Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Eisuke Naito, 2018)

(C)押切蓮介/双葉社 (C)2017「ミスミソウ」製作委員会

Liverleaf poster“How have things turned out this way?” Asks the heroine of Eisuke Naito’s Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Misumisou) after receiving a poignant (non)explanation for the cause of all her sufferings. Adolescence is cruel at the best of times, but when you’re stuck in a tiny no horse town with nothing to do, violence can become an easy pastime. The kids of Liverleaf take the art of bullying to all new heights, stopping not at humiliation, ostracisation, or conspiratorial acts of emotional ruin but allowing their petty games to run all the way to arson and murder.

Haruka (Anna Yamada), unlike most of her classmates, is a relatively new resident of a small rural town where she and her family have moved for her father’s job. Her only friend at school, and the only one to stand up for her against the gang of popular kids making her life a misery, is another transfer student, Aiba (Hiroya Shimizu), living alone with his grandmother for mysterious reasons. The usual high school girl tricks of making another girl feel unwelcome – stolen shoes, name calling, silent stalking etc eventually progress into direct violence at which point her father (Masahiro Toda) tries to go to the school to complain. Unfortunately, Haruka’s teacher (Aki Morita) is an almost absent, hollow source of authority who cannot control the kids and nor does she try. She tells Haruka’s dad that as the school will be closing down at the end of the academic year it’s hardly the time to make waves and she sees no need to get involved in such trivial matters. Matters come to a head when the kids, egging each other on, set fire to Haruka’s house with her mother (Reiko Kataoka), father, and little sister Shoko (Sena Tamayori) trapped inside.

It’s true enough to say Haruka reacted to her bullying in the way that society expects – she kept her head down and tried to put up with it without making a fuss. Some may read Liverleaf as a tale of vengeance, but it isn’t. As passive as she’s always been, Haruka’s acts of violence are a matter of extreme self defence. She doesn’t go looking for the ones who’ve done her wrong, but they come looking for her and thereafter pay a heavy price for their continued campaign of subjugation.

Haruka became an easy subject for bullying because she was a literal outsider – Aiba escaped this particular fate through being male, conventionally attractive, and with a confidence and maturity which set him apart from the bratty kids trying to prove their status by belittling others. Once Haruka decides to sit out the rest of the school term rather than put up with constant torment, she activates an extreme chain of events when the next likely target, a strange girl with a stammer (Rena Ohtsuka), decides to do whatever it takes to become one of the bullies rather than their latest victim. Morality goes out the window when fear takes over and some will to whatever it takes to make sure it’s someone else in the firing line rather than themselves.

Yet for all the fear and violence, there’s another, perhaps more interesting, story buried under all the senseless bloodletting. It’s not so much that teenage emotions are running wild, but that they barely have them at all and those they do have find no available outlet. Romantic jealousy spirals out of control, turning in on itself as love denied masquerades as hate. Unable to freely voice their innermost anxieties, the kids take their resentments out on each other, getting their kicks through cruel games which bind them with complicity in the absence of real feeling.

Naito attempts to lend an air of realism to the increasingly bizarre middle school warfare but cannot escape the manga origins of his source material. The violence itself is cartoonish and absurd, but there’s also an unpleasant layer of fetishisation which takes over as the blood starts flowing, almost revelling in acts of extreme cruelty as a young man exults in beating the face of a young girl to a bloody pulp. Unremittingly bleak, Liverleaf makes a bid for pathos in its closing coda as it takes us back to a case of ruined friendships and broken dreams but it can’t overcome the uneasy stylisation of all that’s gone before in swapping emptiness for wistful melancholy.


Liverleaf screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 8th July, 7pm with director Eisuke Naito in attendance for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Wet Woman in the Wind (風に濡れた女, Akihiko Shiota, 2016)

wet woman in the wind poster largeBack in the early ‘70s, Nikkatsu reacted to the gradual box office decline of Japanese cinema by taking things one step further than their already edgy youth output in rebranding themselves as a purveyor of softcore pornography known as Roman Porno. Unlike the familiar “pink film”, Roman Porno was made with the assets of a major studio behind it including better actors, production values, and distribution power but it still obeyed strict genre rules calling for speedy turnarounds, minimal running times and the requisite amount of nudity (to the permitted parameters) at set intervals. 45 years later Roman Porno is back in a series of films directed by some of today’s most interesting directors who attempt to recreate the genre anew for modern audiences whilst paying homage to the originals.

Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind (風に濡れた女, Kaze ni Nureta Onna) starts as it means to go on with hapless protagonist Kosuke (Tasuku Nagaoka) sitting by a river looking sad just as a strange young woman suddenly rides her bicycle directly into the nearby lake before climbing out and stripping off her T-shirt (which, amusingly enough reads “you need tissues for your issues”), revealing her bare breasts to a complete stranger. Kosuke is baffled and confused. He tries to leave but the woman follows him, asking if she can stay with him tonight because she has nowhere else to go. Kosuke is resolved, he’s given up girls and wants nothing whatsoever to do with weird women from ponds but Shiori (Yuki Mamiya) is not one to take no for an answer.

It’s never made clear but something unpleasant has obviously happened to Kosuke that has made him retreat from the city with his tail between his legs (so to speak). A respected playwright, Kosuke seems to have had something of an existential crisis and has decided to condemn himself to a life of self-imposed isolation because “you have to be alone if you really want to think deeply about things”. His isolation is, however, only up to a point. Kosuke’s semi-primitive lifestyle sees him living in a shack in the woods but he has electric lighting provided by generator batteries and grinds his own coffee beans by hand after buying them from a local cafe owned by a man Kosuke went to university with but claims not to have known at the time. The cafe owner’s wife has recently left and he blames Kosuke for reawakening a desire in her that had apparently lain dormant with her husband.

In a shocking coincidence, Shiori has also taken a job at the cafe and has set about seducing the recently lonely owner who has now become fixated and jealous, once again afraid Kosuke in particular is going to steal away his new plaything just like he stole his wife. This is a fallacy on several levels, not least that Shiori is not a woman to be constrained by any man but a true free spirit who gives her love freely to whomever that she chooses.

Spirit might be the best way to describe Shiori who arrives and departs with the wind, a force of nature with the sole intent of freeing her targets of the burden of repressed desires. A radio broadcast later reveals that a tiger has been on the run from the nearby zoo and if this were a fable, you could almost believe the tiger to be Shiori, sinking her teeth into soft centre of human weakness and leaving right after she tears its throat out.

Free spirit as she is, Shiori does find herself in moments of danger as the the threat of sexual violence rears its ugly head. Kosuke likes to think of himself as an enlightened kind of man, an intellectual, but he’s also a self-involved womaniser not above attempting to force himself on a woman he feels to be his for the taking or, half in jest, threatening to rape a former lover. Yet for Shiori much of this is sport – she sees through Kosuke and neatly undercuts all of his self delusions and neuroses, but she’s also merely toying with him.

Finding himself literally kicked out of bed and rendered redundant when Shiori finds more pleasure in getting together with his former lover Kyoko, Kosuke wanders outside in confusion and seduces, with a degree of tenderness, Kyoko’s shy, bespectacled assistant, Yuko. When the morning comes, however, he feels he made a mistake. Yuko has become attached to him, sharing a traumatic childhood story only for Kosuke to brush it aside and encourage her to go out into the world to explore the rich pleasures on offer now that he has “awakened” her. Kosuke remains as self-centred as ever, but Yuko at least does perhaps find something in his words of “wisdom”.

As in all good sex comedy, the men are pathetic slaves to desires they find themselves unable to express, whether out of fear or cultural ideals of masculinity, while the women remain in control and must guide the men either towards a healthier outlook or their own destruction. Both Kosuke and the cafe owner conspire in their own downfall in misguided battles for possession or conquest. Having already suffered defeat, Kosuke has retreated from the field dejected and humiliated, but in his all out impassioned attempt to re-enter the world of carnality he literally brings his entire universe crashing down around his ears. Forced to realise his own ridiculousness, Kosuke is left alone with little else to do than survey the scale of the destruction his various delusions have wrought. A fun loving pastiche, Wet Woman in the Wind is an oddly whimsical tale, witty yet insightful even its seeming lightness.


