My Love Story!! (俺物語!!, Hayato Kawai, 2015)

my-love-storyThey say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but for some guys you’ll have to do a whole lot of baking. Based on the popular manga which was also recently adapted into a hit anime (as is the current trend) My Love Story!! (俺物語!!, Ore Monogatari!!) is the classic tale of innocent young love between a pretty young girl and her strapping suitor only both of them are too reticent and have too many issues to be able to come round to the idea that their feelings may actually be requited after all. This is going to be a long courtship but faint heart never won fair maiden.

Takeo (Ryohei Suzuki) has been best friends with next-door neighbour Suna (Kentaro Sakaguchi) ever since they were small and he made a point of becoming his defender when Suna was the new kid in town and the other boys made fun of him. However, Taeko is a big lug of a guy, adored by the his male classmates for his off the charts level of coolness, but often shunned by the ladies thanks to his impulsive nature and booming voice. Suna, by contrast, is massively popular and finds himself surrounded by swooning girls everywhere he goes. Being the big hearted guy he is, when Takeo notices his middle school crush confessing her love to Suna on graduation day, he makes sure Suna lets her down gentle and chooses to break his own heart instead.

You see, being the big guy is not exactly easy. A little slow on the uptake but also extremely sensitive, Takeo has been hearing gorilla jokes his whole life and so has internalised an intense feeling of being completely unloveable. Despite this, he remains an extremely good person who just wants everyone else to be happy even if he’s convinced himself he’s not allowed to be. Thus when he saves timid high school girl Rinko (Mei Nagano) from a persistent street harasser and falls in love at first sight, it doesn’t really occur to him that the same thing might have happened to her. Mistaking Rinko’s attempts to get his attention for a backhanded way to get to his more conventionally handsome friend, Takeo resolves to get the two together no matter what!

It would be difficult to find a romance quite as innocent as My Love Story!! which (successfully) strings out one wilful misunderstanding for around two hours. There are no great scenes of jealous exes or sudden arranged marriages to contend with, just two people entirely incapable of speaking plainly. Takeo is so invested in the idea of his own ugliness that it just doesn’t make sense to him that anyone would choose him over the conventionally handsome Suna. Likewise Rinko is quite a timid girl, bowled over by the cool way Takeo dealt with her street harasser and subsequent acts of heroism throughout the film. Though her friends may crack gorilla jokes behind her back, Rinko can see straight through to Takeo’s giant heart and is always ready to defend him, even if her own diffidence means she can’t just tell Takeo how she really feels in a way he understands.

Meanwhile, Suna is very bored by all of these missed messages as his well meaning buddy tries to foist the girl he himself loves on his obviously disinterested friend. As for why Suna is so disinterested, the film is also a somewhat coy. A little shy and awkward himself, Suna is uncomfortable with all the attention his ridiculous good looks bring him, as well as additional resentment from the other guys and often needing to deflect praise for Takeo’s heroism which people often seem to attribute to him. It may just be that Suna is over the superficial and is waiting for someone to see past his pretty boy face but his refusal to talk about the kind of girl he likes aside from going for “big and strong” perhaps hints at an altogether different reason. In any case, Suna getting fed up with being persistantly gooseberried becomes the final catalyst for finally explaining to Takeo what exactly has been going on these past few months.

Before you know it, enough baked goods to feed a small army have been consumed but Takeo is still having trouble realising that they each had a secret ingredient – love! Sometimes nice guys do get the girl, even if it involves shielding them from a falling coffin in a haunted house that’s on fire which is not as good of a metaphor as you’d think but it’ll do for now. Old fashioned and innocent, My Love Story isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it might just light a flame in your heart.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Like Grains of Sand (渚のシンドバッド, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 1995)

Like grains of sand posterAdolescent romance is complicated enough at the best of times but the barriers are ever higher if you happen to be gay in a less than tolerant society. Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s second feature Like Grains of Sand (渚のシンドバッド, Nagisa no Sinbad) takes a slight step back in time from A Touch of Fever but retains its very ordinary world as a collection of boys and girls embark on a process of self discovery whilst also locked into the unbreakable straightjacket of the high school world.

