Hatsukoi (First Love) (初恋, Yukinari Hanawa, 2006)

hatsukoiThe 300 Million Yen Affair is one of the most famous and intriguing unsolved mysteries in Japan, not least because the missing cash has been lying dormant somewhere, apparently untouched, ever since that fateful day back in 1968. Seeing as the true story has never been discovered, the crime has taken on legendary status and become the focus of many kinds of fiction. Misuzu Nakahara’s fictionalised autobiography is just one of these as she retroactively claims responsibility for the robbery as a teenage girl in love with a detached revolutionary.

Misuzu (Aoi Miyazaki) begins her tale a couple of years before the crime as she lives a lonely and introverted life in the house of her uncle, her father having died and her mother apparently absconded with her older brother in tow but leaving her behind. It’s her 16th birthday, but no one cares. Soon enough she starts hanging around a shady jazz bar before another woman convinces her to come inside and join their group of layabout beatniks – a group which is actually lead by her estranged older brother, Ryo (Masaru Miyazaki). These are the heady days of students protests – against the old order, against the ANPO treaty, against the war in Vietnam, against just about everything. Misuzu grows closer to one of their number, the quiet and mysterious Kishi (Keisuke Koide), who has a proposition for her….

Hatsukoi (AKA First Love, 初恋) is a film which is thick with period detail from the authentically smokey, sweaty jazz bar and its counterculture denizens to the nostalgic atmosphere and 1960s street scenes. However, evoking Misuzu’s own sense of ennui, director Yukinari Hanawa opts for a detached, dispassionate tone which is entirely at odds with the otherwise searing, youth on fire tension of the time period. Misuzu is always on the edges of things, younger than the other members of the group she feels as if she’s merely being permitted to stay and listen rather than invited to participate. Nevertheless, even if it’s the case that Misuzu is a by nature a passive person, the film pushes the intense nature of the social revolution going on all around her into mere background, squandering its power to bring out the sense of passion that the film feels as if it needs.

At heart, the robbery is something of a mcguffin as the real story is the true love tragedy hinted at in the title. Misuzu and Kishi grow closer through their plotting of the crime which is born of his desire to commit a different kind of revolutionary act. The money is intended to pay the bonuses of Toshiba employees and Kishi feels the best way to make a protest against economic inequality and the power of large corporations is to hit them in the finances. Misuzu plays her part well enough and the robbery comes off OK despite minor hitches allowing only a brief honeymoon period for its would be Bonnie and Clyde before history begins to move forward and eventually rips them apart. For Misuzu the robbery becomes the defining event of her youth and the birth of the love that she seemingly cannot let go. After this the jazz club is over, the protest movement dies as do some of the protestors, or else they move on to more conventional lives. Not quite a coming of age, but a death of youth before it had hardly begun.

Some injuries never heal, says the kindly old man who teaches Misuzu how to drive. A prescient remark if ever there was one. Misuzu seems locked within this brief period of her youth, before her friends died, left, or disappeared once the turbulent atmosphere of protest and revolution gave way to the consumerist 1970s and everyone forgot about the necessity for social change in the hurry to make money.

Hatsukoi becomes less a about the first love itself than about the period that surrounds it. The love was lost, but so was the bubble in which Misuzu had begun to define herself as a young woman. What Hatsukoi lacks is a sense of personal tragedy, of a soul crushing, spiritual death which locks each of the group members into their own tragic fates and seems somehow dictated despite their insistence on defining themselves in the new, youth centric world. Often beautifully photographed, Hatsukoi’s air of desolation and cold, detached tone weaken its ability to engage making its painful end of youth journey all seem rather dull.


Hatsukoi was released with English subtitles on blu-ray in Taiwan, and on DVD in Hong Kong though both editions now appear to be OOP.

Unsubtitled trailer:

Rock’n’Roll Mishin (ロックンロールミシン, Isao Yukisada, 2002)

rock'n'roll misshinYou know how it is, you’ve left college and got yourself a pretty good job (that you don’t like very much but it pays the bills) and even a steady girlfriend too (not sure if you like her that much either) but somehow everything starts to feel vaguely dissatisfying. This is where we find Kenji (Ryo Kase) at the beginning of Isao Yukisada’s sewing bee of a movie, Rock ’n’ Roll Mishin (ロックンロールミシン). However, this is not exactly the story of a salaryman risking all and becoming a great artist so much as a man taking a brief bohemian holiday from a humdrum everyday existence.

