Twilight: Saya in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2014)

Japanese cinema has its fare share of ghosts. From Ugetsu to Ringu, scorned women have emerged from wells and creepy, fog hidden mansions bearing grudges since time immemorial but departed spirits have generally had very little positive to offer in their post-mortal lives. Twilight: Saga in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや,  Twilight Sasara Saya) is an oddity in more ways than one – firstly in its recently deceased narrator’s comic approach to his sad life story, and secondly in its partial rejection of the tearjerking melodrama usually common to its genre.

Unsuccessful Rakugo performer Yutaro (Yo Oizumi) met the love of his life during one of his sparsely attended recitations. Saya (Yui Aragaki) was the only one laughing but even she didn’t think he was very funny, she just liked him because he was trying so hard. Eventually, he married her and they had a lovely baby boy but before little Yusuke was even a year old, Yutaro got himself killed in a random traffic accident. Such is life. Still, knowing that Saya had no family of her own and having grown up without a father himself Yutaro feels even worse about leaving his wife and son all alone in such a stupid way. Therefore he decides to delay going to heaven so that he can stick around to help Saya in whatever way he can.

A crisis occurs when Yutaro’s estranged father (Ryo Ishibashi) suddenly turns up at the funeral laying claim to little Yusuke with no thought to the additional emotional ramifications of trying to snatch a baby from a grieving mother right over the coffin of her husband. Possessing the body of another guest, Yutaro manages to convince Saya to run leading her to retreat to her late aunt’s house in the peaceful rural village of Sasara.

Though the premise is a familiar one, Fukagawa neatly sidesteps the more maudlin aspects for a broadly comic approach in which Yutaro recounts the story of his death as if it were a rakugo tale. Possessing various people along the way, Yutaro does indeed help Saya adjust to her new life but eventually discovers that perhaps the reason he hasn’t passed over was one of the past rather than one of the future.

Saya’s arrival in Sasara gets off to a bad start – essentially forced out of the city to escape Yutaro’s father Saya causes unexpected trouble when it emerges that the corrupt local estate agent has been letting out her aunt’s house without telling her. If that weren’t enough, some of her valuables are almost stolen by a local delivery boy but, this being an ageing village, children are a rarity and so little Yusuke quickly captures the hearts of the neighbourhood grannies who eventually become Saya’s friends and staunch supporters. Familial problems are the name of the day from childlessness to children (hopefully) writing down possible signs of dementia or just leaving town and not coming back. Yutaro also helps Saya improve the life of another young woman with a son who doesn’t speak by allowing him to finally voice what he really feels, adding to the circle of female help and support which becomes the family Saya had always longed for.

Orphaned at a young age, raised by her grandmother until she died and having lost her only living relative in her aunt a few years previously, Saya had always wondered what it felt like to have a real family of her own. Yutaro had also lost his mother at a young age through illness and was estranged from his father who refused to visit her even on her deathbed. Yutaro’s untimely death adds to Saya’s ongoing sorrows but also ends the beginnings of the happy family they’d begun to build with each other. As it turns out, Yotaro’s limbo is less about his son and more about his father as he gets a last opportunity to bond with his outwardly harsh and cruel dad and come to a kind of understanding about fatherhood in hearing his side of the story. Life is too short for grudges, and even spirits sometimes need to give up the ghost so that the air can rest a little lighter.

Though there are the expected moments of sadness as Yotaro realises the number of people he can possess is dwindling and his time with Saya will be limited, Fukagawa keeps things light and whimsical with a kind of small town quirkiness aided by Oizumi’s spirited delivery. Adding in frequent rakugo references complete with painted backdrops and sound effects as well as a repeated motif which sees the little town remade as a diorama model, Twilight: Saya in Sarasa has a pleasantly old fashioned feeling which only adds to its wholesome emphasis on an extended family of community coupled with the continuing presence of Yutaro watching from somewhere on high. Warm and funny if a little lacking in impact, Twilight: Saya in Sasara is a rare instance of a ghost bringing people together in love and harmony through helping them get closer to their true emotions but one that is also keen to emphasise that we’re all only here for an unspecified time – better not to waste it with silly things like grudges.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Raymond Yip Wai-man, 2016)

phantom-of-the-theatreNo ghosts! That’s one of the big rules when it comes to the Chinese censors, but then these “ghosts” are not quite what they seem and belong to the pre-communist era when the people were far less enlightened than they are now. One of the few directors brave enough to tackle horror in China, Raymond Yip Wai-man goes for the gothic in this Phantom of the Opera inspired tale of love and the supernatural set in bohemian ‘30s Shanghai, Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Mó Gōng Mèi Yǐng). As expected, the thrills and chills remain mild as the ghostly threat edges closer to its true role as metaphor in a revenge tale that is in perfect keeping with the melodrama inherent in the genre, but the full force of its tragic inevitability gets lost in the miasma of awkward CGI and theatrical artifice.