Ito (Yoshinori Okada) is an ordinary high school boy with a crush on his oblivious best friend, Yoshida (Kouta Kusano). Though Yoshida defends him from the homophobic bullies in his class, he seems confused about his true feelings, at once stating that what he feels for Ito is more that friendship but also unwilling to address what that “more” may mean. After Ito’s father intercepts a reply to a personal ad he placed hoping to meet older men, Ito ends up at a psychiatrist’s office where his father hopes he might be “cured” though the doctor is quick to point out that they no longer view homosexuality as a medical matter.

Whilst at the clinic, Ito strikes a up a friendship with another girl from his class, Aihara (Ayumi Hamasaki) – a recent transfer student, who, we learn, has experienced a traumatic event which is also the reason she had to leave her previous place of education. Aihara is the only person with whom Ito can discuss his sexuality honestly though he’s also sure to “protect” Yoshida by claiming he rejected his advances outright rather than explaining the confusing series of events as they actually occurred. When Aihara and Ito accidentally end up on an awkward double date with Yoshida and his girlfriend Shimizu (Kumi Takada), Yoshida also begins to develop an (unreturned) attraction to Aihara which only further complicates the delicate nature of the growing emotional ties among this small group of young people.

A real step up from the promising yet flawed A Touch of Fever, Like Grains of Sand proves Hashiguchi’s skill in building an extremely natural environment filled with believable well rounded characters. The high school world is a cruel one populated by unsteady teenagers, each by times rebellious and insecure. Aihara, as a recent transfer student, is already an outsider but finds herself excluded even further thanks to her direct and aloof character. Early on in the film two of the other girls, evidently the popular set, begin running a bizarre extortion scam in which they claim a friend of theirs has fallen pregnant and needs to get an abortion right away so they’re collecting money to help her. Shimizu doesn’t seem to buy their explanation but is bamboozled into paying up to not cause offence. Aihara, however, brands the pair “sympathy fascists” and abruptly walks away.

Ito is also an outsider, though partially a self-exile, longing yet fearful. At the beginning of the film he’s overwhelmed watching the unexpectedly sensual action of Yoshida pouring a bag of sand into a container destined for the sports field. After they’ve finished, Ito faints right in front of his fellow schoolmates, though at least the convenient hot weather might prove his ally. When the other boys draw a lewd drawing on the blackboard and start teasing Ito, Yoshida comes to his rescue even though he knows that’s likely to cause trouble for himself. Reassuring his friend that it would be OK even if it was true, Yoshida continues to act in a non committal manner. Ito confesses, Yoshida accepts the confession but at the same time is uncertain permitting both a kiss and an embrace before pushing his friend away and leaving as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

After an impromptu hug on a rooftop, Shimizu makes attempt to ask Aihara is she’s gay with no particular judgement attached except a slight reticence in terms of language. Aihara seems slightly confused, replying only that Shimizu is preoccupied with the wrong questions. Later, Ito ends up escorting the smitten Yoshida to Aihara’s childhood home where things come to a climax during an intense finale on a secluded beach. Night is falling and Ito has put on Aihara’s white dress and hat while she goes for a swim just as Yoshida returns for a second stab at confessions. Hiding behind a rock while Yoshida thinks Ito is her, Aihara continues to conduct a philosophically based dissection of Yoshida’s approach to sexuality. She asks him, would you still love me if I were a man, and if not, is it more that what you want is a woman and not really “me” at all, along with other questions designed to prompt a response as to the importance of gender when it comes to love. That all this happens as a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac-like three way sequence with Ito dressed as Aihara, and Yoshida talking to Aihara through someone else only lends to the surreal, increasingly symbolic atmosphere.

Gentle and softly nuanced, Like Grains of Sand is a delicate exploration of ordinary young people caught in a confusing storm of emotions as they each address their burgeoning sexuality. Rich with complexity yet also effortlessly straightforward, Hashiguchi has created a beautifully naturalistic portrait of adolescence in flux which is filled with empathy and acceptance for each of its angst ridden teens and even for their less forgiving friends and relatives. A noticeable progression from Touch of Fever, Like Grains of Sand further proves Hashiguchi’s skill for character drama and marks him as one of the most incisive writer/directors working today.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Japanese title of the film, Nagisa no Sinbad, is also the title of a hit single by 1970s super duo Pink Lady! (Beware – extremely catchy)

Panic High School (高校大パニック, Sogo Ishii, 1978)

Panic High SchoolSogo (now Gakyruu) Ishii was only 20 years old when Nikkatsu commissioned him to turn his smash hit 8mm short into a full scale studio picture. Perhaps that’s why they partnered him with one of their steadiest hands in Yukihiro Sawada as a co-director though the youthful punk attitude that would become Ishii’s signature is very much in evidence here despite the otherwise mainstream studio production. That said, Nikkatsu in this period was a far less sophisticated operation than it had been a decade before and, surprisingly, Panic High School (高校大パニック, Koukou Dai Panic) neatly avoids the kind of exploitative schlock that its title might suggest.

