Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

“What can we do? we must live our lives” comes a constant refrain echoing the closing words of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya offered by the self-sacrificing Sonya resolving to find joy in suffering if only in the promise of a better world to come. Freely adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s profoundly moving Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー) is study in grief, loss, and how you learn to live after the world has ended but also of how we pull each through, finding new ways to communicate when words alone can’t help us. 

Words are, however, where we begin with a woman half in shadow an accidental Scheherazade spinning a bizarre tale of a high school girl’s first love. Oto (Reika Kirishima) claims the story is not about her, but as we’ll later discover in some ways it is if perhaps not literally. A long-married couple, this is part of their marital routine, screenwriter Oto telling stories to her theatre director husband Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) she asks him to remember and repeat back to her in the morning. Only one day, having accidentally stumbled in on his wife and her lover only to leave quietly saying nothing, Yusuke claims not to remember. She tells him she wants to talk, but he is afraid of what she’ll say and delays coming home, finding her collapsed in the hallway on his return having passed away from a cerebral haemorrhage. The story remains incomplete, a perpetual cliffhanger never to be resolved. 

Two years later Yusuke is a haunted man still listening to the cassette tape Oto left for him of her reading all of the other lines of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya save for those of the title character which he was to play himself. This time he’s been selected as an artist in residence at at a theatre in Hiroshima where he’ll once again stage Vanya in his signature multilingual performance style. He’s specifically asked for accommodation an hour’s drive away with the intention of maintaining his usual routine of listening to the tape on his way to rehearsal but, following previous incidents, the theatre has a policy of hiring their own drivers in this case a young woman, Misaki (Toko Miura), who eventually wins him over through her capability and care while, ironically, mimicking the very qualities he demands of his actors in her wounded stoicism. 

The car in a sense represents an inviolable space of intimacy, a space that Yusuke had been reluctant to allow anyone to enter, even Oto remarking on his discomfort with her in the driver’s seat as she took him to a doctor’s appointment where he learned he was losing the sight in his left eye, clarifying with the doctor that for the time being at least he’d be OK to drive himself. Misaki assumes he doesn’t want her to drive his car because she’s a young woman, but thereafter is careful to maintain distance respecting his space for her sake as much as his own mindful of her role as a “driver” until he begins to invite her in if originally more out of politeness or consideration than a desire for company. 

Misaki has her own story, a story she too is originally reluctant to share but in its way echoes his as someone trapped in grief and guilt ironically unable to move forward but driven by the quality of Oto’s voice and the ritualistic call and response implied by its lacunas. Too afraid of its implications to take the role himself, Yusuke casts Oto’s lover, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) a young TV actor with impulse control issues whose career has apparently been ruined by scandal, as Vanya a man approaching 50 whose illusions are painfully shattered, forcing him to realise that he’s wasted his life on a futile ideal. The three of them, each eventually entering the confessional space of the car, share more than they might assume but it’s Takatsuki who holds the key revealing another piece of the puzzle with unexpected profundity that in its own way lays bare a truth Yusuke had been unwilling to see about his relationship with his wife, the shared grief that both bound and divided them, and the poetic import of her death. 

Rather than Vanya, the film’s prologue saw Yusuke perform in a multilingual production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the author’s well-known phrase “I must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” perhaps equally apt even as Yusuke moves slowly away from the role of Vanya before finally assuming that of Sonya in echoing her words while comforting the filial figure of Misaki even as she explains to him that as in Vanya the fault was not in his convictions but in himself that he couldn’t accept the contradictions of his wife and in that sense had not understood her or himself well enough to know he should have braved the hurt of confrontation. Yet as Takatsuki had said, you can’t ever really know another person, there’s always a part of them forever out of reach all you can do is try to make peace with your own darkness. 

For Yusuke communication occurs indirectly, through allegory or half-truth, and through the unspoken or unintelligible. His multilingual approach in which lines are read coldly at half-speed is intended to draw out the feeling that lies beneath them, the final most profound moment delivered in silence as a former dancer breaking free of her bodily inertia delivers Sonia’s closing monologue with all of its melancholy serenity in Korean sign language her arms draped angelically over Vanya’s shoulders in a gesture of the utmost comfort. Touching in its ambiguities, Hamaguchi’s quietly devastating emotional drama for all of its eerie uncanniness finally places its faith in simple human empathy as its haunted souls learn to live with loss finding in each other the strength to go on living.


Drive My Car screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Caution, Hazardous Wife: The Movie (奥様は、取り扱い注意, Toya Sato, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Perhaps in some ways out of step with the times, the 2017 Nippon TV drama Caution, Hazardous Wife (奥様は、取り扱い注意, Okusama wa, Toriatsukai Chui), like the earlier Secret Agent Erika, saw top assassin Nami (Haruka Ayase) fake her own death in order to live a “normal” life as an “ordinary housewife” married to “boring salaryman” Yuki (Hidetoshi Nishijima). Nami could not however resist using her skills for good and bravely took on a local yakuza gang who’d been running a suburban prostitution ring through employing handsome gigolos to seduce emotionally neglected housewives and thereafter blackmailing them into sex work. The series ended on a cliffhanger in which, spoiler alert, Nami was confronted by her husband who turned out to be a Public Security Bureau officer originally tasked with monitoring her before genuinely falling in love.

