The Promised Land (楽園, Takahisa Zeze, 2019)

Small-town Japan is no Promised Land in Takahisa Zeze’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by mystery writer Shuichi Yoshida. Japanese cinema has often had an ambivalent relationship with the rapidly depopulating countryside, split between a sickly furusato idealisation of rural life as somehow purer than its urban counterpart and lampooning city slickers tired of that same sense of urban ennui but discovering that the traditional way of life is often hard especially when you don’t know how to do it and have no friends in communities which can often seem hostile to newcomers. 

What newcomers to the small town at the centre of The Promised Land (楽園, Rakuen) discover is latent racism, mutual suspicion, and toxic local politics which bends towards the feudal as those now old go to great lengths to cling on to their power. Hardly a rural idyll but a space of atavistic decay. The rot begins 12 years prior to the main action when a little girl, Aika, doesn’t come home for tea after playing with a friend. A search of the local area is organised, but only her little red school bag is found. 12 years later the other girl, Tsugumi (Hana Sugisaki), is consumed by a sense of survivor’s guilt feeling as if she is underserving of happiness in the knowledge that if she had only taken a different path that day Aika might not have disappeared. When another girl goes missing, suspicion falls on a wounded young man, Takeshi (Go Ayano), who speaks little and is intensely traumatised by his childhood experiences of xenophobic bullying having come to Japan with his non-Japanese mother (Asuka Kurosawa) at seven years old. 

Bystanders in the crowd preparing a search for the second missing girl are quick to blame the other, one loudly casting suspicion on “Africans” living nearby while another brings up a man who sells second-hand cars she feels is a little odd. Takeshi gets the blame because he exists to the side of the community but also because he is meek and vulnerable, unable to defend himself until pushed into a corner and provoked into an explosive act of self-destructive violence. “Suicide brings redemption” Aika’s grief crazed grandfather (Akira Emoto) shrieks as if urging a young man on towards his death based on nothing other than prejudice and bloodlust. Later he admits that he just wanted someone to blame as if that would bring an end to the matter but of course it didn’t, it only added to the burden. 

Meanwhile, middle-aged beekeeper Zenjiro (Koichi Sato) who returned to the village to look after his parents following the death of his wife (Shizuka Ishibashi) from leukaemia also finds himself under suspicion but mostly as part of a concerted harassment campaign conducted by two local elderly men who have appointed themselves village elders and resent his attempt to go directly to city hall in order to fund a new business venture without going through them. Zenjiro is originally from the village, this is his hometown, but he was also away a long time and is in a sense other as a new returnee at first courted as a potential suitor for the similarly returned widowed daughter of the local bigwig, Hisako (Reiko Kataoka), and then aggressively shunned to the point he begins to lose his mind leading to another shocking act of irrepressible violence. 

“No one trusts anyone” Tsugumi laments, angrily tearing away an annoying sign asking residents to report any “suspicious behaviour”. She insists they need to face the past in order to move on, something Zenjiro was ultimately in capable of doing, but later claims that she doesn’t need to know what happened to Aika, she’s going to live her own life. The path leads towards an acceptance that she wasn’t responsible for what happened to her friend and has no need to live her life in the shadow of guilt, yet she still falls victim to small-town attitudes more or less bullied into a romantic friendship with a distinctly creepy young man (Nijiro Murakami) who admits to slashing her bike tires so she’d be more likely to accept a lift from him. 

According to Takeshi, there’s no such thing as the “promised land”, a sentiment also expressed by Hisako who agrees that all places are the same save your hometown something which Takeshi seemingly never had. Tsugumi’s problematic suitor tells her she ought to create the promised land for all of them, which might be as close as the film comes to a mission statement in suggesting that the individual has agency to craft the world in which they live while subtly undercutting it in the melancholy stories of Takeshi and Zenjiro each hounded towards acts of self-inflicted violence by an intransigent community mired in a primitive us and them mentality. Far from paradise, small-town Japan is a land of fear and suspicion where outsiders are unwelcome and the old hold sway, complaining that their kids all end up in the city while secretly perhaps satisfied in the knowledge their authority will not be challenged. If there is a promised land, you won’t find it here. 


The Promised Land streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2019 “The Promised Land” Film Partners

Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Shunsuke Kariyama, 2020)

“If I became the person I wanted to be, would the world have changed?” the conflicted hero of Shunsuke Kariyama’s Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Aokute Itakute Moroi) eventually asks having undergone a kind of awakening but still perhaps struggling with himself caught between the desire to be better and the fear of the vulnerability that may entail. As the title implies, this is a tale of painful youth and bitter revelations but also of the fragile male ego, the damage that can be done by a young man who feels himself scorned, and the various ways an embittered, self-absorbed mind can reorder the world to accommodate its sense of righteousness. 

