Napping Princess (ひるね姫 ~知らないワタシの物語, Kenji Kamiyama, 2017)

napping princess posterKenji Kamiyama has long been feted as one of Japan’s most promising animation directors, largely for his work with Production I.G. including the Ghost in the Shell TV anime spin-off, Stand Alone Complex, and conspiracy thriller Eden of the East. Aside from the elegantly shaded quality of his animation, Kamiyama’s work has generally been marked by thoughtful social and political commentary mixed with well executed action scenes and science fiction themes. Napping Princess (ひるね姫 〜知らないワタシの物語〜, Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi no Monogatari, also known by the slightly more intriguing title Ancien and the Magic Tablet) swaps science fiction for steampunk fantasy and, in a career first, is aimed at younger children and family audiences.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics fast approaching, Kokone (Mitsuki Takahata) is a regular high school girl about to enjoy her very last summer holiday before graduation. With no clear ideas of what it is she wants to do with her life, Kokone idly whiles away her time looking after her monosyllabic single dad, Momotaro (Yosuke Eguchi), who only seems to be able to communicate with her via text. Momotaro is a mechanic with a difference – he knows how to retrofit cars with a hi-tech, experimental self driving software that’s a real boon to the ageing population in the tiny rural town where the pair live.

A dreamy sort of girl, Kokone is always tired and frequently drifts off into a fantasy land where the car industry is all important and all are at the mercy of an iron fisted king whose sorceress daughter continues to cause problems for the population at large thanks to her strange powers. Whilst in her dream world, Kokone (or Ancien as she is known in “Heartland”) is accompanied by a her stuffed toy come to life and interacts with slightly younger versions of the people from her town including a dashingly heroic incarnation of her father as a young man.

The main action kicks off when Momotaro is arrested by an evil looking guy who wants a mysterious tablet he says Momotaro has stolen from their company. The fairytale inspired dreamworld might indicate a different kind of tablet, but this really is just a regular iPad with some information on it that certain people would very much like to get their hands on and other people would very much prefer that they didn’t. The tablet itself is a kind of macguffin which allows Kokone to process some long held questions about her past and that of her late mother who passed away when she was just an infant.

Kokone’s frequent flights of fancy start to merge with the real world, firstly when she shares a lucid dream with companion Morio (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) who helps her on her quest, and then later when magic seems to come to the pair’s aid through the tablet (though this turns out to have a more prosaic explanation). At 17 or so, you’d think perhaps Kokone is a little old for these kinds of fantasies, or at least for carting around a stuffed toy which is in remarkably good nick for something which apparently belonged to her mother when she was a child. Nevertheless, her dreamland is a long buried message which helps her piece together her mother’s story and how it might relate to her own all while she’s busy saving the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Olympics from becoming a possibly lethal international embarrassment which would destroy the Japanese car industry for evermore.

Despite his prowess with harder science fiction subjects, Kamiyama can’t quite corral all of this into a coherent whole. Valiantly trying to merge the twin stories of Kokone’s coming of age and the problems of the Japanese auto industry which is good at hardware but struggles with soft, Napping Princess narrowly misses its target neither quite charming enough in its fantasy universe or moving enough in the “real” one. This may perhaps rest on a single line intended to be a small revelation which melts the icy CEO’s heart but essentially comes down to the use of a kanji in a name being different from one on a sign, losing much of its impact in translation as it accidentally explains the whole of Kokone’s existence in one easy beat which easily missed. Failing to marry its two universes into one perfect whole, Napping Princess is a pleasant enough though perhaps inconsequential coming of age story in which a young girl discovers her own hidden powers whilst unlocking the secrets of her past.


Currently on limited UK release from Anime Limited.