This brief background recap is useful but not strictly necessary in approaching the series’ big screen incarnation, Caution, Hazardous Wife: The Movie, which ironically assumes the audience knows Nami’s secret backstory but also obfuscates it in picking up 18 months after the cliffhanger to find her now living as “Kumi” in a tranquil seaside town having apparently lost her memory. The town will not remain tranquil for long, however, as a mayoral race is about to bring tensions to the fore in the polarising issue of a prospective methane hydrate plant the authorities insist is necessary to revive the area’s moribund economy while others worry about industrial pollution and its effects on the local sea life. Unsurprisingly, the events will turn out to have a connection to Nami’s past while she struggles to regain her lost memories and preserve the peaceful, ordinary life with her husband which is all she’s ever really wanted. 

Though some might find it somewhat conservative that what Nami wants is to become a conventional housewife, what she’s looking for is the stability of the “normal” life she’s never known. As such, she may not actually want to regain her memories, preferring to go on living as Kumi who has perfected the housewife skills which so eluded Nami including becoming a top cook, for as long as possible. Yuki, meanwhile, now living as high school teacher Yuji, feels something similar having been ordered to “deal with” his wife if she remembers who she is but refuses to become a PSB asset. 

Upping production values from the TV drama, Sato keeps Nami in the dark for as long as possible though her sense of social responsibility remains just as strong as she bravely intervenes when coming across a gang of teens taunting a boy with homophobic slurs for having a pink coin curse, later becoming concerned on witnessing the leader of the opposition to the plant being attacked by thugs in an attempt to intimidate him out of his decision to stand as a rival candidate to the incumbent mayor. Nevertheless, he allows space for plenty of dramatic action scenes including flashbacks to Nami’s career as an international assassin while the final set piece also throws in some bickering marital comedy before turning unexpectedly dark.  

Regaining her memories, Nami’s inner conflict is in her complicated relationship with Yuki wondering if he ever really loved the “real” her or if he perhaps preferred Kumi the docile Stepford wife, which is ironically the cover identity she’d longed to construct. Conflicted and suspecting his wife may have remembered who she really is, Yuki tells her to forget about the past but also that his feelings won’t change and she should be free to be herself but as Nami later realises the past won’t let her go and the peaceful life she’d dreamed of might be harder to preserve than she’d previously thought even as she commits herself to embracing the life she has now because her relationship with Yuki is the most important thing to her despite her lingering doubt. 

Touching on a few hot button issues from industrial pollution and environmental concerns to economic decline and rural depopulation, Sato nevertheless returns to the outlandish absurdity of the TV drama as Nami finds herself facing off against Russian gangsters while exposing a plot by shady conglomerates to exploit a small-town desire for better access to jobs and infrastructure, along with judicial corruption and electoral interference. Nevertheless, the hometown spirit eventually wins out even if Nami finds herself on the run once again though having gained a little more emotional clarity. 


Caution, Hazardous Wife: The Movie streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. The original TV series is also available to stream with English subtitles (along with those in several other languages) in many territories via Viki.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Voices in the Wind (風の電話, Nobuhiro Suwa, 2020)

Shortly before the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck the coast of Japan in March 2011, a resident of Otsuchi constructed the “wind telephone” as a way of “communicating” with a relative who had recently passed away. As his words would obviously not reach him in the usual way, he hoped they might be carried on the wind though like a letter never intended to be sent, the sentiment is perhaps more important than the delivery. In the years since the disaster, over 30,000 people have picked up the receiver, hoping to reconnect in some way with those they’ve lost. Widely reported in the international media, the story of the Wind Telephone brought director Nobuhiro Suwa back to Japan for the first time in 18 years after a career mostly spent in Europe as a young woman attempts to come to terms with the past in order to find the strength to continue living in the wake of such devastating grief. 

Nine years old when the tsunami struck, 17-year-old Haru (Serena Motola) lost everything in a single moment. Her family home was destroyed, her parents and younger brother swept out to sea their bodies never found. Since then she’s been living in Kure, Hiroshima, with her aunt Hiroko (Makiko Watanabe) who suggests making a visit to Otsuchi to attend an event celebrating the town’s rejuvenation but Haru is understandably reluctant. When Hiroko is taken ill suddenly, however, she finds herself making the trip alone, reeling in her sense of abandonment and in search of some kind of answer to her sorrow. 