Back in 1977, though sadly little has changed in the intervening 40 years, schools are little more than pressure cookers slowly squeezing out every inch of individuality from the young people trapped within them as they cram for tests in subjects they might not actually understand. When a pupil commits suicide, the head master offers a few words of condolence over the tannoy system which the form tutor later backs up by emphasising that no one knows why the boy did this and that it probably has nothing at all to do with the school, exam pressure, or his performance in the recent mock exams. The school expect a line to be drawn here and for everyone to forget about it and get back to work.

However, when the teacher, Ihara, starts going on about the league tables suffering if the kids don’t buckle down some of them have had enough. One young man, Jono, looses it completely and takes a swing at the teacher only to miss and run out of the school in a panic. Whilst wandering around town he passes a gun shop and swipes a rifle before returning to the classroom and assassinating the maths tyrant. Not knowing what to do next, Jono hides out in the school building taking some of his friends hostage and then all hell breaks loose.

At its core, Panic High School is satire laying bare the crisis in Japan’s educational system which places undue emphasis on one particular set of exams which will determine the entirety of a person’s life. The teachers are cruel and heartless, little more than cogs in a machine. They don’t care about the kids, they only care about the statistics and the prestige associated with being the top high school in the area. All of these kids are bright, they already passed the stressful middle school entrance exams to get here, and the school just expects them to succeed but offers no support if they can’t.

Indeed, Ihara isn’t even teaching them anything. At the beginning of the film he asks a female student to solve an equation on the board. When she can’t, not only does he not explain the solution to her, he sends her outside adding to her original humiliation in front of the entire class and preventing her from actually learning how to solve the problem. When the next boy can’t solve it either he simply berates him for not studying, saying a “student at this high school should be able to solve this problem”. When the boy points out he did study but just doesn’t understand all he gets is abuse, no actual teaching at all.

Even when the police have been called, all anyone cares about is the reputation of the school. The headmaster keeps harping on about their status as the top school in the area and how “unfortunate” it would be if a student is killed inside the school – which is completely ignoring the fact that a teacher has already been murdered by a shotgun toting teenager right in the classroom. The police bungle the entire affair, starting by tearing apart Jono’s desk for clues including going right through his lunchbox and pointlessly cutting a hole in the bottom of his schoolbag. Bringing even more guns and riot police into the school to deal with one frightened boy who doesn’t want to shoot anyone else but is only trying to effect his escape (so he can take his entrance exams next year) is far from a good idea.

The kids are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take this anymore. The pressure is extreme and in the face of adult hypocrisy, it’s unsurprising that Jono and the other young people like him find themselves lashing out in extreme ways. Their teachers see them only as products, or even as components in the building of a “future” but never as people. Even if some of them start out wanting to help Jono, by the end even a teacher is trying to grab a gun screaming “That kid! I hate him now – I’ll kill him, he’s abandoned the most important thing – his education! He should never have come here in the first place!” putting the blame firmly on the boy and not on the system. In fact, the other teachers are busy in a huddle talking about how this is going to raise questions about the educational establishment and how they intend to mitigate that (they do not intend to address the “problems” in themselves).

While not as loud or as dynamic as some of Ishii’s later work, Panic High School displays much of his punkish sensibility even if it takes a form closer to ‘70s youth drama complete with all the zooms, whips and pans associated with the exploitation era. However, perhaps because Ishii’s own age is so close that of his protagonists the film is firmly on the side of youth. Far from a “youth in crisis” film, Panic High School places the blame firmly at the feet of the system which forces its young people into extreme and absurd situations. Notably different from Ishii’s later work in terms of tone and style, Panic High School is nevertheless an impressive studio debut feature and a strong indicator of the director’s continuing preoccupations.