The hero, Kaede (Ryo Yoshizawa), opens with a voiceover revealing his life philosophy of social isolation afraid both of upsetting others and of getting hurt. Despite himself, however, he finds himself drawn into a friendship with the bright and friendly idealist, Hisano (Hana Sugisaki), whom he first noticed in one of his political science classes when she challenged the teacher advancing her life philosophy that peace is born only of mutual surrender and allows no role for violence. A true cynic, Kaede mocks her internally for her “naivety” but is moved on leaving the room to notice that she looks hurt not to have been taken seriously. Noticing him too, she tracks him down and makes a point of sitting next to him in the cafeteria, badgering him into a friendship he doesn’t resist because of his tenet of not challenging the views of others. Together they found the “Moai’ club which is dedicated to building a better world by helping people to become the people they want to be. 

Or at least, that’s what he tells us. As we slowly discover, Kaede is not a completely reliable narrator. Three years later he recruits a friend, Tosuke (Amane Okayama), to help him take down Moai, which has since become some kind of creepy cult corrupted by corporate interests that many seem to be using as a path towards employment, so that he can rebuild it to reflect the values he and Hisano intended when they founded the organisation she apparently having passed on. Yet the more he tells us, the more we start to wonder if there isn’t something else to it, especially when social welfare grad student Wakisaka (Tasuku Emoto) enters the scene. Is this really about the better world, or petty male romantic jealousy? Shy and introverted, it seems that Kaede never had the courage to tell Hisano how he felt and perhaps took it for granted that she understood, unfairly feeling betrayed when she showed interest in someone else despite her near constant prompts for him to speak up whether it be about her or their movement. Kaede says nothing, then blames Hisano for “rejecting” him as if the only reason she could have had for befriending him in the first place was the eventual breaking of his heart. 

In true “nice guy” fashion, Kaede can’t help but see himself as the wounded party. In the flip book he’s been idly drawing which opens the film, a man runs smack into a rock and bangs his head much in the way he seems to feel he has done in his abortive attempts to enter society. Yet later he begins to gain another understanding, his stick figure getting back up and climbing on top of the head of Moai to behold a new world below him. He starts to realise that to change the world you really do need to start with yourself and that in this he has resolutely failed. His petty act of revenge may in a sense be morally justifiable, exposing Moai for the questionable force it has become, but it’s also sordid and unpleasant intended solely to wound in order to avenge his sense of male pride. Only too late does he realise the consequences of his actions and what they say about the kind of person he is and wanted to be. Consumed by a sense of inadequacy, he is defeated by life, too afraid to become the person he should be lest the world reject him but his brief moment of fantasy of what could have been if only he’d been less cynical and cold is bathed in a kind of golden light he perhaps realises he could feel again if only he change himself in order to change the world in which he lives. A masterclass in male gaslighting, Kariyama’s duplicitous drama refuses to let its hero off the hook but reserves for him the right to start again, become the person he wants to be and lay down his arms in willing vulnerability in the hope that others may do the same. 


Blue, Painful, Fragile is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2019)

12 Suicidal Teens posterJapan has a relatively high suicide rate, but even so the number of people taking their own lives had been steadily decreasing, hitting a 22-year low in 2016. Conversely, youth suicide rates peaked, hitting a 30-year high. Inspired by Tow Ubukata’s novel, 12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Juni-nin no Shinitai Kodomo-tachi), as the title implies, sees a dozen high school students forming a kind of club in which they will take the decision to live or die as a group, ironically undercutting the sense of powerlessness which has led them to the conclusion that they have no other choice other than death.

Ringleader Satoshi (Mahiro Takasugi) has recruited 11 likeminded souls and furnished them with complicated instructions involving a series of secret codes granting them access to a basement meeting room in an abandoned hospital. The 12 dutifully make their way into the building, but a surprise is waiting for them. When the first guest arrives, a young man is already lying in one of the 12 beds arranged around the edges of the room, apparently having jumped the gun, dead or dying after taking a large amount of sleeping pills. Everyone concludes he must be the event’s organiser, only for Satoshi to suddenly arrive and attempt to “open” the meeting at which they’re supposed to discuss the issues thoroughly so they can be sure they’re making the right decision. Because of the unexpected 13th guest, a decision is taken to postpone the discussion until after they figure out what’s going on.

