Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン, Shinji Higuchi, 2022)

The classic tokusatsu hero rises again to rescue kaiju-plagued Japan from geopolitical tensions and internal bureaucracy in Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン). Scripted by Hideaki Anno, Shin Ultraman shares much in common with Shin Godzilla which the pair co-directed but is also a much more obvious homage to the world of classic tokusatsu or “special effects” franchises which became cult TV hits from the 1960s onwards and have remained popular with children and adults alike throughout Asia. 

This new iteration takes place in a world in which kaiju attacks have become commonplace, so much so that there is a specialised government department, the SSSP, dedicated to dealing with them. Led by determined veteran Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the team do not engage with the giant monsters directly but are responsible for research and strategy quickly trying to work out what kind of kaiju they’re dealing with, what the dangers associated with it may be, and where it’s weaknesses lie so they can figure out a way to stop it. Just when it looks like an electricity-guzzling lizard monster is about to do some serious damage, a robot-like giant humanoid arrives and saves the day. The team are very grateful to the heroic defender they name Ultraman, but are puzzled that he seems to be aware of all their research while otherwise missing the connection that their near silent colleague Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh) always seems to be mysteriously absent every time Ultraman arrives.  

At heart, Shin Godzilla had been a satire on government bureaucracy and a mediation on the response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Shin Ultraman might not be so pointed but still has a few bones to pick with the political machine as the team’s boss at HQ moans about the need to keep buying fancy weapons from the Americans (and making sure it’s the Defence Ministry that foots the bill) while cynically suggesting that the government is keen to use the kaiju crisis as leverage to further its policy goal of nuclear re-armament. Meanwhile, it’s also clear that for some reason kaiju attacks only happen in Japan and the International community largely sees them as a Japanese issue which they have to deal with alone, but as soon as Ultraman turns up and is thought to be extraterrestrial everyone is suddenly interested. 

As it transpires these geopolitical divisions are incredibly useful to another extraterrestrial visitor, Zarab (Kenjiro Tsuda), who plans to sow discord among nations so that humanity will destroy itself thereby, ironically, preventing an intergalactic war between planets who may be tempted to fight amongst themselves over the potential enslavement of humanity as valuable bioweapons. Aware of Zarab’s power, the government is manipulated into signing an uneven treaty with him in order to be first out of the gate and gain an advantage over other nations who, for reasons of self preservation, are also keen to ensure no one has sole access to new alien technologies and emissaries. Asked why he picked Japan, all Zarab can come up with it that he happened to land there which is quite a coincidence though he also has a vested interest in taking out Ultraman, the only force capable of resisting him. 

Even so, according to Zarab, the kaiju plague is humanity’s doing in having awakened sleeping monsters through environmental destruction. Hailing from the Planet of Light which has strict rules about what he’s supposed to be doing, Ultraman longs to understand humanity having merged with a human he accidentally killed who had dedicated his life to saving others. What he gains is a sense of communal responsibility along with a desire to care for what he sees as, essentially, babies someway behind his own planet in terms of evolution and in need of guidance. What he doesn’t want to do is endanger their “autonomous progression” by solving all their problems for them, so in grand tokusatsu fashion its up to the team to engineer their own solution in addition to deciding what they will do with this new technology using it for good or ill. Being buddies is all about trust, after all. Higuchi’s composition borders on the avant-garde recalling both that of the legendary Akio Jissoji and those more often associated with anime and manga rather than live action while the effects, even those utilising CGI, are pleasantly nostalgic with retro mono explosions and the iconic ringing of laser beams. Heading in a melancholy philosophical direction in its final moments, Shin Ultraman does at least suggest that the best weapons against a kaiju attack are teamwork and mutual trust especially if one of your friends is an all powerful being from another galaxy. 