Kenji’s life probably would have continued down a path of corporate serfdom uninterrupted if he had not run into old schoolfriend Ryoichi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who, he learns, is setting up an indie fashion label with some of his friends. Ryoichi has to leave pretty quickly but he pastes a note on the outside of the restaurant window with his contact details so Kenji can find him again.

At work the next day Kenji “enjoys” some “banter” with an extremely unpleasant corporate stooge colleague who seems to be under the mistaken impression that he and Kenji are friends. After making some misogynistic comments about how Kenji is too much of a pushover and should “knock some sense” (literally) into his girlfriend, his colleague sets in on some typical salaryman careerist chat which is exactly the kind of thing Kenji is becoming disillusioned with.

Having failed to meet her at the restaurant, Kenji returns home one evening to find his girlfriend waiting outside his flat. She comes in and immediately takes off her clothes and gets into bed all without saying anything at all. When her T-shirt accidentally blows off the washing line and gets caught on some cabling below, Kenji remembers about his friend’s fashion company and decides to pay them a visit. Kenji is taken in by the sense of freedom and individual enterprise he finds in the workshop in contrast to his corporate drone office job. Eventually Kenji quits and joins the fashion gang full-time though he quickly finds that making a dream come true is surprisingly uphill work.

Unlike other films of this nature, there’s very little inspirational content to be found in Rock ’n’ Roll Mishin. The “mishin” of the title means a sewing machine and early on Ryoichi teases Kenji by telling him that his is a “rock and roll” machine because it beats out 8 stitches a second and if you really step on it it goes up to 16. Ryoichi’s teacher and mentor, Megumi (Ryo) lets Kenji in on the joke by explaining that it’s really called a “lock” machine because it holds the fabric in place for you. The other member of the team is a fashionista, Katsuo (Kenji Mizuhashi), who wants to create fashion that makes a sun of your heart so that you shine forth with an inner light. Needless to say, though the original three all have fashion skills from Ryoichi who’s the designer to Megumi who is a fashion teacher and Katsuo who studied fashion in London, nobody has any kind of business sense or a real business plan for this fledgling business.

In another film this might be where Kenji’s salaryman experience plays in, completing a missing element of the group which will enable them to triumph over adversity. However, Kenji’s experience is also fairly limited but the sensible economic advice he has to offer largely falls on deaf ears with his more creatively orientated teammates. They may understand the business on some level – at least enough to know what they can realistically expect to charge for their wares but are completely clueless about how they can go about managing their costs and maximising their profits. They also don’t really seem to know how to promote their business in anything other than a grungy, underground way which might be cool but is unlikely to take off without a serious amount of cynical marketing gimmickry which Ryoichi isn’t prepared to go for.

What Rock ’n’ Roll Mishin has to say about the youth of today isn’t very encouraging. It paints them as a group of unrealistic dreamers unwilling to put the work in to achieve anything. They might start to go for it in the beginning, but as soon as things start to look up they get scared and childishly run away rather than following through. Ryoichi is very much the tortured artist type, so fixated on maintaining his own image of artistic integrity that he’s completely unable to commercialise to work in any effective kind of way. Kenji is sucked in by the atmosphere of creative freedom but ultimately he has very little to offer and even if he is the one most affected by this new, bohemian lifestyle he’s also the best placed to recognise that you can’t live on dreams alone.

It’s tempting to read Rock ’n’ Roll Mishin as an ultra conservative, stick to the path message movie. It almost wants to say that it’s just not worth trying anything new because you’ll never see it through and you’ll be heading back to your old life with your tail between your legs quicker than you can say haute couture. However, even if the typical underdog triumphs against the odds narrative doesn’t materialise, Kenji at least comes to view his time in the fashion business in a broadly positive light. What he values is the time spent with friends, and, even if it didn’t work out quite the way they would have liked they still created something that was a success on its own terms and was ultimately appreciated by fellow travellers along the same path which, in the end, is what it’s all about.