Part of the reason for that is less curiosity than a kind of resentment. The teens are worried that their own deaths maybe misunderstood or misused if they’re discovered with this randomer in their midst. What if he’s the victim of a serial killer and everyone thinks they are too, never getting the message that each of them was desperate to send with their deaths? One young man who is dying to get back at a neglectful mother by denying her a life insurance pay out is worried it might backfire and she’d end up quids in if the police decide he’s a murder victim and not a suicide. He decides to live (for the moment at least) almost all out of spite.

Spite is, it seems, a powerful motivator in one sense or another. What most of our teens want isn’t really death but freedom, an end to pain or suffering. Suicide rates spike in September because bullied students can’t bear the thought of returning to school. Bullying is indeed the reason one of our teens wants to die, only the instigator was a teacher who led his class to victimise an innocent student solely for the crime of being an “annoying” person. Another teen, meanwhile, was bullied until he finally snapped, pushing his aggressor down a flight of stairs. Unable to live with the guilt, he too feels he can’t go on.

For the girls, the lack of control is all the more obvious. One young woman walks around with a surgical mask covering her face, not because she’s hideously burned but because she’s fantastically beautiful. One of Japan’s many celebrity idols, she’s on the cover of a thousand teen magazines but doesn’t recognise herself in the images that she sees and resents the way in which her existence is micromanaged by others. She wants to die as a means of seizing her own agency, to prove that her life and her individuality were valid and mattered as distinct from the fake persona created by her managers. Her fame endangers the mission of the group’s most emo member who declares that the mass suicide should be bomb detonated under an indifferent society, that she’s dying to reject her existence and rebelling against having been born.

Like some of the others, she’s a survivor of abusive parenting and resents having been given a “meaningless” life. A few of the other teens feel the same but for different reasons, they are suffering longterm or terminal health conditions and resent both their fates and being forced to live on without hope. They choose death now to prove they have a choice and are leaving on their own terms, not those of the universe.

Eventually the conclusion that they come to is that to live is also a choice. Working together to solve the mystery of the unexpected guest, they begin to understand a little of each other’s lives and their own, bonding in a shared sense of futility that slowly drifts into a rejection of the nihilism that had convinced them that their only choice was death. A strangely uplifting experience, 12 Suicidal Teens is a dark celebration of life that makes a virtue of endurance and finally finds meaning in commonality and the simple joy of empathic connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ten Years Japan (十年 Ten Years Japan, Chie Hayakawa, Yusuke Kinoshita, Megumi Tsuno, Akiyo Fujimura, Kei Ishikawa, 2018)

Ten Years Japan posterBack in 2015, five aspiring Hong Kong filmmakers came together to present a collection of shorts speculating on the fate of their nation in 10 years’ time. Coinciding with if not directly inspired by the Umbrella Movement, Ten Years was a deliberately political project which tapped into the nation’s unique preoccupations almost 20 years on from the end of British rule and a little more than 30 before One Country, Two Systems expires. The film proved an unexpected box office hit and has gone on to become an unconventional franchise with a host of other Asian nations creating their own omnibus movies musing on what may or may not have occurred in a decade’s time.

Unlike the original Hong Kong edition, Japan’s vision (十年 Ten Years Japan) is decidedly less political, perhaps reflecting a greater level of stability. Nevertheless, taken as a whole there are a number of recurrent themes running through each of the segments from the ageing population to the increasing power of the state and the dark possibilities of technology.

In Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75, the first and darkest of the shorts, a conflicted salaryman (Satoru Kawaguchi) makes his living selling the titular “retirement” plans to those who have reached the age of 75 and decided enough is enough. Japan’s population is ageing faster than any other and caring for the elderly has placed a significant strain on the young. The old and infirm are therefore encouraged to think of themselves as burdensome, that they should do the decent thing and relieve the pressure on their loved ones by going gracefully at the right time. So far so Ballad of Narayama, but age isn’t quite the issue – the rich are excluded because they’re still spending their money and therefore economically useful. The government would rather roll out the invitations to the “unproductive”.

Ironically enough, a little girl who wants to be a vet in Yusuke Kinoshita’s Mischievous Alliance is advised to become a doctor instead and specialise in elder care which is in fact a growth industry. Unlike the elderly in Plan 75, the kids of Mischievous Alliance are not quite so willing to sit back and conform despite being fitted with invasive headsets connected to a monitoring program which “corrects” their bad behaviour whenever they try to break the rules. The hero rejects his oppressive schooling by self identifying with a stabled horse previously used for medical experimentation, longing to run free if only for a few moments.