Shin Ultraman screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS CO., LTD. / TOHO CO., LTD. / khara, Inc. © TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS

Love Letter (ラブレター, Shunji Iwai, 1995)

“People are forgotten so easily” a widow laments after an insensitive comment from a family friend, yet there is perhaps a difference between forgetting and letting go as exemplified in the distance between two accidental pen pals in Shunji Iwai’s profoundly moving romantic melodrama, Love Letter (ラブレター). A huge hit and pop culture phenomenon throughout Asia on its 1995 release, Iwai’s first theatrical feature bears many of the hallmarks of his enduring style in its soft focus, ethereal lighting and emphasis on nostalgia as the two women at the film’s centre each restore something to the other through their serendipitous correspondence. 

Iwai opens with a memorial service for Itsuki the late fiancé of the heroine, Hiroko (Miho Nakayama), who passed away two years previously in a mountain climbing accident. Hiroko has since started a relationship with his friend Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa) who avoided attending the memorial out of misplaced guilt and gave up mountaineering soon after Itsuki’s death. Akiba is keen to move their relationship forward, but fears that Hiroko is still stuck in the past unable to let go of her love for Itsuki. On a visit to Itsuki’s mother (Mariko Kaga), she finds an old address in his middle school year book for a home that apparently no longer exists and decides to mail him a letter saying nothing more than “How are you? I’m fine” of course expecting no reply. What she didn’t know, however, is that there were two Itsuki Fujiis in her Itsuki’s class, the other being a woman still living at the same address to whom Hiroko has accidentally mailed her correspondence. Confused, the other Itsuki (also played by Miho Nakayama) mails back and eventually finds herself recalling memories of the male Itsuki as an awkward, diffident teen she may have entirely misunderstood. 

Played by the same actress the two women are each in a sense trapped in an eternal present, unable to move forward with their lives. While Hiroko is consumed by grief and fearful of committing to her new relationship with Akiba lest she betray the memory of Itsuki, Itsuki is still struggling to come to terms with the traumatic death of her father 10 years previously who passed away from pneumonia after contracting the common cold leaving her with persistent health anxiety. Meanwhile, she is also struggling to move on from her family home which is in an increasingly perilous state of disrepair. She and her mother (Bunjaku Han) want to move into a modern apartment, while her grandfather (Katsuyuki Shinohara) prefers to stay even though it seems that the house will soon have to be demolished. 

Through their accidental correspondence, both women are forced to deal with recent and not so recent loss, Itsuki in some senses having forgotten the boy who shared her name while Hiroko remains unable to forget. Through his trademark ethereal lighting and frequent use of dissolves, Iwai hints at a sense of perpetual longing for the nostalgic past. The letters may not have been from the late Itsuki in a literal sense but were perhaps a message from him, connecting the two women and eventually freeing each of them as the love letter of the title is finally delivered ironically enough hidden inside a copy of Remembrance of Things Past. 

This sense of grief-stricken inertia is perfectly reflected in the snowy vistas of the lonely northern town of Otaru, thrown into stark contrast with the intense heat of the furnace in Akiba’s glassblowing workshop, or the gentle warmth of the old-fashioned stove in Itsuki’s room as she types replies to Hiroko’s handwritten letters. As Hiroko eventually reflects, they each knew a different Itsuki and have each in a sense both lost him if restoring something one to the other through the exchange of memories that grants Hiroko the understanding she needs to let go and Itsuki the poignant realisation of a youthful missed connection. A bittersweet meditation on love, loss, grief, and memory, Iwai’s epistolary drama has its own sense of magic and mystery in the strange power of this serendipitous connection leading to a tremendous sense of catharsis as a long delayed message finally makes its way home bringing with it a shade of melancholy regret but also possibility in the new hope of forward motion.


Love Letter screens at the BFI on 22/28 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Erica 38 (エリカ38, Yuichi Hibi, 2019)

Erica 38 poster“Everybody’s life is in someway unfulfilling”, admits the philosophical victim of a con woman in ripped from the headlines tale Erica 38 (エリカ38). “It’s like a crutch” he adds, without a little fantasy you can’t go on. Like the “Erica” of the title, her victims are also looking for escape from an unsatisfying reality, and unfortunately for them already have what she feels would make her life more bearable – vast wealth. Returning to Japan after three decades abroad, director Yuichi Hibi does his best to humanise the figure of the coldhearted grifter, painting her as just another disappointed, lonely old woman desperately trying to recapture the sense of possibility so cruelly denied her in youth.