Trailer featuring a (very nice) Japanese cover of Daydream Believer

 

Fighting Elegy (けんかえれじい, Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

Fighting Elegy PosterAh, youth. It explains so many things though, sadly, only long after it’s passed. For the young men who had the misfortune to come of age in the 1930s, their glory days are filled with bittersweet memories as their personal development occurred against a backdrop of increasing political division. Seijun Suzuki was not exactly apolitical in his filmmaking despite his reputation for “nonsense”, but in Fighting Elegy (けんかえれじい, Kenka Elegy) he turns a wry eye back to his contemporaries for a rueful exploration of militarism’s appeal to the angry young man. When emotion must be sublimated and desire repressed, all that youthful energy has to go somewhere and so the unresolved tensions of the young men of Japan brought about an unwelcome revolution in a misguided attempt at mastery over the self.

Kiroku (Hideki Takahashi) is an impulsive young man with a magnetic personality who, like many of his age, has found himself at a military training school designed to toughen up the boys of Japan for the glorious services they will later be expected to provide for the emperor. Very much into his training, Kiroku submits himself to the rigid codes of the school which prize virility and encourage competitive brawling between the boys. Despite the strict prohibition on soft stuff like getting it on with girls, Kiroku has developed a heavy crush on the daughter at his Catholic boarding house, Michiko (Junko Asano). Delighting in her piano playing, Kiroku cannot find a permissible way to express his desires and so records them in a very frank diary. Michiko, it seems, may return his feelings but times being what they are cannot say or do anything until he declares them and so things are left to simmer between the two with no useful place to go.

Despite belonging to a military school, Kiroku’s main outlet is in a kind of extracurricular club which is obsessed with being manly but also with rebelliousness and showing how individualist they can be through a series of challenges which often involve flagrantly breaking the rules of the school. Kiroku’s violent escapades eventually get him expelled and sent to a different institution a few towns over which explicitly prizes the “Aizu Spirit”. By now truly invidualist in his isolation, Kiroku is disappointed in the tenets of the “Aizu Spirit”. Calling all of his fellow students “wild monkeys”, Kiroku makes some odd comments on the nature of oppression and dominance by pointing out that the students all willingly submit to the teacher who demonstrates authentic authority, but refuse to respect the ones who simply don’t have it. This is, in a sense, the opposite of the philosophy which Kiroku has come to follow in which pleasure comes from rebelliousness and the natural tendency of the young to resist all forms of constraining power.

However, the most primal constraining force acting on Kiroku is sexual desire as a running joke finds him consistently bothered by unwanted erections which he then has to hide from his comrades to avoid embarrassment. Kiroku is quite passionately obsessed with Michiko to the point that he thinks of little else despite the total prohibition on female contact advanced by his military training. His diaries are full of notes about how he dreams of her delicate hands though he lies about refusing to masturbate in favour of pouring all of his virility into his violent pursuits. The situation is complicated by the presence of Christian religion which places a further taboo on the young people’s desires as they glance guiltily at the crosses on the walls each time impure thoughts arrive. Michiko is not much better off, though her own frustrations result in internalised rather externalised violence which looks set to rob her of her own happiness but lacks the all encompassing destructive element of Kiroku’s unresolved energy.

Suzuki’s message is clear, if somewhat blunt. If only these young men and women had been allowed to work out their frustrations in a more normalised way, the entire folly of warfare and imperialist expansion could have been avoided. The Christian context does add to the levels of guilt and repression, but it is one layer further than the average farm boy from rural Japan who suddenly found himself caught up in the fascist movement would have experienced. Events reach their natural conclusion at the end of the film as Kiroku reads a newspaper report of the declaration of martial law in Tokyo following the February 26th Incident in which a cabal of hotheaded young military officers launched a broadly leftwing yet authoritarian coup designed to delegitimise the government and restore power to the emperor in a return to paternalistic feudalism. His romantic dream shattered, Kiroku recognises a kindred spirit and finds a calling in the call to arms but his vocation is a false one in its negation of everything it is to be alive. The path of militarism leads only to death and destruction in its pointless and nihilistic quest to overcome rather than satisfy ordinary desires and the forces which divide Kiroku and Michiko are those same forces which bring such overriding misery to a society caught in its own difficult adolescence.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Motomu Ida, 1967)