Climatic scene from towards the beginning of the film (unsubtitled)


Salute! Sun Yat-Sen (UK Anime Network Review)

articlesubpic1597Reviewed the latest film from Blue Gate Crossing director Yee Chih-Yen Salute! Sun Yat-Sen for UK Anime Network. Also interviewed the director when he was here for the film’s screening as the closing night gala of the 2015 Chinese Visual Festival (under the old title of Meeting Dr Sun). This will also be getting a DVD/VOD release from Facet Film Distribution on 27th July if you didn’t manage to make it to the festival. Good movie, kind of cute but with bite too.

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is the long awaited new film from Taiwanese director Yee Chih-Yen which arrives a massive 13 years after the award winning Blue Gate Crossing. Like Blue Gate Crossing, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen centres around the everyday life of teenagers with a subtle level of social commentary though this time it swaps sexuality for social inequality and complicated male friendships.

Lefty is a typical high school boy, at once giddy and lackadaisical. His major problem in life is that he’s behind on his school fees and despite his attempts to dodge the issue, it’s become an embarrassment for him around the school. Lefty lives with his grandmother who’s on a low income and he simply does not have the money to pay. That’s when he catches sight of an abandoned metal statue in a school storeroom and hatches on a plan to steal it and sell it for scrap. However, just when it looks like the plan is complete, Lefty and his friends discover another group of boys has hatched on the same idea! It’s then up to Lefty & co to figure out a way of getting to the statue before the other gang.

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen mixes comedy caper tropes with high school drama as the boys try to beat each other to this overly symbolic statue that they intend to sell for scrap. The plan is, of course, a little bit ridiculous – first of all the business of sneaking an extremely heavy and cumbersome metal statue out of the school with no one noticing and then simply taking it to a scrap metal merchant and selling it, all without anyone asking how exactly they came by this distinctive statue, is quite a childishly naive plan but one which makes for quite a lot of comedy. One of the best moments being the boys trying to buy masks to hide their faces from the security cameras and having to go for the cheapest one which happens to be a horrible anime style face which is so cheaply priced because it’s made from an awful plastic which gives you a rash and makes your face itch if you wear it too long.

Sun Yat-Sen is obviously a hugely important, inspirational and well known historical figure particularly in Taiwan but also across mainland China. However, it has to be said that he is not such a well known figure in the UK and, especially as his name is not even mentioned until a news report close to the end, UK viewers may find that the symbolism his name carries is largely lost on them as is the film’s subtle social commentary. Briefly put, Sun Yat-Sen was the “father of the Chinese Republic” who sought to steer China towards a democratic and more egalitarian society after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Chinese revolution in 1911. Sadly, his utopian vision for the new China was not to be but his idealism and humanitarian thinking are still widely praised in Chinese culture. He also still appears on Taiwanese bank notes and so may be primarily linked with money in the minds of these young boys, but there is a central irony that it’s a statue of the left leaning Sun Yat-Sen that these money strapped young men have chosen to steal and melt down to get the money they so desperately need to get by.

However, even without grasping all of the complex political allusions to Taiwanese cultural issues both historical and contemporary, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen still succeeds as a warm and amusing coming of age tale in which a group of teenage boys on the cusp of adulthood come to realise a few things about themselves and the culture they live in. Though the central two boys are in someways very different, in other ways they have a lot in common and it’s a fun ride seeing how their conflicting personalities rub up against each other until a tentative friendship eventually develops. The second boy (who repeatedly avoids telling Lefty his name throughout the film) is, in many ways, in a far worse position than Lefty which has made him bitter and devoid of hope for the future but thanks to Lefty’s optimism perhaps begins to think it’s not all as gloomy as he once thought.

Like Blue Gate Crossing, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is a quiet sort of film where plot takes second place to character (although all the heist shenanigans are undeniably entertaining – especially one horror movie inspired episode). The film feels authentically youthful, manages to imbue its young cast with an unusual degree of realism and it’s very hard not to be charmed by Lefty’s giant smile and happy go lucky attitude. Simply put, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is unlikely to spark a revolution but its quietly encouraging messages are certainly a good start.

The World of Kanako (渇き, Tetsuya Nakashima, 2014)

WorldOfKanako-PAnother LFF review up at UK Anime Network – The World of Kanako. I was also lucky enough to interview the director, Tatsuya Nakashima, who was actually very nice and quite chatty in contrast to some of the other interviews I’d read with him! (The consequence being I had way too many questions so it’s sort of a front loaded interview, oh well.) Interview’s already transcribed and in the system so hopefully live soon.