Later rebranding herself as “Erica”, a 38-year-old woman of means, our “heroine” is Satoko Watanabe (Miyoko Asada), an ageing bar hostess supplementing her income by peddling a dodgy multi-vitamin pyramid scheme to bored housewives eager to make a few extra bucks. Her sales pitch, however, gets her noticed by a refined old woman sitting close by in an upscale hotel during in one of her sessions. The woman, Mrs. Ito (Midori Kiuchi), introduces her to a “friend”, Hirasawa (Takehiro Hira), who cuts in with a sales pitch of his own in branding himself as a paid up member of the global elite who works with the Pentagon on important international matters. Hirasawa heavily implies his business is not quite on the level, but Satoko, captivated by his suave sophistication, fails to realise just how dodgy he really is. Before long, she’s joined him in his “consultation” business, selling fraudulent investment opportunities in the emerging market of Cambodia.

It is surprisingly easy to sympathise with the dejected Satoko as she falls under Hirasawa’s spell. Already well into her 50s when the film begins and clearly over 60 when she rebrands herself as the 38-year-old Erica, Satoko has led an unhappy life beginning with a traumatic childhood lived in the shadow of an abusive, adulterous father. The only memory of joy from her youth is when she and her mother (Kirin Kiki) giggled together after accidentally tipping rat poison into dad’s miso soup. Life since then, it seems, has been one disappointment after another spent in the hostess bars of Kabukicho. What all of that means, however, is that she’s become skilled in the art of selling fantasy. All that time invested in extracting cold hard cash from lonely men has set her in good stead for selling unrealistic investment opportunities to the already comfortably off.

Unrepentant, Satoko tells herself that she bears no responsibility towards those who lost money in her scams because they were chasing exactly the same thing she was – escape, and they both found it at least for a moment. Her victims made the decision themselves, she never forced anyone, and so it’s their own fault that they fell for her patter while she perhaps laments only that she’s been foolish and profligate in not planning better for the eventual implosion of all her schemes.

“There’s a thin line between real and fake”, she tells a party guest admiring one of her paintings, “if someone sees it as real then real it is”. Satoko’s cons are, in essence, an extension of the paradox of the hostess business. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have seen that the business isn’t legitimate, but like a salaryman in a hostess bar they invest in the semblance of connection while knowing in a sense that isn’t “real”. Ironically enough, Satoko is forced to realise that the first victim of her subterfuge is herself. Chasing a dream of love, she fell hard for Hirasawa without thinking him through. Hirasawa succeeds in his schemes because he’s scrupulously careful in maintaining his persona – he operates out of hotels, has no fixed address, and uses several cellphones. As Satoko later finds out, he is effectively running a harem, romancing several women all like herself bringing in the big bucks while he sits back relatively risk free. She has been used, once again.

The implosion of her dream of romantic escape is what sends her to Thailand where she ponders a reset, rebranding herself as the 38-year-old Erica of the title and beginning an affair with a young and handsome Thai man she rescued from gangsters with her ill-gotten gains. Porche (Woraphop Klaisang) later describes her as “My Angel”, of course realising that she was much older than she claimed but claiming not to care. It may be that he really did love her, but you can’t ignore the corruption of all that money and the power that it buys. In the end, money can’t buy you love, or a path out of loneliness, or a cure for disappointment.

Satoko was, like many, just another lonely, disappointed old lady trying to escape an unsatisfying present through a fantasy of returning to the past, rebooting herself as a successful business woman, loved and in love, as someone with a brighter future to look forward to. Her sales patter worked because it was “true”, the similarly dejected could sense in her the desperation for escape and as they wanted to escape too they let her take them with her. A melancholy tale of delusion and disillusionment, Erica 38 has immense sympathy for the scammer and the scammed painting them both as victims of an often unfair, conformist society in which freedom is the rarest commodity of them all.