Throughout the course of her journey she encounters many other griefstricken souls, not all of them in a direct sense at least affected by the earthquake but carrying a heavy burden all the same. A concerned old man who spots Haru lying vacantly in a quarry and takes her home reveals that he did so in part because she had an absent look that reminded him of his sister who took her own life over a decade previously. “Stay alive” he pleads with her as he drops her off at the local station after a good meal and an oddly cathartic conversation with his elderly mother who spoke of her memories of the atom bomb and a relative who went to the city in search of his wife’s family but returned only with a funeral urn which, to her consternation, contained no bones only a button from a student’s jacket. 70 years later she still feels ashamed for her six-year-old curiosity to know what human bones looked like. 

This sense of what remains and what is swept away becomes central to Haru’s ongoing journey. It isn’t just the people who are gone, but the spaces they inhabited and memories contained within them. An elderly gentleman (Toshiyuki Nishida) finds himself reduced to tears while watching an old comedy he must have seen countless times before, overcome with grief on seeing the paddies and fields as they once were while a local folk tune plays in the background. The man who travels with Haru for much of the trip, Morio (Hidetoshi Nishijima), declares himself homeless but does in fact have a home only one he can’t bear to visit, while Haru’s no longer exists at all, reduced to foundations still partially submerged yet overgrown as nature begins to reclaim its territory. 

Meanwhile, she discovers other kinds of grief and displacement in meeting the family of a Kurdish refugee who went to Fukushima to help after the earthquake but is now indefinitely detained by immigration officials while they decide on his case. The man’s daughter, perhaps slightly younger than Haru, explains to her that she’s acted as an interpreter in hospitals for other Kurdish women who are often isolated and speak little Japanese. She’s decided that she’d like to become a nurse to go on helping people, but Haru can find little of her positive forward motion, stuck as she is in the past with no real concept of the future.

But then, there are also signs of life. The first people who pick Haru up hitchhiking are a cheerful heavily pregnant woman and her more serious brother. The woman confesses that she’s having the baby on her own, and that many did not approve of her decision thinking her too old at 43 to become a mother. “Isn’t it amazing how we can just make another person?” she exclaims, “It’s like there’s a whole little universe inside you”. In the midst of all this grief, there is life too, not to mention warmth and kindness such as that found in each of those who help Haru on her way until she finally reaches the telephone. 

Using mostly improvised dialogue, Suwa’s European arthouse aesthetic has an elegiac quality as Haru edges her way towards an accommodation with her grief, resolving to live on even in the wake of tragedy. “Because I’m alive I remember all of you” she adds, acknowledging her place with the grand sweep of history. “It’s OK”, Morio tells her, “you’ll be OK” speaking for himself as much as anyone else, looking towards a possible future if in memory of the irretrievable past.


Voices in the Wind (風の電話, Kaze no Denwa) is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps (人魚の眠る家, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2018)

In most countries, the legal and medical definitions of death centre on activity in the brain. In Japan, however, death is only said to have occurred once the heart stops beating. The bereaved parents at the centre of The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps (人魚の眠る家, Ningyo no Nemuru Ie), adapted from the novel by Keigo Higashino, are presented with the most terrible of choices. They must accept that their daughter, Mizuho, will not recover, but are asked to decide whether she is declared brain dead now so that her organs can be used for transplantation, or wait for her heart to stop beating in a few months’ time at most. As their daughter was only six years old, they’d never discussed anything like this with her but come to the conclusion that she’d want to help other children if she could. Only when they come to say goodbye, Mizuho grasps her mother’s hand giving her possibly false hope that the doctor’s assurances that she is brain dead and will never wake up are mistaken. 

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Harimas were in the middle of a messy divorce when they got the news that Mizuho had been involved in an accident at a swimming pool. Kazumasa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), Mizuho’s father, is the CEO of a tech firm specialising in cutting edge medical technology mostly geared towards making the lives of people with disabilities easier. He does therefore have a special interest in his daughter’s condition and is willing to explore scientific solutions where most might simply accept the doctor’s first opinion. His wife, Kaoruko, meanwhile has a deep-seated faith that her daughter is still present if asleep and will one day wake up. 

It so happens that one of Kazuma’s researchers (Kentaro Sakaguchi) specialises in a new kind of technology which hopes to restore motor function through artificial nerve signals controlled by computers and electromagnetic pulses. He hatches on the idea of using the technology to improve his daughter’s quality of life by letting her “exercise” to maintain muscle strength, but despite the excellent results it achieves in terms of her health, it takes them to a dark place. Muscle training might be one thing, but having Mizuho make meaningful gestures is another. They don’t mean to, but they’re manipulating her body as if she were a puppet, even forcing her to smile without her consent. 

Kazumasa starts to wonder if he’s gone too far. Seeing his daughter’s face move with no emotion behind it only proves to him that she is no longer alive. Meanwhile, he comes across another parent raising money to send his daughter to America for a life saving heart transplant and begins to feel guilty that perhaps his decision was selfish. The father of the other girl sympathises with him and confides that they can’t bring themselves to pray for a donor because they know it’s the same as praying for another child’s death, but Kazumasa can’t help feeling he’s partly responsible because he made the choice to artificially prolong his daughter’s life but now realises that she is little more than a living a doll. 