Tetsuya Nakashima is probably best known for his 2010 film, Confessions, which saw a school teacher’s extremely convoluted bid to avenge the death of her daughter at the hands of her students spill out to reveal a whole host of other ‘confessions’ of varying natures from its out of control teenage cast. Though Confessions had its fair share of violence and blood, this is nothing compared to the hellish darkness which fills The World of Kanako. Corrupt cops, teenage femme fatales, wife beaters, child traffickers, pimps and drug dealers make up the cast of this grim exposé of just how wrong you can be about the people most close to you. Those of you with a weak disposition had better step off here – this journey is not for the faint of heart.

Disgraced former policeman Fujishima has a whole host of problems in his life, alcoholism and possible schizophrenia being but two of them. Suddenly he gets a call from his estranged wife who’s out of her mind with worry because their teenage daughter, Kanako, has not been home in a few days. On searching her room in true detective style, he finds a stash of illegal drugs hidden in her school pencil case. This alarming discovery sends Fujishima down an increasingly dark alley way that leads only to the heartbreaking realisation that the kind and beautiful straight A student he believed his daughter to be was no more than a figment of his own imagination.

Fujishima is not a nice guy. There’s not really any other way to put it – he’s an arsehole. A self aggrandising drunk who lives inside a dream where he’s a hero fighting for justice with a loving wife and adorable little daughter waiting for him in their beautiful home. Except that his wife wants nothing to do with him, he hasn’t seen his daughter in a very long time and he’s been kicked off the force and currently works in security. Often drunk and on medication he’s never quite in the moment and therefore neither are we – thrown between flashbacks and unreliable mental images, we begin to float just as freely as Fujishima. It’s testimony to the abilities of the great Koji Yakusho that somehow we still feel a degree of sympathy and a desire to understand Fujishima’s complex psychology despite his deep seated rage which is directed both at himself and others. Deluded beyond belief, his quest to find his daughter is really a thinly veiled attempt to save himself by resurrecting the idealised image he had of her as the one decent thing he’d been able to  build in his life.

His daughter turns out to be daddy’s little girl after all, just not in the way Fujishima originally thought. She may be beautiful and clever, but never kind and her attentions are always part of some grander plan. Like the femme fatales of old and despite her young age, Kanako knows how to get what she wants but what she wants is to cause other people pain. She too lives in a dream, or perhaps a nightmare, as she says at one point falling like Alice in Wonderland through a seemingly endless black hole. There aren’t any ‘decent’ people in this world, everyone is fighting to maintain some kind of delusional self image that will allow them to believe in their own goodness – often through projected images of an idealised family.

Coupled with this intensely dark world, the film wears its influences on its sleeve including ‘60s quirky cool action films, as evidenced by its psychedelic title sequence, and 50s Noir B-movies with their down at heel antiheroes who are often lost in worlds far darker than their imaginings. It’s also true the film is extraordinarily violent in way you don’t generally see in modern times but that doesn’t mean that Nakashima’s gift for intensely beautiful set pieces is entirely absent. The teenager’s world is full of extreme bubblegum pop and purikura garishness coupled with introspective retro tunes and animated sequences which contrast heavily with the adults’ universe of bespoke kitchens and ordered realities.

Ironically, Fujishima turns out to be quite a good detective, though the clues don’t lead him to the answers he really wanted to find. Where they do lead him is ever onward down a dark and dingy rabbit hole with no end in sight. It’s a gloriously bleak tale, but told with an ironic, detached eye that seems to be finding all of this cosmic lack of clarity ever so slightly amusing. The World of Kanako almost redefines the word ‘extreme’ but it does it with so much style that even the most jaded of viewers couldn’t help raising a wry, if slightly depressed, smile.



The Kirishima Thing ( review)

thekirishimathingThis is from a million years ago but it was caught up in the queue at and has only just been liberated! Also I wrote this when I was deathly ill (festival fever is a real thing!) so I’m not entirely sure it’s completely coherent. Anyway, have at it – The Kirishima Thing reviewed at

What’s up with that girl, why is everyone crying?

Must be the Kirishima thing again, right? It’s got everyone all riled up.

Hey, what exactly happened with that? Where is Kirishima?