Shanghai was a swinging, cosmopolitan town in the 1930s. A multicultural melting pot it was both a business centre and a bohemian paradise in which the Chinese film industry flourished. Aspiring film director Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) has just returned from studying in France and is looking for an actress to star in his first project. Attempting to hand his script to the winner of the local awards ceremony, Weibang’s plan is frustrated by some awkward political shenanigans between an older actress, a younger one, and the patron that’s trying to abandon one woman for the other, but Weibang is soon to have more problems on his plate connected to the series of strange deaths which have begun to occur in the “haunted” theatre in which he wants to shoot his upcoming masterpiece.

The mystery element fades relatively quickly as we’re introduced to the very human villain who does, however, behave in an appropriately phantom fashion as he appears and disappears in various locations around the ruined theatre, making use of secret passages and hidden doorways to put his dastardly plan into action. The main thrust of the narrative is the gothic romance between Weibang and his leading actress Meng Si-fan (Ruby Lin) which is complicated both by his existing girlfriend (the pathologist working on the mysterious theatre deaths) and the spectre of the long buried past. The fire which destroyed the theatre 13 years previously resulting in the deaths of a troupe of acrobats lies at the centre of the mystery but places the two lovers on different sides of an unbridgeable divide as powerless bystanders in the newly post feudal world.

Weibang wants to make films about the things people can’t say – an interesting meta comment given that ghosts are still taboo all these years later, but the irony is that film is a seductive dream, a distraction from the reality, a haunted theatre all of its own. Dreams, reality, and cinema begin to overlap as Weibang finds himself playing the leading man and falling for the leading lady in a tragic supernatural romance whilst his creepy setting continues to give up its own ghosts. In the end the only ghosts Weibang and Si-fan will have to deal with are ones of their own pasts. Faced with a final showdown, long buried truths are finally revealed and choices made but the bittersweet ending leaves us on a positive note as those concerned discover the power of forgiveness – that forgiving others is an act of kindness to oneself and revenge little more than the theft of your own life in pointless pursuit of retribution.

Yip places the emphasis on his visuals with a sumptuous, truly gothic aesthetic filled with faded grandeur, Western architecture, and candle lit rooms perfect for suggestive shadows and ghosts which lurk in mirrors. Though occasionally plagued with poor quality CGI and leaning towards theatrical artificiality in its studio bound look, Phantom of the Theatre does succeed in building a generally creepy atmosphere even if failing to reach the giddy heights of China’s finest take on the material so far – A Song at Midnight. Despite the solid visuals, Phantom of the Theatre never achieves the levels of doomladen fatalism and inexorable malevolence which the genre demands nor does it succeed in making its central romance truly matter lending it a slightly underwhelming quality. Still, the impressive visuals and melancholy tone make for a charmingly old fashioned ghost story in which the haunting is all too real.


Original trailer (Mandarin with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Discarnates (異人たちとの夏, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1988)

discarnatesNobuhiko Obayashi is no stranger to a ghost story whether literal or figural but never has his pre-occupation with being pre-occupied about the past been more delicately expressed than in his 1988 horror-tinged supernatural adventure, The Discarnates (異人たちとの夏, Ijintachi to no Natsu). Nostalgia is a central pillar of Obayashi’s world, as drenched in melancholy as it often is, but it can also be pernicious – an anchor which pins a person in a certain spot and forever impedes their progress.

Hidemi Harada (Morio Kazama) is a successful TV scriptwriter whose career is on the slide. He’s just gotten a divorce and seems to be conflicted about the nature of his new found bachelordom. As if he didn’t have enough despair in his life, the closest thing he has to a friend – his boss at the TV station, tells him he thinks it’s better if they end their professional relationship because he plans to start dating Harada’s ex-wife and it would all get very awkward.

Feeling unloved, Harada takes a trip to his hometown on a location scout for another project and takes in a few familiar sights along the way. It’s here that he runs into a youngish man who looks just like Harada’s father did when he was a boy. Not only that, accompanying his new found friend home, the man’s wife looks just like his mother, but Harada’s parents died when he was just twelve years old. The mysterious couple are glad to have him in their house and treat him with the warmth and kindness that seemed to have been missing in his life, leaving him the happiest and most cheerful he’s been in years.