This is something brought home to him by Kaoruko’s increasing desire to show their daughter off. Her decision to take her to their son Ikuo’s elementary school entrance ceremony instantly causes trouble with the other parents who feign politeness but are obviously uncomfortable while the children waste no time in ostracising Ikuo because of his “creepy” sister. Kazumasa privately wonders if Kaoruko’s devotion has turned dark, if she’s somehow begun to enjoy this new closeness with her daughter to the exclusion of all else and has lost the power of rational thought. He can’t know however that perhaps she’s coming to the same conclusion as him, but it finding it much harder to accept that they might have made a mistake and all their interventions are only causing Mizuho additional suffering.

What’s best for Mizuho, however, is something that sometimes gets forgotten in the ongoing debate about the moral choices of her parents and relatives. Kazumasa’s colleagues accuse of him of misappropriation in monopolising a key researcher, hinting again at the “selfishness” of his decision to expend so much energy on treating someone whom many believe to be without hope when there are many more in need. The researcher in turn accuses Kazumasa of “jealousy” believing that he has displaced him as an “artificial” father working closely with Kaoruko in caring for their daughter. The “life” in the balance is not so much Mizuho’s but that of the traditional family which is perhaps in a sense reborn in rediscovering the blinding love that they shared for each other which will of course never fade. What they learn is to love unselfishly, that love is sometimes letting go, but also that even in endings there is a kind of continuity in the shared gift of life and the goodness left behind even after the most unbearable of losses.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Last Recipe (ラストレシピ〜麒麟の舌の記憶〜, Yojiro Takita, 2017)

Last Recipe Poster 2Is it really possible to be “successful” and a terrible person? Some might say it’s impossible to become successful and stay nice, but in Japanese cinema at least success is a communal effort. Prideful selfishness is indeed the reason for the downfall of the hero of Yoijro Takita’s historically minded cooking drama The Last Recipe (ラストレシピ〜麒麟の舌の記憶〜, Last Recipe: Kirin no Shita no Kioku). Adapted from a novel by the director of the Iron Chef TV show, The Last Recipe offers a somewhat revisionist portrait of Japan in the 1930s but, perhaps ironically, does indeed prove that no one gets by on their own and all artistic endeavours will necessarily fail when they come from a place of self absorbed obsession with craft.

In 2002, failed chef Mitsuru (Kazunari Ninomiya) is eking out a living by cooking “last meals” for elderly people desperate to crawl inside a happy memory as they prepare to meet their ends. Mitsuru’s special talent is that he has a “Qilin” tongue which means that he can remember each and every dish he has ever tasted and recreate it perfectly – for which he charges a heavy fee in order to pay off the vast debts he accrued when his restaurant went bust. When a mysterious client in Beijing offers him an improbably lucrative job, Mitsuru jumps at the task but it turns out to be much more complicated than he could have imagined. His client, Yang (Yoshi Oida), wants him to recreate the mysterious “Great Japanese Imperial Feast” as designed for an imperial visit to the Japanese puppet state of Machuria in the late 1930s.

Somewhat controversially (at least out of context), Yang sadly intones that the years of Japanese occupation were the happiest of his life. Through the events of the film, we can come to understand how that might be true, but it’s a bold claim to start out with and The Last Receipe’s vision of the Manchurian project is indeed a generally rosy one even if the darkness eventually creeps in by the end. A perfect mirror for Mitsuru, the chef that he must imitate is a Japanese genius cook dispatched to Manchuria on a secret culinary mission which turns out to be entirely different to the goal he assumed he was working towards. Nevertheless, though not exactly an outright militarist, Yamagata’s (Hidetoshi Nishijima) view of the Manchurian experiment echoes that which the state was eager to sell in that he hopes to create a legendary menu that will unite the disparate cultures of the burgeoning Japanese empire under a common culinary banner, building bridges through fusion food.

Yang, his Chinese assistant, is the only dissenting voice as he points out that Japan is often keen to sell the one nation philosophy but reserves its own place at the top of the tree with everyone else always underneath. In any case, Yang, Yamagata, and his assistant Kamata (Daigo Nishihata) eventually bond through their shared love of cooking but the problems which plague Yamagata are the same ones which caused Mitsuru’s restaurant to fail – he was too rigid and self-obsessed, a perfectionist unwilling to delegate who alienated those around him and wasted perfectly good food for nothing more than minor imperfections. Yamagata’s kindly wife (Aoi Miyazaki) is quick to point out his faults, but it takes real tragedy before he is able to see that the reason his dishes don’t hit home is that he was not prepared to embrace the same communal spirit he envisioned for his food during its creation.