Not exactly a trailer but this music video for one of the songs used in the film, Rock ‘n’ Roll Missing by Scudelia Electro, contains some footage from the film (lyrics in English)

The Letter (手紙, Jiro Shono, 2006)

The Letter PosterWhen it comes to cinematic adaptations of popular novelists, Keigo Higashino seems to have received more attention than most. Perhaps this is because he works in so many different genres from detective fiction (including his all powerful Galileo franchise) to family melodrama but it has to be said that his work manages to home in on the kind of films which have the potential to become a box office smash. The Letter (手紙, Tegami) finds him in the familiar territory of sentimental drama as its put upon protagonist battles unfairness and discrimination based on a set of rigid social codes.

Nao (Takayuki Yamada) is a bright young man who had the chance to go to university and progress into a normal middle class life but is now slumming it as a blue collar worker at a factory. It transpires that his dismal circumstances began when he and his brother were orphaned meaning that his older brother Takashi (Tetsuji Tamayama) left school to get the money for Nao’s education. Working himself to the bone, Takashi was injured in a workplace accident and subsequently laid off. Desperate to provide for his brother, he turned to crime and unfortunately ended up killing an elderly woman during a burglary gone wrong and will spend the rest of his life in prison. The once close brothers now communicate through letters alone. With his university dreams shattered, Nao moves from place to place, forced out of employment and friendship groups each time someone finds out about his brother. Increasingly he comes to resent Takashi for the shadow his foolish actions continue cast over his life.

It is sadly true that this kind of social stigma towards the relatives of criminals is more prevalent in a society like Japan’s which prizes the overall harmony of the group (though I wouldn’t say it’s entirely absent here either). Every time Nao thinks he’s about to get somewhere, a background check throws up his imprisoned brother and it’s all over. Especially considering that his brother’s crime is a violent one perpetrated against an elderly lady, nobody is prepared to extend an understanding hand to Nao even though the crime itself has nothing to do with him (save being committed in his name) and its price should not be hanging on his shoulders.

It’s unsurprising then that Nao tries to conceal his brother’s existence, often claiming to be an only child with no living family. Though originally communicating warmly with Takashi in the letters, his growing resentment leads to a decline in their frequency and he rarely visits in person. The desire to hide his problematic past becomes a trigger in itself which leads to his having to give up on a dream of becoming a TV comedian just when it looked like his career was about to take off, and failure to tell a fiancée that he lied about being an only child also presents a serious crack in the couple’s relationship. Had he been more upfront and faced out the resulting reaction, he might have been able to work through it but once you’ve tried to lie sympathy dissipates entirely.

At the end of the day Nao is a young man with no one to guide him. He’s angry and he’s ambitious so he’s filled with resentment that he can’t have everything he thinks he deserves simply because of a series of things which happened to him none of which were his fault. Because of this, he makes a series of poor choices failing to see the things that are right in front of him. The dowdy girl next-door type from the factory is clearly in love with Nao but he isn’t interested – she doesn’t fit his slightly arrogant view of himself with her plainness and straightforward goodness. On the other hand, he’s immediately captivated by a beautiful and wealthy socialite who’s way out of his league. Of course, this is likely to end in tears – even if Nao didn’t already have skeletons in the closet the girl’s father has other plans for her which don’t include a marriage to a jumped up poor boy comedian.

The Letter suffers slightly in its focus on Nao and his troubles rather than being evenly split between the brothers. Takashi has paid a heavy price for his crime – he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life and the bright future he tried to buy for his brother has been ruined forever precisely because of the actions he was taking to ensure it. His only lifeline is the letters and the news he gets of Nao’s prospering in the outside world. Nao’s final decision to stop writing and not even tell his brother his new address so that the letters will no longer reach him is therefore a doubly cruel and selfish one. However, Takashi is only presented in relationship to his brother and his own pain and struggle becomes an undeveloped facet of the film.