If the “promise” system at the centre of Mischievous Alliance presented a vision of a future in which privacy and individual agency have all but disappeared, Data asks us if we have the right to reconstruct someone’s identity after they’ve gone by examining their digital footprint. A high school girl (Hana Sugisaki) tries to adjust to the idea of her widowed father’s (Tetsushi Tanaka) new girlfriend by opening up her mother’s “digital inheritance” but learns more than her mother might have wanted her to know. High school videos and pictures of old boyfriends jostle with beautiful flowers and private anxieties, but when it comes right down to it the organic memories are the only ones that count and the only things to make sense of the cluttered imagery in an uncurated personal museum of random digital moments.

Youth’s desire for knowledge and freedom is also at the heart of Akiyo Fujimura’s The Air We Can’t See which is the only one of the shorts to address nuclear anxiety in the post-Fukushima world. After some kind of event has made the surface uninhabitable, humanity has survived underground. A curious little girl, however, is fascinated by the idea of the outside. Longing to hear the birds and feel the rain, she imagines herself an exterior world but also comes to wonder if her home is a kind of prison born of fear and maybe it’s all alright up top if only you have the courage to look.

Meanwhile the apocalypse is still a little way off in Kei Ishikawa’s For Our Beautiful Country which hints obliquely at the growing threat of North Korea as missiles fly overhead with increasing frequency. The references, however, are older. A cynical ad man (Taiga) oversees a campaign promoting Japan’s remilitarisation but is later charged with letting the elderly, eccentric graphic designer (Hana Kino) know her poster is being “substituted” with something more “powerful”. After spending the day with her and coming to understand the subtle act of rebellion which has made her poster unusable for its propaganda purposes, the ad man gets a new a mission. It’s all up to the young now who have both an opportunity and a duty to ensure their country does not fall into the same kind of ugliness that sent young men off to die in the name of beauty.

Bookending the piece, Hayakawa and Ishikawa present the bleakest visions in which the descent into cruel authoritarianism may have already passed the point of no return. The children, however, seem to disagree and universally turn away from oppressive social codes, preferring to find their own truths and committed to exploring their own freedoms. Ten Years Japan may shed the overtly political overtones of its Hong Kong inspiration but finds brief rays of hope in the midst of despair in a child’s ability to break the programming and strive for a better, fairer world free of adult duplicity.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bleach (BLEACH ブリーチ, Shinsuke Sato, 2018)

BL_honpos_setTite Kubo’s Bleach (BLEACH ブリーチ) had the distinction of being one of three phenomenally popular long running manga series (alongside Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece and Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto) which dominated the industry from the early 2000s until its completion in August 2016. The series spans 74 collected volumes and was also adapted into a successful television anime which itself ran for several seasons and spawned a number of animated movies. It might seem like a no brainer to bring the series to the big screen with a live action adaptation but Bleach is no ordinary manga and the demands of recreating its fearsome world of cruel death gods and huge soul sucking monsters are a daunting prospect. Perfectly placed to tackle such a challenge, director Shinsuke Sato (I am a Hero, Inuyashiki) spent more than a year in post-production working on the CGI and has brought his characteristic finesse to the finely crafted world of Kubo’s Karakura.

Our hero, Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi), is a regular fifteen-year-old high school student, save for his fiery orange hair and the ability to see ghosts. He lives with his relentlessly cheerful father (Yosuke Eguchi) and two cute little sisters but is also nursing guilt and regret over the death of his mother (Masami Nagasawa) who died protecting him from a monster when he was just a child. Feeling disconnected from his family, Ichigo likes to put on a front of bravado – taking on petty punks to teach them a lesson though, in a motif which will be repeated, he only escapes an early encounter unharmed thanks to the intervention of his unusually strong friend, Chad (Yu Koyanagi). Ichigo’s life is changed forever when he finds a strange girl, Rukia (Hana Sugisaki), in his room where she despatches a lingering spirit back its rightful destination of Soul Society. That was not, however, her primary mission and a giant “Hollow” suddenly punches a fist through Ichigo’s living room and scoops up his littlest sister. Rukia does her best to defeat the beast but is seriously wounded. Sensing Ichigo’s high psychic ability, she breaks the rules of her own society and transfers her powers to him but later discovers she gave him too much and is unable to return to Soul Society unless Ichigo ups his Soul Reaper rep to the point he is strong enough to survive giving her powers back.