three-minutes-before-explosionIf Nikkatsu Action movies had a ringtone it would probably just be “BANG!” but nevertheless you’ll have to wait more than three rings for the Kaboom! in the admittedly cartoonish slice of typically frivolous B-movie thrills that is 3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Bakuha 3-byo Mae). Once again based on a novel by Japan’s master of the hard boiled Haruhiko Oyabu, 3 Seconds Before Explosion is among his sillier works though lesser known director Motomu Ida never takes as much delight in making mischief as his studio mate Seijun Suzuki. What he does do is make use of Diamond Guy Akira Kobayashi’s boyish earnestness to keep things running along nicely even if he’s out of the picture for much of the action.

Like most of the more outlandish Nikkatsu action fests, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has a complicated relationship with narrative but we begin with former boxer Yabuki (Akira Kobayashi) in the middle of being brainwashed with flashing lights and high pitched noises until he agrees to become a shady government (?) assassin. Perhaps in an effort to save our sanities too, he relents and his first job is ensuring some jewels which were stolen during in the war don’t get into the hands of an evil nazi who will presumably be wanting them for evil nazi business. Anyway, Yabuki does his ninja stuff and thinks he’s tracked the jewels down but runs into a former colleague, Yamawaki (Hideki Takahashi), who is working for a businessman who already has the jewels and wants to keep them. Yamawaki quit being a super spy because he fell in love, which Yabuki thinks is a bit lame but still knows his friend has right stuff and would rather not have to kill him or anything.

Somewhere between the less serious yakuza/gang movies Nikkatsu were making in the late ’60s and a spy spoof, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has its fair share of oddness from strangled dogs to the mini Chinese theme in which one of the henchmen, Yang, wanders around in traditional Chinese garb while another girl at the club enjoys flirting in Mandarin for no apparent reason. It also goes without saying that the evil Nazi is played by an American spouting unconvincing German whilst chewing the scenery to a pulp. Realism is not where we are, but there’s something a little old fashioned about the way Ida chooses to stage his weirdness even if the film is filled with crazy contemporary youth touches such as in the achingly hip Club Casba.

The interpersonal drama comes as Yabuki and Yamawaki face off about their life choices much more than the case at hand. Yamawaki grew tired of the spy life and decided to leave it behind for his lady love, only to get mixed up in all of these petty gangster shenanigans. Still, if he can keep Yabuki away from the jewels until the time limit he’ll be free forever. Nothing is really said about Yabuki’s brainwashing at the beginning of the film, but Yamawaki’s choice does seem to prompt him into a consideration of his own lifestyle. That said, life as a government assassin doesn’t seem so bad – Yabuki doesn’t even really kill people much, just spends his life sneaking into places and leaping heroically between rooftops whilst making use of clever gadgets to evade his foes. The gangsters, however, are pretty evil and keep killing people after claiming to let them go which offends Yabuki’s sense of honour.

Yabuki may not kill, but the film does seem to make a point of killing off all the female characters in case they get in the way of the manly stuff like fighting and making bombs. An innocent kidnapped secretary who had nothing to do with anything is machine gunned down, another girl is murdered by the evil Nazi, and a final one gets marched into a mine field by her boyfriend before returning for revenge and getting unceremoniously taken down anyway. To lose one woman is careless but to kill off (all) three in a short time seems a step too far or perhaps too “realistic” for this otherwise cartoonish approach to violence.

Lacking the visual flair of other Nikkatsu efforts, 3 Seconds to Explosion is never as exciting as its title promises. Despite the athletic displays of the slightly bulkier Kobayashi, there’s a kind of clumsiness to the action and a straightforwardness in approach which does not gel with the ridiculousness of the premise. On lower end of Nikkatsu’s B-movie output, 3 Seconds to Explosion does not stint on the silliness but could do with enjoying itself a little more rather than trying to corral its non-sensical plot into something with serious intent.