You didn’t hear?! Kirishima quit the volleyball team! And nobody’s heard from him since, doesn’t answer calls, doesn’t answer texts – he’s in the wind….

Damn, man, that’s cold! Wonder what happened….

What happened with Kirishima, why he’s upped and quit the volleyball team quite suddenly right after having been made captain and with the team on course to win a big championship actually turns to out be almost totally irrelevant. We may speculate on why someone might just do that but we can never really know. What is important is that Kirishima’s unpredictable action causes a seismic wave to rip through the social structure of his class. With Kirishima gone, everyone else starts to question their own place in the social hierarchy – are they really where they want to be, where they ‘belong’ within the all important high school pecking order? Some threaten to move up and others down but will anything be the same ever again?

The ‘cool’ kids are in the ‘going home’ club or possibly ‘in a sports team but blowing off practice’, the next level are ‘kind of in a club because it’ll look good on my application forms (it’s not like I like it or anything)’ and then at the bottom we have the geeky guys and girls who are really into their club activities – exemplified here by the downtrodden film club. When Kirishima just quits and effectively demotes himself from the A crowd by quitting the volleyball team nobody’s really certain of anything anymore – what’s cool, what’s not, what do I care? The volleyball team feel betrayed by their captain’s absence, the cool boys are puzzled and uncertain without their leader to look to, the popular girls doubt their status now the alpha guy isn’t around and the film club….carry on as normal and try to ignore all the silly drama going around the school.

However, there are those in the higher echelons who maybe feel they don’t belong there. One of the cool girls has a secret liking for ‘geeky’ films but is frightened of becoming ‘one of them’ and losing her ‘popular’ status. Another girl, nominally one of the cool girls both hates and admires her friends for their vacuity and refusal to see whats going on around them. She is the only who really sees what’s going on everywhere, but even she too is afraid of losing her position. The most troubled and changed though is Hiroki, Kirishima’s ‘best friend’ who nevertheless didn’t know anything about his friend’s decision. Half in half out of the baseball team, he’s trapped between the cool world of the going home club and the slightly less cool one of being able to do something very well. The only people who aren’t really affected are the film club who are, to some extent, too invested in their own sense of inferiority to really notice what’s going on everywhere else.

The film club  are in some ways the heart of the film as they both refuse to see and ultimately document the social fracturing that’s going on within the school. They seem to think themselves very hard done by -‘they’re always winning’ complains one boy after they find a location they want to use already occupied and later ‘I won’t cast them when I’m a director’ about the annoying popular clique who’ve just been laughing at them loud enough for them to hear before they’ve even gone past. However, they are the key to the film’s climactic roof top confrontation scene as the film club’s high school zombie invasion movie is rudely interrupted by the popular kids’ desperate search for Kirishima. This leads to a day of the dead style zombie fantasy sequence as the film club zombies devour the unwitting volleyball stars and popular girls which is the highlight of the film. The intermingling of the two groups which would never normally have anything to do with one another finally forces the ramifications of the Kirishima thing to come to a head. In some senses it clears the air; the tensions have boiled over and worked themselves out. However, for some the outcome is far from clear and they remain trapped between levels of high school cool.

The Kirishima Thing is certainly not for for those who like a lot of action, zombies aside, or something with a heavier plot element, but as an ensemble character study it excels. As an allegory for the wider problem of conformity/social norms vs individuality and self recognition in the adult world it’s certainly a very apt parable but all of the characters concerned are very well drawn and each afforded a degree of sympathy and understanding. The Kirishima thing strikes a more realistic tone than the director’s previous films (Funuke: Show some love you losers!, Perfect Nobara) which took place in a world of heightened reality but still has a strongly comic tone. An extremely nuanced and layered tale, The Kirishima Thing may require multiple viewings to completely appreciate but it’s certainly well worth the investment in time.

Also look out for fellow queue inmates Kumiko the Treasure Hunter and Tale of Iya which, I am assured, will shortly become eligible for parole.

Pluto (명왕성, Shin Su-won, 2013)

GSEOiWzAs we’ve seen lately, there are certainly no shortage of films looking at the complicated and often harsh world of high school in Korea. Pluto (명왕성, Myungwangsung) takes a sideways look at the darker side of academic excellence when the praise and prestige of being one of the top students becomes almost like a drug and makes otherwise bright young people do things even a heroin addict in serious need of a fix might at least feel bad about afterwards with an all encompassing sense of entitlement that gives them a lifetime free pass for even the worst transgression.