Loosely speaking Sato adapts the “Soul Reaper Agent” (which is eventually attached to the title during the credits sequence) arc, otherwise known as “Substitute Shinigami”, in which Ichigo gets used to his new life as a Soul Reaper. Condensing Kubo’s considerably lengthy manga to a mere 108 minutes is obviously a difficult exercise necessitating a slight refocussing of Ichigo’s essential character arc as well as that of the feisty Rukia. Sato’s streamlined narrative emphasises Ichigo’s ongoing psychodrama as an adolescent young man attempting to deal with the repressed trauma of his mother’s death and his own feelings of guilt and regret in having unwittingly dragged her into a dangerous situation from which he was unable to protect her. Being “the protector” remains a primary concern of the young Ichigo who withdraws from his family but is determined to protect them from harm. His odd friendship with the similarly conflicted Rukia whose upbringing in the austere surroundings of Soul Society has left her also feeling isolated and friendless (but believing these are both “good” things to be) paradoxically returns him to the real world just he’s turned into an all-powerful monster fighting hero.

Yet the important lesson Ichigo learns is through repeated failures. His mother died saving him, his first fight is ended by a friend, and he is finally redeemed once again by an act of selfless female sacrifice. What Ichigo is supposed to learn, is that he doesn’t always need to be the protector and that being protected is sometimes alright because what’s important is the mutuality of protection, emotional, spiritual, and physical. Meanwhile Rukia, having lost her powers, is perhaps sidelined, rendered both vulnerable and empowered as she becomes Ichigo’s mentor in all things Soul Reaper. This quality of restraint is also how she chooses to make use of her power – something beautifully brought out in Sugisaki’s wonderfully nuanced performance as Rukia’s icy Soul Reaper exterior begins to thaw thanks to her unexpected connection with Ichigo.

Rather than get bogged down in exposition, Sato is content to let the world simply exist with occasional explanations offered in the form of Rukia’s improbably cute rabbit drawings in a motif borrowed from the manga. Sato makes sure to include a number of background players including the strong armed Chad and the lovelorn Orihime (Erina Mano) as well the omniscient shop owner Urahara (Seiichi Tanabe) though their role is strictly to add background colour rather than actively participate in the plot. Despite occasional narrative fudging, Bleach succeeds as a high-octane action blockbuster, by turns slick, ironic, and affecting but always grounded in the real even in excess.


Bleach is currently available to stream worldwide via Netflix.

Original trailer (no 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)

Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Takashi Miike, 2017)

blade of the immortal posterGenerally speaking, revenge tends not to go very well in Japanese cinema. It has the tendency to backfire. When you’re immortal, however, perhaps revenge is risk worth taking – then again, it’s not your life your weighing. Takashi Miike is no stranger to the jidaigeki world, though in adapting Hiroaki Samura’s manga Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Mugen no Junin) he harks back to the angry, arty samurai films of the late 1960s from Gosha’s Sword of the Beast with which the manga features some minor narrative similarities, to Kobayashi’s melancholy consideration of corrupted honour, and the frantic intensity of Okamoto’s Sword of Doom.

The film opens in black and white as a disgraced samurai, Manji (Takuya Kimura), tries to protect his younger sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki), who has gone mad through grief only to see her murdered by a bounty hunter. Manji enters a state of furious, mindless killing which leaves the bounty hunter’s vast crowd of henchmen lying dead and Manji mortally wounded. Consumed by guilt and having lost the sister who was his sole reason for living, Manji longs for death but a mysterious old woman who calls herself Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto) has other ideas and curses Manji to a life of eternal suffering by means of sacred bloodworms which give him the power of infinite, near instant healing.

Fifty years later, the land is at peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate but peaceful times are dull for warriors. The Itto-ryu school of swordsmanship has a mission – to take over all of the nation’s martial arts facilities and restore power to the sword. They have no honour or ideology save that of kill or be killed and are content to use any and all weapons which come to hand. A young girl, Rin (Yoko Yamamoto), is a daughter of one of these schools and has her eyes set on becoming a top swordswoman herself but when the Itto-ryu show up at her door, Rin’s father’s training proves worthless as he’s cut down with one blow while the gang kidnap Rin’s mother. The Itto-ryu’s sole concession to morality is in letting Rin alone, seeing as it’s “vulgar” to toy with children.

Rin vows revenge on the Itto-ryu’s leader, Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), at which point she runs into Yaobikuni who recommends she track down Manji and hire him as a bodyguard. Fifty years of immortality have turned Manji into an isolated, embittered wastrel with rusty swordskills but Rin’s uncanny resemblance to Machi eventually begins to move his heart. Despite generating a master/pupil, big brother/little sister relationship, Manji fails to teach Rin very much of consequence that might assist her in her plan to avenge her family, leaving her a vulnerable young woman beset by enemies and random thugs, and eventually caught up in a government conspiracy. The irony of Manji’s life is that he’s just not very good at the art of protection and all of his attempts to do something good usually provoke an even bigger crisis, in this case leaving his new little sister open to exactly the same fate as the one he failed to save for much the same reasons. Apparently, Manji has learned little during his extended lifetime except how to brood and glare resentfully at the world.