Mitsuru, however, is much slower to learn the same thing, decrying Yamagata as a loser who sold out and allowed his emotional suffering to turn to turn him soft, assuming this is the reason that his recipe was never completed. As expected, Mitsuru’s mission mirrors Yamagata’s in being not quite what he assumed it to be, eventually learning a few truths about himself as he gets to know the historical chef through the eyes of those who remember him. Eventually Mitsuru too comes to understand that the only thing which gives his craft meaning is sharing it and that he’s never really been as alone he might have felt himself to be. Though its vision of the Manchurian project is somewhat idealised as seen through the naive eyes of Yamagata, The Last Recipe nevertheless presents a heartwarming tale of legacy and connection in which cooking and caring for others, sharing one’s food and one’s table with anyone and everyone, becomes the ultimate path towards a happy and harmonious society.


Original trailer (English/Chinese subtitles)

Penguin Highway (ペンギン・ハイウェイ, Hiroyasu Ishida, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

Penguin Highway posterRandom penguins might be the very opposite of a problem, but what exactly does it all mean? Tomihiko Morimi has provided the source material for some of the most interesting Japanese animation of recent times from Masaaki Yuasa’s wonderfully surreal Tatami Galaxy and Night is Short, Walk on Girl, to the comparatively calmer Eccentric Family. Hiroyasu Ishida’s adaptation of Morimi’s Penguin Highway (ペンギン・ハイウェイ) may be a far less abstract attempt to capture the author’s unique world view than Yuasa’s anarchic psychedelia, but preserves the author’s sense of every day strangeness as an ordinary primary school boy’s peaceful life is suddenly derailed by the appearance of random penguins in a small town way in land in the middle of a hot and humid Japanese summer.

Aoyama (Kana Kita) is, as he tells us, “very smart”. He thinks its OK to tell us this because unlike some of his classmates he isn’t conceited, which is what makes him so great. He’s absolutely positive that he’s going to become an important person in the future and can’t wait to find out just how amazing he’s going to be once he’s grown up. Aoyama is also sure that crowds of girls will be lining up to marry him, but they’re all out of luck because he already has a special someone in mind – the friendly young receptionist from the dentist’s (Yu Aoi) who has been coaching him at chess and just generally hanging out with him chatting about life.

Everything begins to change one day when random penguins start appearing all over town. Penguins are, after all, cold climate creatures and this is a glorious summer in Southern Japan so even if these are rogue penguins who’ve managed to escape from a zoo, it’s anyone’s guess how they’ve managed to survive. Being the scientifically minded young man he is, Aoyama becomes determined to solve the penguin mystery, especially as it seems to have something to do with the young lady from the dentist’s who he can’t seem to get out of his mind.

Aoyama is, despite his opening gambit, a fairly conceited young man who thinks himself much cleverer than those around him – not only his schoolmates but the adults too (possibly with the exception of the lady from the dentist’s who is after all teaching him how to be better at chess). With an intense superiority complex, Aoyama has few friends (not that that bothers him, particularly) and is often bullied by the class bruiser, Suzuki (Miki Fukui), and his minions, all of which he takes in his stride. He is, however, slightly thrown by the presence of an extremely bright girl in his class, Hamamoto (Megumi Han), who regularly beats him at chess and is interested in black holes among other areas of scientific endeavour Aoyama had earmarked as his own.

Despite suspecting that Hamamoto might be “even more amazing” than he is, Aoyama is not resentful or jealous but remains seemingly oblivious to her attempts to make friends with him. Aoyama, as an intensely “rational” person, is also sometimes insensitive and remains entirely unable to pick up on social cues unlike his more perceptive friend/assitant, Uchida (Rie Kugimiya), who is well aware of the reason Suzuki keeps picking on Hamamoto, but is unable to convey his instinctual understanding of human nature to the logical Aoyama. Armed with this new fragment of information from Uchida, Aoyama uses it in a predictably “rational” fashion by suddenly bringing it up in front of both Hamamoto and Suzuki in “advising” him that liking someone isn’t “embarrassing” and Suzuki should just say what he means rather than making passive aggressive attempts to get attention by being unpleasant. All of which is, ironically enough, quite awkward.

Through carrying out his investigation into the penguin phenomenon, Aoyama is forced to confront his less rational side, eventually affirming that he’ll live his life based on a “personal belief” rather than a scientific principle. Getting a glimpse of the edge of the world and coming to accept that not matter how much fun you’re having there will always come an end, Aoyama decides to live his life in haste anyway running fast towards an inevitable conclusion in the hope of a longed for reconciliation. Sadly, his discoveries don’t seem to have made him any less conceited but he is at least good hearted and eager to help even if he remains determined to walk his “Penguin Highway” all alone while concentrating on becoming a better person. Beautifully animated and tempering its inherent surrealism with gentle whimsy, Penguin Highway is a promising start for Studio Colorido, mixing Ghibli-esque charm with Morimi’s trademark surrealism for a moving coming of age tale in which a rigid young man learns to find the sweet spot between faith and rationality and pledges to live his life in earnest in expectation of its end.