Currently available to stream via Mubi.

Original trailer (English subtitles) NSFW!

The City Of Betrayal (裏切りの街, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

city of betrayalWhat is it that makes one person betray another? Following Love’s Whirlpool, playwright and Be My Baby author Daisuke Miura returns to the world of messy modern love with a tale ridden with infidelity and the impossibility of trust. Despite being in outwardly successful relationships, the central characters find themselves seeking something, trying to eclipse some element of dissatisfaction which is more with themselves than with their partners by burying it in a meaningless affair which only becomes less meaningless as time goes on. Formerly a TV drama now recut for the big screen The City of Betrayal (裏切りの街, Uragiri no Machi) is a melancholy and contemplative piece but one which shares Miura’s rather depressing view of romance with its inherent difficulties and contradictions.

Yuichi (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a young man with a part-time job he never bothers to go to and a successful girlfriend, Satomi (Eriko Nakamura), who is content to pay all the bills and even give him pocket money to out drinking with his friends. Bored at home, Yuichi checks porn sites and chats on a meet up board for casual sex. When he sees a message from “Tomo” popup wondering if anyone nearby is up for some no strings fun, he jumps right on it. Yuichi tells “Tomo” that he works in mass communications and reassures her that he’s not all that bad looking so there’s nothing to worry about.

“Tomo” claimed to be 30 and in the fashion business, but really she’s Tomoko Hashimoto (Shinobu Terajima), a 40 year old housewife who is convinced her husband has been having an affair. Tomoko is not unhappy with Koji (Mitsuru Hirata) – a salaryman of a similar age to herself, he’s a good man, considerate and well mannered if a little dull. Like Yuichi and Satomi, Tomoko and Koji enjoy a full relationship and get on pretty well even if there are the usual little niggles hiding beneath the cheery facade.

Despite having met up for casual sex, the start of Yuichi and Tomoko’s affair is a slow one in which Tomoko originally changes her mind, aware of the large age difference between herself and Yuichi and afraid it would put him off. Spending time together just as friends, the pair grow closer before heading into a love hotel for an experience which is not altogether successful. Still, they continue to meet up at regular intervals behind their partners’ backs.

The cheating and the subterfuge doesn’t sit well with either of them, but their secret affair fulfils needs which weren’t being met elsewhere. Neither Yuichi or Tomoko is particularly unhappy in their relationships but each were in their own way deeply unhappy. Yuichi’s masculine pride is hurt by his girlfriend’s status as the breadwinner while he cannot seem to get his act together, find a job, and make a success of himself. Later on he tells Tomoko that part of the reason he liked spending time with her was that she never scolded him for being the way he is, she just accepted him at face value. Tomoko by contrast, was perhaps looking either for revenge against her possibly adulterous, sometimes neglectful husband or a something more straightforward than her slightly strange marital arrangements. Though Koji is generally attentive and a goodhearted, kind person his ministrations sometimes have the whiff of manipulation and Tomoko has reasons to be suspicious of his ongoing friendship with someone called “Tamura” from “work” whom no one else at work seems to know.

In actuality it turns out that there are no faithful relationships, as one character puts it “there are many truths”. A man can love his wife and his mistress and that’s not necessarily a contradiction, much as it might seem so to the accidentally adulterous Yuichi. Despite the bond generated by their shared loneliness, the relationship between Yuichi and Tomoko remains casual, in one sense, though Yuichi eventually contemplates leaving his girlfriend and suggesting Tomoko leave her husband to allow them to start a new life together, probably knowing that it’s impossible. A lengthy post-credits sequence seems to provide a melancholy if reassuring coda as the lovers return to their respective spheres each having achieved a kind of “success”, though perhaps are no more fulfilled in themselves than they had been before. Another despairing look at modern love from Miura, The City of Betrayal is human at heart, rather than moralistic, arguing for the mature view whilst at the same time offering an ambivalent defence of conventionality.


The City of Betrayal was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)