It turns out being immortal is kind of a drag. Manji wants to die because he can’t cope with the burden of his guilt, but another similarly cursed man he meets has lived much longer and lost far more, becoming tired of the business of of living. Manji’s existence has lost all meaning, but as he puts it to another world weary warrior who shares his brotherly grief, he’s not the only hero of a sad story. Rin’s need for vengeance gives him a purpose again – not just in the literal revenge, but in being the protector (though one could argue this is less positive than it sounds and might explain why he fails to teach Rin anything very useful, even if it doesn’t explain why she also forgets all her father’s teachings).

Rin remains conflicted over her mission of revenge, confessing to a similarly conflicted assassin that she agrees killing is wrong but that right and wrong no longer matter when it comes to people you love. A dangerous and dubious assertion, but it does bear out the more positive message that love, or at least learning to live for others, can be a transformative force for good as Manji allows himself to resume his role as the big brother despite his past failings. Violent and visceral, if also humorous, Blade of the Immortal is, oddly enough, a story of love but also of cyclical paths of violence and revenge, and of the general muddiness of assigning the moral high ground to those engaged in a quest for retribution.


Blade of the Immortal was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2017 and will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Entertainment on 8th December.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Her Love Boils Bathwater (湯を沸かすほどの熱い愛, Ryota Nakano, 2016)

her love boils bathwater

The “hahamono” or mother movie has gone out fashion in recent years. Yoji Yamada’s World War II melodrama Kabei or Keisuke Yoshida’s more contemplative examination of modern motherhood My Little Sweet Pea might be the best recent examples of this classic genre which arguably reached its golden age in the immediate post-war period with its tales of self-sacrificing mothers willing to do whatever it took to ensure the survival or prosperity of their often cold or ungrateful children. After “Capturing Dad” Ryota Nakano turns his attention to mum, or more precisely the nature of motherhood itself in a drama about family if not quite a “family drama” as a recently single mother is busy contending with financial hardship and a sullen teenage daughter when she’s suddenly caught off guard by a stage four cancer diagnosis.

Futaba (Rie Miyazawa) is an outwardly cheerful woman, the sort who’s always putting a brave face on things and faces her challenges head on, proactively and without the fear of failure. Her husband, Kazuhiro (Joe Odagiri), ran off a year ago and no one’s heard from him since. Having closed the family bathhouse Futaba works part-time at a local bakery and cares for her daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki) alone but when she collapses at work one day Futaba is forced to confront all those tell signs that something’s wrong she’s been too busy to pay attention to. Inevitably it’s already too late. Futaba has stage four cancer and there’s nothing to be done but Futaba is Futaba and so she has things to do while there’s still time.

Some people colour the air around them, instantly knowing how to make the world a better place for others if not quite for themselves, except by extension. Futaba is one such person – the personification of idealised maternity whose instinctual, altruistic talent for love and kindness knows no bounds or boundaries. Yet at times her love can be a necessarily tough one as she negotiates the difficult process of trying to get her shy teenage daughter to stand up to the vicious group of bullies who’ve been making her school life a misery. Faced with an accelerated timeframe, Futaba needs to teach her little girl to be an independent woman a little ahead of schedule, knowing that she won’t be around to offer the kind of love and support she’ll be needing during those difficult years of adolescence.

Not wanting to leave her entirely alone, Futaba tracks down Kazuhiro only to find he’s now the sole carer for the nine-year old daughter of the woman he left her for who may or may not be his. Futaba decides to take the pair of them in but little Ayuko is just as sullen and distanced as her older half-sister as she struggles with ambivalent emotions towards the mother who abandoned her with a “father” she hardly knew. Futaba’s big idea is to reopen the family bathhouse to be run as a family where everyone has their place and personal responsibility, working together towards a common goal and supporting each other as they inevitably grow closer.

Unlike the majority of hahamono mothers, Futaba’s love is truly boundless as she tries not only to provide for her own children but for all the neglected, lonely, and abandoned people of the world. Bonding with the little girl of the private investigator she hires to find Kazuhiko, trying to comfort Ayuko as she deals with the fact that her mother is probably never coming back, even taking in a melancholy hitchhiker whose made up backstory she instantly sees through – Futaba is the kind of woman with the instant ability to figure out where it hurts and knows what to do to make it better even if it may be harder in the short-term.