June (David Lee) is a bright young boy from a regular high school who’s just transferred into an elite boarding school educating the country’s next great hopes. He may have been a top student at his old school, but here he’s merely average as the school hotshots are pretty quick to point out. Here, the top ten students are treated like princelings – a special computerised teaching room, no curfew, better rooms, better resources and they can more or less do what they like so long as they keep their grades up. Occasionally someone manages to bump one of the top ten from the list but they quickly get kicked out again. The top ten operate like some kind of swatters mafia – they all stick rigidly together, swapping hot tips for the upcoming exams that they refuse to share with the others and engaging in a series of increasingly cruel “pranks” they term rabbit hunts.

The film opens with the police finding the body of the previously number one student Yu-jin (Sung Joon) in a wood with June’s phone lying next him having been used to film the entire grisly affair. June is arrested for the murder but is released after his alibi checks out. Sick of all the struggle and unfairness, June puts his particular talents to use to try and teach the world a lesson about the sort of people this system is producing.

The picture Pluto paints of the Korean schools system is a frankly frightening one in which academic success is virtually bought and paid for or guaranteed by class credentials. Yes, the top students obviously must have ability – some of their activities may come close to cheating but interestingly nobody seems to want to try actual deception to get ahead. However, that natural ability has clearly been bolstered by their parents’ wealth. Attending an elite school and spending more than some people earn on private tutors geared towards knowing how to get into the best universities undoubtedly gives them advantages which are out of reach for others no matter how smart they may be. Perhaps that’s fair enough in a capitalist society, they didn’t ask to be born to rich parents and who would turn that sort of help down if offered it? However, though they may possess the virtues of discipline, hard work and a desire to succeed what they lack is any sort of empathy or even common human decency. Engaging in a series of manipulative hazing exercises, the elite group will stop at nothing to protect their status specialising in thuggery, blackmail, rape and even murder. The sort of people this system is advancing are not the sort of people you want running your schools and hospitals, they are morally bankrupt and only care about their own standing in the eyes of others.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this elite boarding school is housed inside a former compound of the Korean secret police, including a subterranean layer of prison-like tunnels once used as a torture chamber. Aside from the obvious school as torture analogies, much of them film seems to be about what people choose to ‘unsee’. The headmaster of the high school is aware of the ‘untoward’ behaviour of some of his pupils but refuses to do anything in case it upsets their well connected parents, damages the reputation of his school or has an adverse effect on those all important test results. The ‘Pluto’ of the title is referenced in June’s university application essay on the demotion of Pluto from the accepted list of planets. He argues that this is unfair and a fallacy as it’s illogical to measure anything by its proximity to the sun which is, after all, just another star which will eventually die like all the others. Just because it’s a little different looking, you shouldn’t necessarily categorise it as being in some way ‘inferior’ based on a set of fairly flimsy criteria. June, like Pluto, hovers in uncertain orbit on the periphery – always wanting in but perpetually locked out. Naturally gifted but from an ‘ordinary’ background where his single mother sells insurance for OK money, June can’t hope to compete with these elite kids even if his capabilities may be greater. A lot of decisions have already been made as to what people choose to see, have chosen to regard as an ideal, even if the reality is painfully obvious.

Though oddly funny in places for such a hard hitting film, Pluto is a difficult watch at times and paints a depressing picture of the high pressured nature of the Korean educational system and of human nature in general. The elite group are universally awful people who run the gamut from arrogant, entitled prigs to snivelling cowards which makes it difficult to feel any sort of sympathy and you start to long for bad things to happen to them which somewhat undermines the film’s premise. Perhaps the problem is just that they were awful people who were enabled by a system rather than people who started out good and were corrupted by it. Stylishly shot and supported by well grounded performances from its young cast, Pluto is a welcome addition to this perhaps overcrowded genre which brings more than a few new thought provoking ideas to the table.


Review of first Pluto published by UK Anime Network.

For Love’s Sake (Ai to Makoto) – LFF 2012

Please click through to read my review of Ai to Makoto on uk-anime-net

I know, two links in a row, I’m so sorry! More original content coming soon, I promise (probably). The movie’s awesome though, a total delight!