaoke rooms and studio whilst coaching him to become their new lead singer. However, as Pooch’s memories start to return it seems that his former life may not have been as tranquil as his laid-back amnesiac persona might suggest.

Like much of Yamashita’s previous work, music plays a central role with the one thing that Pooch remembers from his former life being the lyrics to a particular song and his innate singing talent. The leading role of Pooch himself is played by real life singing star Subaru Shibutani of Kansai based idol band Kanjani Eight who proves himself more than capable of belting out these hard rock/enka tracks as well as being able to imbue Pooch’s amnesiac blankness with his own specific character. He is ably supported by the popular young actress Fumi Nikaido who turns in yet another impressively nuanced performance as the older than her years Kasumi.

The beginning of the film gives us quite an idea of the man Pooch may have been and the kind of life he’s led. As the revelations pile on and Pooch’s memories inevitably return threatening the new life and personality he’s begun to build with the band and the possibility of fulfilling a long abandoned dream of being a singer, his dark side begins to break through and we’re shown a man lost in rage and violence left with nowhere to turn. At the end of the day, “Pooch” has been given a valuable opportunity to start all over again but it requires him to make the choice to do so. Go back to being “Shigeo”, a self hating thug who’s alienated absolutely everyone in his life or choose to become Pooch and earn a second chance to be the man he always wanted to be.

Like Yamshita’s previous film, Tamako in Moratorium, with which it also shares a lot in terms of style, La La La offers no great revelations or technical bells and whistles but revels in the simple pleasure of a tale told well. Like much of his other work, the central message is that it’s never too late to begin again (even if there are bridges which have been burned beyond repair) only that it requires you to make the sometimes scary choice to take a chance on something new. That choice rests with one person but is greatly aided by the support of others and the unusual bond between the two central characters (which stops short of romance) plus the uncompromising faith which Kasumi places in Pooch are some of the greatest joys of the film.

Perhaps not a career best from this still vastly underrated director, La La La at Rock Bottom is nevertheless another beautifully constructed addition to his filmography. Offering an extreme depth of performance from each of its ensemble cast, the film is rich with detail whilst also reflecting Yamashita’s trademark cinematic naturalism. Once again a musical feast for the ears, La La La at Rock Bottom is destined to become one of the director’s best loved films even in a career which has already offered so many as yet undiscovered gems.