Like the majority of hahamono, however, Her Love Boils Bathwater (湯を沸かすほどの熱い愛, Yu wo Wakasu Hodo no Atsui Ai) can’t escape its inevitable tragedy as someone who’s given so much of themselves is cruelly robbed of the chance to see her labours bear fruit. Nakano reins in the sentimentality as much as possible, but it’s impossible not to be moved by Miyazawa’s nuanced performance which never allows Futaba to slip into the trap of saintliness despite her inherent goodness. She is evenly matched by relative newcomer Sugisaki in the difficult role of the teenage daughter saddled with finding herself and losing her mother at the same time while Aoi Ito does much the same with an equally demanding role for a young actress moving from sullen silence to cheerful acceptance mixed with impending grief. Yet what lingers is the light someone like Futaba casts into the world, teaching others to be the best version of themselves and then helping them pass that on in an infinite cycle of interdependence. Hers is a love of all mankind as unconditional as any mother’s, sometimes tough but always forgiving.


Her Love Boils Bathwater was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (turn on captions for English subtitles)

A Stitch of Life (繕い裁つ人, Yukiko Mishima, 2015)

stitch-of-lifeTradition vs modernity is not so much of theme in Japanese cinema as an ever present trope. The characters at the centre of Yukiko Mishima’s adaptation of Aoi Ikebe’s manga, A Stitch of Life (繕い裁つ人, Tsukuroi Tatsu Hito), might as well be frozen in amber, so determined are they to continuing living in the same old way despite whatever personal need for change they may be feeling. The arrival of an unexpected visitor from what might as well be the future begins to loosen some of the perfectly executed stitches which have kept the heroine’s heart constrained all this time but this is less a romance than a gentle blossoming as love of craftsmanship comes to the fore and an artist begins to realise that moving forward does not necessarily entail a betrayal of the past.

Ichie Minami (Miki Nakatani) has taken over the tailoring business started by her grandmother, using her grandmother’s vintage treadle sewing machine and mostly occupying her time by making alterations on her grandmother’s existing patterns. To make ends meet, she’s also been reproducing some of her grandmother’s designs for sale at a local shop which brings her to the attention of department store employee and fashion enthusiast Fujii (Takahiro Miura) who has the idea of getting Ichie to work on some new items for a branded fashion line. Ichie, however, is devoted to her grandmother’s legacy and has committed herself to continuing the work her grandmother started with no deviation from the current model. Undeterred, Fujii continues to visit Ichie while she works, reaching even deeper levels of understanding both of her craft and of her person. Something inside Ichie begins to move too, but the pull back to the past is a strong one and it takes more than just courage to decide to finally embrace all of your hopes and dreams.

When Fujii hands the portfolio pitch he’s designed to his boss at the department store she loves the clothes and exclaims that the person who made them must be nice too, to which Fujii sheepishly admits that Ichie is more like a stubborn old man. Rigid in her habits and a little standoffish, perhaps even austere, Ichie does indeed seem harsh and unforgiving. Yet the irony is that her work requires the opposite of her. The clothes Ichie makes, and those her grandmother made before her, are perfectly tailored to the person in question, not just in terms of their measurements but designed to bring out each person’s personality, to help them become more of themselves and live a little happier in beautifully made outfits. Thus, Ichie must look closely at each person she meets in order to understand them fully and arrange her craft in perfect symbiosis with their individual needs. Perhaps for this reason Ichie finds her solitary time listening to the rhythmical beat of the sewing machine particularly relaxing, but the shop remains somewhere the local people gather in search of something more than just a simple hem repair.

Ichie’s grandmother sought to create clothes that could be worn for a lifetime, remaining long after both she and the person they were made for have disappeared. This approach may seem odd from a modern perspective of wash and wear disposable clothing intended to be replaced in a matter of months, but the idea here was never about the fashionable but one of engineering personal happiness through attire. The clothes make the man, in a sense, but the man also makes the clothes. As she made her alterations, Ichie’s grandmother recorded the various goings on in her customers’ lives in her notebook, allowing the clothes themselves to become the story of someone’s life. As Ichie’s former teacher puts it when trying to explain the art of making tea, it takes more than just heart – it takes experience, and care, and dedication. Ichie’s grandmother was meticulous – a trait which her granddaughter has inherited, with every stitch perfectly placed, each hem perfectly straight, and garment perfectly tailored for its intended wearer.