Now in a much better mood, Harada feels guilty about rudely dismissing the woman from upstairs who’d come to visit him the day before. Apologising, Harada strikes up a friendship and then a romance with the equally damaged Kei (Yuko Natori) but even if his mental health is improving, his physical strength begins to deteriorate. Looking pale and old, Harada’s teeth rot and fall out while his hair loses its color. Even so, Harada cannot bear to pull himself away from the warmth and security that was so cruelly taken away from him when he was just a child.

Harada doesn’t start off believing that the mysterious couple really are his late parents, but if even if they weren’t these two people who are actually younger than him take him in as a son, feeding and entertaining him. When Harada returns a little while later confused by what exactly has happened, his mother immediately treats him as a mother would – physically taking off his polo shirt and urging him to remove his trousers lest they get wrinkled from sitting on the floor. Having lost his parents at such a young age, Harada has been a adrift all his life, unable to form true, lasting emotional bonds with other people. Lamenting his failure as a husband and a father, this very ordinary kindness provides the kind of warmth that he’s been craving.

However, there is always a price to be paid. Harada’s visits become increasing tiring, taking a physical toll on his ageing body. Each hour spent in the past is an hour lost to the dead. His parents are both dead and alive, existing in a strange, golden hued bubble filled with the comforting innocence of childhood free from the concerns of the adult world. Yet each time Harada succumbs to his weakness and goes to visit them, he is doing so as a way of avoiding all of his real world problems. According to one of Harada’s scripts, the past becomes a part of you and is never lost, but memory can be an overly seductive drug and an overdose can prove fatal.

Contrasted with the warm glow of the post-war world of Harada’s childhood home, his life in bubble era Tokyo is one filled with blues and a constant sense of the sinister. Harada believes himself to mostly be alone in the apartment block save for a mysterious third floor light that hints at another resident who also favours late nights over early mornings. The light turns out to belong to a lonely middle-aged woman, Kei, who is also a fan of Harada’s work. Kei has her own set of problems including a wound on her chest that she is too ashamed to let anyone see. Ultimately, Harada’s self-centred inability to lay the past to rest and fully take other people’s feelings into account will deal Kei a cruel blow.

Harada sees everything with a writer’s eye. His childhood world is a dream, but his life is a film noir filled with shadows and misery. His environments appear too perfectly composed, like a TV stage set and, as if to underline the fact, at the end of each “scene” the colour drains from the screen to leave a blue tinted black and white image shrinking into a rectangle and disappearing like the dot going out in the days when television really did close down overnight. Whether any of this happened outside of Harada’s mind or reflects a constructed reality he wrote for himself in the midst of a mental breakdown, his dilemma is an existential one – return to childhood and the side of his parents by accepting the death of his present self, or say goodbye to remnants of the abandoned child inside him and start living an adult, fully “fleshed” life by killing off this unattainable dream of a long forgotten past which never took place.

Filled with melancholy, longing and regret, The Discarnates is the story of a hollow man made whole by coming to terms with his traumatic past and all of the ways it’s influenced the way in which he’s lived his life. Harada’s parents treat him as their twelve year old son, barely acknowledging that he’s a middle aged man with a teenage son of his own. They feel regret for all of the thousand things they were never able to teach him though they are unable to see the full depths of his inability to escape his interior bubble for the wider world. Unsettling, though not as obviously surreal as some of Obayashi’s other efforts, The Discarnates is one of his most melancholic works speaking of the danger of nostalgia and all of its false promises whilst also acknowledging its seductive appeal.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Journey to the Shore (岸辺の旅, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2015)

journey to the shoreTime is an ocean, but it ends at the shore. Kiyoshi Kurosawa neatly reverses Dylan’s poetic phrasing as his shoreline is less a place of endings but of beginnings or at least a representation of the idea that every beginning is born from the death of that which preceded it. Adapted from a novel by Kazumi Yumoto, Journey to the Shore (岸辺の旅, Kishibe no Tabi) takes its grief stricken, walking dead heroine on a long journey of the soul until she can finally put to rest a series of wandering ghosts and begin to live once again, albeit at her own tempo.