Erica 38 screens in New York on July 25 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Masato Harada, 2015)

166028_02The world of the classical “jidaigeki” or period film often paints an idealised portrait of Japan’s historical Edo era with its brave samurai who live for nothing outside of their lord and their code. Even when examining something as traumatic as forbidden love and double suicide, the jidaigeki generally presents them in terms of theatrical tragedy rather than naturalistic drama. Whatever the cinematic case may be, life in Edo era Japan could be harsh – especially if you’re a woman. Enjoying relatively few individual rights, a woman was legally the property of her husband or his clan and could not petition for divorce on her own behalf (though a man could simply divorce his wife with little more than words). The Tokeiji Temple exists for just this reason, as a refuge for women who need to escape a dangerous situation and have nowhere else to go.

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Kakekomi Onna to Kakedashi Otoko) places this important institution at its centre as it focuses on the stories of a number of women who’ve each ended up at the temple after a series of difficult circumstances. Jogo (Erika Toda) is married to a womanising drunkard who forces her to run his iron smelting business from the front lines (hence the painful looking blisters on her face) while he enjoys his life of debauchery. When the staff complains about his attitude and their subsequent fears for their jobs and Jogo raises their concerns with him he simply beats her before returning to his mistress. She then faces a decision – Tokeiji, death, or endurance. During her flight, she runs into O-Gin (Hikari Mitsushima), a mysterious wealthy woman who’s sprained her ankle after fighting off bandits in the woods. The pair bond on their quest to reach Tokeiji where they hope to find refuge from their turbulent home lives.

Before you can enter Tokeiji you’re held at one of the receiving inns where they hear your story, assess the possibility of being able to reconcile with a husband and, if deemed necessary, allowed to travel to the temple where you’ll live as a Buddhist nun for two years at which time your husband must legally sign the divorce papers. The inn adheres to strict Buddhist principles – no men are allowed near the temple (even the outside helpers wear bells so the ladies can hear them coming), you eat only temple cuisine (no meat or stimulants like garlic and onions), and have to abide by the word of the head nun. There are also three different classes of resident starting with the most expensive court lady lifestyle, then one of sewing and making repairs, and finally the lowest class which does all the day to day cooking, cleaning and other menial tasks.

The other pivot around which the film turns is the one time medical student Shinjiro (Yo Oizumi) who has literary dreams but has had to beat a quick retreat from Edo after defiantly breaking its ridiculous “no singing in the streets” law (amongst other things). At this period Edo and the surrounding area is undergoing its own mini cultural revolution as the current authorities advocate a period of austerity which sees things like literature, music and even sushi outlawed. Perceiving threats everywhere, the powers at be are also looking for a way to close down Tokeiji by any underhanded means necessary.

Shinjiro is a fast talking wise guy who can generally talk his way out of anything though he is also a keen student and a promising young doctor. As a relative of the Tokeiji inn owners, he’s seeking refuge too but also hoping to make use of their extensive archives for his writing career. As a doctor he’s immediately fascinated by the burns on Jogo’s face which he believes he can treat though in her frightened state she’s alarmed by his direct manner and refuses. After hearing his more reasoned arguments she finally submits and in turn becomes interested in his medical knowledge assisting him to gather herbs in the forest before starting her own herb garden in the temple.

Of course, the two develop a growing romantic attachment though frustrated by Jogo’s position as a married woman and the temple’s prohibition against male contact. Their romance is never played for melodrama, more as a simple and natural course of events though it’s well played by both Toda and Oizumi. At heart, Kakekomi is an ensemble drama which encompasses the often sad stories of its female cast who are each at the mercy of the cruel and rigid Edo era social system. O-Gin’s reasons for fleeing to Tokeiji turn out to be a little different from everyone else’s though she too is still suffering for love.

A humorous look at this untold story, Kakekomi proves an engaging ensemble drama anchored by the committed performances of its cast. Toda takes Jogo from a frightened and abused woman to a confident and learned scholar who is perfectly capable of taking charge of things on her own and her transformation is the true heart of the film. Apparently, director Masato Harada shot nearly four hours of footage before cutting the film down to the more manageable two and a half which may explain why it sometimes feels a little abrupt but nevertheless Kakekomi proves one of the most enjoyable mainstream Japanese movies of recent times.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD of Kakekomi includes English subtitles.