Ichie may keep herself contained for good reason, but now and then something else comes through such as a love of truly giant cheesecakes or a sudden bout of worry on being asked to craft a funeral dress for a good friend, but Fujii’s gentle prodding does indeed lead her towards a period of self reflection on what exactly it is she wants to do with her grandmother’s legacy. A cynical person might regard the annual “soirees” Ichie’s grandmother began in the small town as an excuse to get people to buy an outfit they’ll only wear once a year but the event, like the clothes, becomes an occasion for the artifice which lays bare the truth. Eventually, her grandmother’s gentle spell works on Ichie too (with a little help from Fujii) as the love of the craft of tailoring helps her to become herself, cast off her grandmother’s shadow whilst honouring her legacy, and learn to take pleasure in doing the things which only she can do.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Pieta in the Toilet (トイレのピエタ, Daishi Matsunaga, 2015)

pieta-in-the-toiletSomewhere near the beginning of Daishi Matsunaga’s debut feature, Pieta in the Toilet (トイレのピエタ, Toire no Pieta), the high rise window washing hero is attempting to school a nervous newbie by “reassuring” him that the worst thing that could happen up here is that you could die. This early attempt at black humour signals Hiroshi’s already aloof and standoffish nature but his fateful remark comes back to haunt him after he is diagnosed with an aggressive and debilitating condition of his own. Noticeably restrained in contrast with the often melodramatic approach of similarly themed mainstream pictures, Pieta in the Toilet is less a contemplation of death than of life, its purpose and its possibilities.

Having left his country home for Tokyo to become a painter, Hiroshi (Yojiro Noda) has become a bitter man, wilfully drowning in his own broken dreams. A chance encounter with an old flame, Satstuki (Saya Ichikawa), further deepens Hiroshi’s sense of inadequacy – she is about to open a solo exhibition in the very building which Hiroshi is currently engaged in washing the windows of. After having so sarcastically made fun of his new colleague’s fear of the rig, it’s Hiroshi who finds himself collapsing on the job and requiring medical treatment.

Seeing as the hospital have requested he bring a family member along with him for the results of the examination, it’s probably not good news. Not wanting to involve his parents, Hiroshi persuades Satsuki to masquerade as his younger sister only to restart an old argument in the waiting room prompting his former love to remember why they aren’t together anymore and hightail it out of there. Spotting a high school girl arguing with a salaryman she says has torn her uniform, Hiroshi decides to offer the job to her. Mai (Hana Sugisaki) plays her part to perfection but the news is even worse than he’d feared – aggressive stomach cancer requiring immediate hospitalisation and sustained chemotherapy if he is to have any chance at all of surviving more than a couple of months at most.

Prior to his illness, Hiroshi is a difficult man, permanently grumpy and irritated as if carrying a great sense of injustice. Despite several different voices reminding him that he had talent, Hiroshi has given up drawing in the belief that his artistic career was always doomed to failure. Intent on punishing himself for just not being good enough to succeed, Hiroshi’s decision to make window washing his career signals his lack of personal ambition, content to simply keep existing while a silent rage bubbles under the surface.

After the original failed reconnection with Satsuki who, we later discover, has moved in another direction using her society connections to advance her career in a way of which Hiroshi does not approve, Hiroshi’s illness brings him into contact with a number of people who each do their bit to reopen his heart. The most important of these is the feisty high school girl, Mai, who refuses to simply disappear from Hiroshi’s life after the awkward bonding experience of being present at the cancer diagnosis of a total stranger. As angry and defeated as Hiroshi, Mai’s difficult homelife has brought her untold suffering but unlike the brooding painter, hers in an externalised rage which sends her reeling into the world, looking for reaction and recognition rather than the introspective craving for disappointment and indifference which marks Hiroshi’s approach to his internalised sense of inadequacy.

Hiroshi’s hospital stay produces twin motivators from both ends of the spectrum in the form of an older man in the next bed, Yokota (Lily Franky), who enjoys taking photographs (especially of pretty girls), and a terminally ill little boy who remains cheerful, polite and friendly despite Hiroshi’s rather rude attempt to shake him off. It’s on a visit to the hospital chapel with the boy, Takuto (Riku Sawada), and his mother (Rie Miyazawa) that Hiroshi first comes across the statue of the pieta which inspires his ultimate, life affirming act which sees him turn the smallest room of the house into a new Sistine Chapel with a large scale installation recasting Mai as Mary, arms outstretched ready to receive her sorrowful burden.

Hiroshi’s life had been mere existence but reaching an acceptance of its end forces him into a process of more positive self reflection and a desire to leave something more permanent behind. Inspired by a few words found on the final page of the diary kept by the godfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka, himself battling stomach cancer at the time, Pieta in the Toilet puts art at the core of life as Hiroshi picks up his paint brush, Yokota his camera (albeit with slightly less than artful intentions), and Takuto his painstakingly collected colour-in heroes. Necessarily melancholy yet somehow life affirming Pieta in the Toilet offers a nuanced though no less powerful contemplation of life, death and art in which each gives meaning to the other, ensuring the richness of a life fully lived.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)