The film begins with three years widowed Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) giving a piano lesson to a little girl whose mother goes on to enquire about her daughter’s progress. Wouldn’t it be better if she could learn something a little more cheerful once in a while? Reconsidering, the mother reflects that uptempo doesn’t quite suit Mizuki, and she’s right – it doesn’t. After impulse buying some flour and baking a few Japanese sweets at home, Mizuki receives an unexpected visit from her deceased husband, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), who drowned himself at sea.

Somehow unsurprised and pausing only to remind him to remove his shoes, Mizuki gives Yusuke some of the dumplings then retires to bed, only to wake up the next morning and wonder if she dreamt the strange events of the night before but, sure enough, Yusuke is still very much present. Promising to show her some of the beautiful places he discovered on his long odyssey home to her, Yusuke takes Mizuki on a reverse honeymoon in celebration and in mourning of all they once were to each other.

In each place they travel to, Mizuki and Yusuke help the people there deal with their own walking ghosts. Yusuke is not the only returnee as they discover with a lonely old newspaper seller who doesn’t appear to be aware that he died a long time ago. Walking dead in a realer sense than Mizuki or some of the other depressives they meet along the way who are still living but not exactly alive, Mr Shimakage is a spirit held in place by an inability to reconcile himself with the actions of his past and has brought his feelings of self loathing and regret with him into the afterlife.

Sometimes it’s the living that pin the dead, holding them close with guilt, regret, love or loneliness. If the film has a central tenet, it’s that the past has its place, and it’s not among the living. At one point Mizuki says that perhaps it’s better to leave some things unresolved. Yusuke asks her if she’s really OK with that, and she seems to reconsider but in the end that’s the way it has to be. There are no final solutions, the answers are not at the back of the book. In the end, the best you can do is try to understand and learn to be OK with everything you do and do not know about yourself and about those who are no longer here to tell their stories. Mizuki also says that she hated to practice piano as a child, but her teacher always told her to pay attention to her own rhythm. The music will always be lifeless, until you learn to hear your own song.

Kurosawa creates a beautifully ethereal world, held in a tension between the spirit realm and the everyday. Playing with lighting levels in extremely interesting ways, he allows the supernatural and natural to flow into each other, jostling and merging like waves and shore. Travelling from the grey, ordered and utilitarian city to the unruly nature of the countryside with its ancient, crashing waterfalls and beautiful, if lonely, coastlines we move from static and lifeless existence to a place of perpetual potential as we let go of one thing so that we might grasp another.

As much as Journey to the Shore is bound up with death, it necessarily speaks of life, too. During one of his strange lessons for the village folk, Yusuke delivers some meditations on science and philosophy to the effect that the world is built of nothingness but that nothingness does not lack meaning. He tells us that we are all dying, the universe was born billions of years ago and will end one day just as our species may end when the planet’s temperature exceeds that which we can endure or galaxies collide and take us down with them. For all of that, the universe is young, still growing, still expanding, and we are so lucky to have been born now when there is still so much ahead of us. This is a time of infinite beginnings. Starting again means letting go, but sooner or later you have to step off the shore of this self imposed purgatory and return to the great ocean which is life.


Journey to the Shore is availble on dual format DVD and blu-ray in the UK courtesty of Eureka Masters of Cinema.

Pitfall

Pitfall, Teshigahara’s 1962 ‘documentary fantasy’ is a difficult film to describe. It begins with the story of a poor migrant worker and his son, skipping out on an ill paying prospect the worker travels to another mine but discovers he doesn’t  have the necessary papers. Despite this he is offered another job, however this turns out not to be the stroke of luck he hopes it might be. A strange man wearing a white suit and gloves begins to follow him and around and eventually spreads confusion throughout this strangely desolate landscape.

The film is deliberately vague and offers no answers to the problems it poses. Though its political intentions are quite clear through the use of actual documentary footage of mining accidents and malnourished children the more surreal aspects remain unexplained. Exactly who is the white suited man, and who (if anyone) has given him his instructions? In this ghost town that is both literal and figurative, where identities are confused and long for events always arrive too late is there something strange and unnatural going on, or is it just the surreality of everyday life? The figure of the boy is also problematic, why does he only react to the death of the man who resembles his father but isn’t? Though perhaps if he’s the type of boy to pull the skin of frogs and watch a rape impassively through a small hole in a wooden wall the answer to this may be self evident. As he runs off alone down the winding road at the end of the film, what or whom is he running from or to. Is it his childish passivity that’s saved him, for the moment at least, from from the adult’s internecine warfare or is it just blind dumb luck that might just be leading him deeper into hell.