Penguin Highway was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mozu the Movie (劇場版MOZU, Eiichiro Hasumi, 2015)

mozu-posterThe criticism levelled most often against Japanese cinema is its readiness to send established franchises to the big screen. Manga adaptations make up a significant proportion of mainstream films, but most adaptations are constructed from scratch for maximum accessibility to a general audience – sometimes to the irritation of the franchise’s fans. When it comes to the cinematic instalments of popular TV shows the question is more difficult but most attempt to make some concession to those who are not familiar with the already established universe. Mozu (劇場版MOZU) does not do this. It makes no attempt to recap or explain itself, it simply continues from the end of the second series of the TV drama in which the “Mozu” or shrike of the title was resolved leaving the shady spectre of “Daruma” hanging for the inevitable conclusion.

Six months on from the climatic events at the end of season two, Kuraki (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has become a drunk, Ohsugi (Teruyuki Kagawa) has left the force for the private sector, while Akeboshi (Yoko Maki) is still preoccupied with the strange phone calls she sometimes receives and the fate of her long lost father last seen on the deck of a sinking submarine. The dreams of the citizens of Tokyo are being haunted by the mysterious face of “Daruma”, but this is quickly superseded by an explosion in an office building which turns out to be a diversionary exercise as the autistic daughter of a refugee with diplomatic immunity is kidnapped by terrorists.

At this point, Kuraki appears at the scene, beats the bad guys into submission and rescues the girl, Elena, and her mother who are then taken into protective custody. However, things go south when Ohsugi’s daughter and Akeboshi are taken by the bad guys in the hope of an exchange forcing the gang to take Elena to a neighbouring Asian nation.

Mozu the movie suffers from many of the same problems which plagued the generally impressive TV series in its wildly inconsistent tone and increasingly convoluted, often bizarre plot twists. Assuming the audience will be familiar with the TV series, the film provides no recap, leaving the casual viewer completely lost amongst the numerous numbers of subplots held together by Kuraki’s need to find the answers behind the death of his wife at the site of a suicide bombing and the drowning of his daughter a year or so before. Likewise, Akeboshi’s familial concerns – her absentee father whose dark past was hinted at in the previous series and her close relationship with her two neices, is glossed over, as is Ohsugi’s ongoing battle to win back the respect of his teenage daughter. When a key character suddenly and quite unexpectedly appears to save the day (and then disappears again), the casual viewer has a right to be utterly baffled.

Where the central tone is one of cool noir supported by occasionally poetic camera work, Nishijima’s laid back minimalism gives way to broad, over the top villainy from Hasegawa’s Higashi as well as the punkish Mozu copycat who kickstarts the action. Kuraki remains an unbeatable super agent, taking out bad guys with well placed kicks to the chest and enduring numerous acts of torture whilst remaining doggedly fixed on his quest to find out the truth about his wife and a possible conspiracy plaguing Japanese society. Ohsugi is still the bumbling cop but equally committed to protecting his daughter while Akeboshi is underused, her slow burn romance with Kuraki simmering away in the background.

What remains is a collection of impressive action scenes and mysterious conversations offered with portentous seriousness. The purpose of Elena’s kidnapping is predictably grim yet reduced to a single sentence shortly before Kuraki apparently saves the day once again through undisclosed means. The central conspiracy in this conspiracy thriller, that Japan has been manipulated by a shadowy figure literally cannibalising his own children, fades into the background as Kuraki is left to affirm that all that remains now is chaos. Mozu the movie is season three with all the important bit stripped out – strange, confusing, and ultimately hollow. Yet for those well versed in the Mozu universe, it may provide a degree of closure to its ongoing mysteries, even if ultimately unsatisfying.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Love/Juice (Kaze Shindo, 2000)

vlcsnap-2017-07-08-23h24m47s422Some situations are destined to end in tears. Kaze Shindo’s Love Juice adopts the popular theme of unrequited love but complicates it with the peculiar circumstances of Tokyo at the turn of the century which requires two young women to be not just housemates but bedmates and workmates too. One is straight, one is gay and in love with her friend who seems to get off on manipulating her emotions and is overly dependent on her more responsible approach to life, but both are trapped in a low rent world of grungy nightclubs and sleazy hostess bars.

Chinatsu (Mika Okuno) and Kyoko (Chika Fujimura) are roommates sharing not just a house but a bed and almost everything else too. Best friends, their relationship is necessarily close and broadly supportive save for a persistent level of tension when it comes to romance. Chinatsu, openly gay, is in love with Kyoko who isn’t interested but somehow keeps stringing her along and makes a point of flirting with every guy she meets. The back and fore continues until the girls are forced to take degrading work as bunny suited hostesses and Kyoko becomes obsessed with the boy working in the local tropical fish shop (Hidetoshi Nishijima).

Though living openly as a gay woman, Chinatsu is far from happy with her life as her constant complaints of “why was I born a girl” bear out. Attending clubs with her live-in non-lover, Chinatsu picks up dates but it never gets anywhere. Her heart belongs to Kyoko and so she tortures herself by continuing to pine after her emotionally manipulative roommate before adopting an unpleasant forcefulness as she tries to persuade her friend to acquiesce. Snapping away at her with her camera (which she refuses to be turned on herself), Chinatsu becomes jealous and possessive, irritated by Kyoko’s various suitors and wishing she and Kyoko could remain cooped up alone together like the two goldfish sitting in their makeshift bowl.