As in all of Keigo Higashino’s work, secrets are the great enemy. The film only partially addresses the extreme unfairness of Nao’s plight as he’s continually persecuted for something that’s nothing to do with him. Guilty by association only, he is also in prison with no parole board to consider his case. The film even states that this kind of stigma is a perfectly natural thing which just has to be accepted – accept the truth, it says, and the world will open up to you. On balance this is a good message, but the idea that prejudice and social discrimination are things which just have to be endured is an uncomfortable one which sits at odds with the film’s otherwise positive messages of personal redemption and the importance of familial bonds. Uneven and occasionally tipping over into sentimentality, The Letter is something of a missed opportunity but nevertheless offers a thought provoking and emotionally satisfying melodrama in the best traditions of the genre.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

Snakes and Earrings (蛇にピアス, Yukio Ninagawa, 2008)

91+iM1s07LL._SL1500_When 21 year old Hitomi Kanehara’s Snakes and Earrings (蛇にピアス, Hebi ni Piasu) was published back in 2003 it took the coveted Akutagawa prize for literature and the country by storm. Its scandalous depictions of the dark and nihilistic sex life of its outsider youngsters outraged and fascinated enough people to get it onto the best seller lists and earn a cinematic adaptation from Japan’s top theatre director Yukio Ninagawa in only his second foray into the world of moving pictures. However, Snakes and Earrings is perhaps that rare instance of an adaptation which clings to closely to its source material as its detached, emotionless and straightforward approach end in something of a miss fire.

Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) is a typical “gyaru” – for those of you reading from the future, this is an “ultra feminine” fashion trend which encourages young women to barbie doll it up to the max. It’s a little strange then when she catches sight of young punk Ama (Kengo Kora) in a nightclub and becomes fascinated with his forked tongue. In actuality, it’s the tongue she falls for, not the guy, but the two become a couple and she moves into his apartment. Before long she too gets a tongue ring and becomes determined on splitting her own tongue as well as getting herself a large tattoo. That’s how she meets Ama’s tattooist friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who becomes equally fascinated with Lui. Lui trades sex with Shiba in return for designing her body art and the two begin an illicit, sado-masochistic affair behind Ama’s back but even after Lui’s tattoo is completed it only sends her further into a spiral of nihilistic self annihilation.

Snakes and Earrings opens with a beautifully shot near silent sequence which pans across the skyline of modern Tokyo picking out the neon lights and advertising boards that proclaim it as a city which belongs to the young. Even when we’re with Lui inside the nightclub, the sound remains muted as young men and women dance to music that we cannot hear – even when Lui spots Ama it’s only the visuals that hang until he comes over and talks to her and we realise she’s had her headphones in the entire time. This sequence is neatly echoed at the film’s conclusion but is, however, something of an anomaly when it comes to the prevailing style of the film which is relentlessly detached and straightforward in approach.

Lui – short for “Louis Vuitton” remains something of a cypher. She’s torn between her two lovers – the punkish dope Ama who would kill for her and the cold, sadistic Shiba who would kill her given half the chance. She doesn’t seem to know what she wants or who she is and quickly loses herself in alcoholism and self disgust. It feels as if there should be more to this – a critique of the emptiness of modern life or the dehumanising effects of the city but all there is is a great nothingness. Perhaps that’s the point, there is nothing to Lui – not even a real name. She possesses no clearly defined identity and therefore does not exist. This is a fine idea, on paper, but does leave a great gaping hole where the protagonist ought to be.

Lui’s two love interests, the oddly vibrant Ama and the restrained Shiba represent two sides of the same thing as Lui is torn between pleasure in pain and pain in love. Kengo Kora does what he can with a thinly defined role which often feels more like a plot device than anything else. Arata Iura fares a little better with the meatier role of Shiba who is accorded more screen time but the film remains resolutely cold and distant. In a minor instance of distraction, Shun Oguri and more prominently Tatsuya Fujiwara turn up as bit players in the roles of two street punks who get into a fight with Ama which is, frankly, baffling.

Though opting for simplistic, straightforward compositions much of Snakes and Earrings is beautifully captured even if deliberately alienating. As in the book, even the frequent, semi-explicit sex scenes are shot in such a matter of fact way as to render them totally neutered, devoid of any kind of sensation. Ultimately, Snakes and Earrings finishes as a noble failure, neatly echoing its heroine’s nihilistic mindset whilst simultaneously failing to engage.


The Hong Kong DVD/blu-ray release (as well as the Japanese blu-ray) of Snakes and Earrings includes English Subtitles.

 

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.