Where Chinatsu is down to earth and restrained, Kyoko is a lively free spirit adrift for reasons of aimlessness rather than the anxious wandering her friend. Living on the fringes of mainstream society, the women are forced into their inconvenient living arrangements thanks to ongoing poverty. This same poverty eventually forces them both into taking a humiliating job as waitresses at a bunny girl themed hostess bar. Much to Chinatsu’s consternation, Kyoko revels in the constant male attention, flirting awkwardly with the owner who seems to prefer her friend. Uncomfortable with the job and more particularly with the uniform, Chinatsu experiences yet more degrading treatment when she’s brutally assaulted by a colleague after work and can’t even turn to her friend and roommate for help and comfort.

Eventually matters come to a head, the situation can’t endure, suicide is considered, choices are made, sadness and regret litter the scene. Shindo creates a claustrophobic world for two into which the outside occasionally pokes its unwelcome nose. The whimsical score lends a quirky, romantic air to the less destructive side of the two women’s relationship even as it progresses further and further towards its inevitable conclusion. Painting an authentic picture of Tokyo as seen by the disillusioned and desperate turn of the century youth, Shindo’s tale of ordinary heartbreak in unusually difficult circumstances is a nuanced look at a toxic (non)relationship in all of its destructive glory.


 

La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ, Isshin Inudo, 2005)

la-maison-de-himikoIn Japan’s rapidly ageing society, there are many older people who find themselves left alone without the safety net traditionally provided by the extended family. This problem is compounded for those who’ve lived their lives outside of the mainstream which is so deeply rooted in the “traditional” familial system. La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ) is the name of an old people’s home with a difference – it caters exclusively to older gay men who have often become estranged from their families because of their sexuality. The proprietoress, Himiko (Min Tanaka), formerly ran an upscale gay bar in Ginza before retiring to open the home but the future of the Maison is threatened now that Himiko has contracted a terminal illness and their long term patron seems set to withdraw his support.

Haruhiko (Joe Odagiri), Himiko’s much younger lover and the manager of the home, is determined to reunite his boss with his estranged daughter, Saori (Kou Shibasaki), before it’s too late. Saori is a rather sour faced and sullen woman carrying a decades long grudge against the father who abandoned her as a child and consigned her mother to a life of misery and heartbreak, so Haruhiko’s invitations are not warmly received. Haruhiko is not the giving up type and manages to sweet talk Saori’s colleague into revealing her desperate financial situation which has her already working two jobs with a part-time stint in a combini on top of her regular work during which she finds herself looking at lucrative ads for work on sex lines. When Haruhiko offers her a well paying gig helping out at the home, she has no choice but to put her pride aside.

The exclusively male residents of La Maison de Himiko lived their lives during a time when it was almost impossible to be openly gay. Consequently many of them have been married and had children but later left their families to live a more authentic life. Unfortunately, times being what they were, this often meant that they lost contact with their sons or daughters, even if they were able to keep in touch with their ex-wives or other family members for updates. For these reasons, La Maison de Himiko provides an invaluable refuge for older men who have nowhere else to go as they enter the later stages of their lives. The home provides not only a safe space where everybody is free to be themselves but also a sense of community and interdependence.

Though the situation is much improved, it is still imperfect as the home and its residents continue to face prejudice from the outside world. Saori, still carrying the pain of her father’s rejection, views his choice as a selfish one which placed his own desires above the duty he should have felt towards his wife and child. Partly driven by her resentment, Saori has a somewhat negative view of homosexuality on arriving at the home, offering up a selection of homophobic slurs, and is slow to warm to the residents. Gradually getting to know her father again and through her experiences at the home, her attitude slowly changes until she finds herself physically defending her new found friend when he’s set upon by a drunken former colleague who publicly shames him in a nightclub.

The home is also plagued by a gang of bratty kids who often leave homophobic graffiti scrawled across the front wall. One of their early tricks involves throwing a bunch of firecrackers under a parked car to stun Saori so they can hold her captive for a bit because they have really a lot of questions about lesbians and they wondered if she was one, though one wonders what they’d do if someone answered them seriously. Predictably, the leader of the bratty kids may be engaging in these kinds of behaviours because he’s confused himself. Thankfully La Maison de Himiko is an open and forgiving place, welcoming the boy inside to offer support to a young man still trying to figure himself out.

This is not a coming out story, but it is a plea for tolerance and acceptance through which Saori herself begins to blossom, easing her anger and resentment and sending her trademark scowl away with them. One of her closest friends at the home is a shy man who lived most of his life in the closet but makes the most beautiful embroidered clothes and elegant dresses. Sadly, the most lovely of them is reserved for his funeral – he’s too ashamed to wear it alive because he doesn’t like the way he looks in the mirror. Eventually he and Saori end up having an unconventional fancy dress party in which they both break out of their self imposed prisons culminating in a joyous group dance routine in a local nightclub.

Joe Odagiri turns in another nuanced, conflicted performance as the increasingly confused Haruhiko who finds himself oddly drawn to Saori’s sullen charms though the film thankfully avoids “turning” its male lead for an uncomfortable romantic conclusion. A young man among old ones, Haruhiko is somewhat out of place but has his own empty spaces. Revealing to Saori that he lives only for desire he betrays a nagging fear of his own emptiness and journey into a possibly lonely old age. Nevertheless, La Maison de Himiko is generally bright and cheerful despite some of the pain and sadness which also reside there. A warm and friendly tribute to the power of community, La Maison de Himiko is a hymn in praise of tolerance and inclusivity which, as it makes plain, bloom from the inside out.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And the fantastic dance sequence from the film

Plus the original version of the song (Mata Au Hi Made) by Kiyohiko Ozaki

Creepy (クリーピー 偽りの隣人, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016)

creepyHow well do you know your neighbours? Perhaps you have one that seems a little bit strange to you, “creepy”, even. Then again, everyone has their quirks, so you leave things at nodding at your “probably harmless” fellow suburbanites and walking away as quickly as possible. The central couple at the centre of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s return to genre filmmaking Creepy (クリーピー 偽りの隣人, Creepy Itsuwari no Rinjin), based on the novel by Yutaka Maekawa, may have wished they’d better heeded their initial instincts when it comes to dealing with their decidedly odd new neighbours considering the extremely dark territory they’re about to move in to…

The Takakuras, Koichi (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi), have just relocated to the suburbs where Koichi will be taking a position at a local university teaching criminal psychology. A year previously, Koichi had been a member of the police force working on serial murder cases but after a serious miscalculation on his part during a negotiation with an escaped prisoner leaves an innocent woman dead and himself in the hospital, Koichi comes to the conclusion that he’s not quite cut out for the force after all.

Having just moved into the neighbourhood, Koichi and Yasuko attempt to make the expected visit to announce their presence to their neighbours only to find that the locals aren’t exactly friendly. After one neighbour slams the door in her face, Yasuko pays a visit to the other one, Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), but the way in which be begins talking to her is very strange indeed. Though unsettled, Yasuko just can’t let the idea drop and becomes intent on building up a more conventional relationship with her hard to read neighbour, ignoring all of her better instincts in the process.

Meanwhile, Koichi has become intrigued by a six year old cold case in which three members of a family abruptly disappeared leaving their young daughter, Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi), behind. Working with a former colleague, Nogami (Masahiro Higashide), Koichi tracks down the abandoned little girl (now a teenager) and attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Japanese films are full of the parasitic interloper who wheedles his way into a family only to usurp control for himself and eventually colonise it. Generally, such families go back to normal once the interloper has had his fun but for the families of Creepy that would be quite difficult. In the modern world when the family unit has become so fractured and insecure that it renders once permanent communities only temporary, a chasm has been opened in human interactions which makes it easier for extreme horror to locate itself right next door to you. Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors, and in a sense no one wants to know. Koichi attempts to use his scientific knowledge to reassure Yasuko that, as psychopaths are usually very good neighbours, Nishino must be fine, but this only goes to show superficial the couple’s interest in their environment really is.

Koichi has a mild obsession with serial killers. His desire to spend more time with a real life psycho contributed to this fall from grace at the beginning, but his investigative abilities leave a lot to be desired. Yasuko may have suggested that Nishino is the kind of person who “has no social skills” but Koichi is the archetypal interrogator – only interested in the facts and blind to the emotional subtext. After Koichi puts too much pressure on the traumatised Saki, she accuses him of tearing into people’s emotions as if dissecting a rat, and later asks him if he has any kind of heart or real human empathy at all. For all his highly prized science, most of Koichi’s clues are based on his intuition – he just “feels” the house seems like a crime scene, that Nishino is a bad guy, and that something strange is going on.

This almost supernatural “feeling” becomes the central spine of the film as creepiness travels through the air in invisible waves. Kurosawa adopts a swirling, floating approach to camera movement in the early part of the film which gives it a drunken, ethereal atmosphere, preventing any concrete attempt to grasp the reality. Playing with lighting levels Kurosawa emphasises and isolates the characters but also adds a note of uncertainty that hints at the darkness lingering at the edges of the frame. This sense of the ever present evil that exists within otherwise pleasant environments contributes to the Lynchian sense of the absurd which is also echoed by the anxiety inducing lingering camera shots of banal objects such as room thermostat or closed gates.

Despite the eeriness of the general tone, Kurosawa encourages a strain of black humour which helps to cover some of the more outlandish plot elements. The final conclusion perhaps strains credulity and is never fully explained but then the lack of concrete details adds to the already overwhelming creepiness of the events in play. Wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully photographed, and filled with a spirit of absurdism, Creepy is a very modern horror story though one not unafraid to step into the realms of the senses.


Reviewed at 2016 BFI London Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)