Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Juzo Itami, 1997)

woman in witness protection posterJuzo Itami’s fearless taste for sending up the contradictions and hypocrisies of his home nation knew no bounds, eventually bringing him into conflict with the very forces he assumed so secure it was safe to mock – his 1992 film Minbo led to brutal attack by a gang of yakuza unhappy with how his film portrayed the world of organised crime. Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Marutai no Onna), continuing the “Woman” theme from previous hits A Taxing Woman and the more recent Supermarket Woman, would be Itami’s final feature as he died in mysterious circumstances not long after its completion and like Minbo it touched an open nerve. In 1997, crazy cult violence was perhaps no laughing matter nor as ridiculous as it might have seemed a few years earlier, yet Itami makes the actions of brainwashed conspirators the primary motivator of a self-centred actress’ gradual progress towards accepting the very thing his previous films might have satirised – her civic duty as a Japanese woman.

Itami breaks the film into a series of vignettes bookended by title cards beginning with the first which introduces us to our leading lady – Biwako Isono (Nobuko Miyamoto). Biwako is currently in rehearsals for an avant-garde play about giving birth (“a woman’s moment of glory”) during which she reduces her assistant to tears prompting her resignation, decrying Biwako’s self-centred bitchiness as she goes. Chastened, Biwako spends the evening doing vocal exercises outside her apartment which is how she comes to witness the botched murder of a lawyer by a crazed cultist (Kazuya Takahashi) during which she is almost murdered herself and only survives because the killer’s gun jams. As the only witness Biwako suddenly becomes important to the police which works well with her general need for attention but less so with her loathing for hassle. Seeing as Biwako is a famous actress, her involvement also precipitates increased press interest for the murder and accidentally threatens the ongoing police investigation not least because Biwako likes to play up for the camera and isn’t quite sure how best to deal with her divided responsibilities. With the killer still at large, the police decide to give Biwako protection in the form of two detectives – Chikamatsu (Yuji Murata), a cultured man who’s a big fan of Biwako’s stage career, and Tachibana (Masahiko Nishimura), a rather stiff gentleman who never watches films and rarely indulges in entertainment.

Bringing up cult violence in 1997 just two years after Japan’s only real terrorist incident perpetrated by a crazed cult, might be thought taboo but taboo was not something that Itami had ever run away from. Crazed cults had also popped up during A Taxing Woman’s Return though back then they mostly represented the hypocrisy of the new yakuza as a front for organised crime that thought nothing of bleeding vulnerable people dry while feeding them a lot of semi-religious claptrap to make them feel a part of something bigger while the bubble economy continued its puffed up attempts to make them feel inadequate. This time around our cultists are less well drawn but clearly a collection of unlucky people duped into believing the strange philosophies of the “Sheep of Truth” which teach that the world can only be saved by its followers dividing the world into white sheep and black sheep. Like the policeman and later Biwako, the killer believes he is only doing “that which must be done” in the best interests of the world. He is unaware of the cult’s shadiness and shocked when their lawyer threatens his family in an effort to convince him not to talk once the police have managed to break his programming, ironically through exactly the same methods – manipulating his feelings towards his wife and son.

The cult is however merely background to Biwako’s ongoing character drama. Despite experiencing emotional trauma from witnessing a murder and then being threatened herself, Biwako enjoys being the centre of the attention with the police as well as the warm glow she feels in being able to help them with their enquiries, but balks at the additional hassle of having to be involved in the trial (even if she would be given quite a sizeable platform as a witness in a high profile court case). She resents having the two policemen follow her around – especially as she has quite a busy schedule which includes an affair with her married manager. Nevertheless she gradually allows them into her life with Tachibana even making his stage debut as spear carrier in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. Tachibana’s steadfast defence of her person even at the risk of his own life begins to teach Biwako a few things about civic responsibility and the importance of duty, even if her final moment of realisation is another of her staged set pieces in which she conjures a poignant monologue from the accidentally profound mutterings of Tachibana, a little of Cleopatra, and the earlier line from the maternity play repurposed as she affirms that testifying against the cultists will be her “moment of glory”.

Rather than end on Biwako’s sudden moment of enlightenment, Itami cuts to an ironic epilogue in which a police detective watching the movie we have just seen complains about its authenticity while emphasising that no one in protective custody has ever been attacked. A little tongue in cheek humour from Itami that is followed by the more usual disclaimer before the credits resume, but perhaps anticipating another dose of controversy from both law enforcement and cult devotees. Lighter in tone and noticeably less surreal than some of Itami’s earlier work, Woman in Witness Protection is the story of a vacuous actress learning the purpose of her stage as her particular brand of artifice meets that of the less innocently self-centred cultists head on and eventually becomes the best weapon against it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Joji Matsuoka, 2016)

midnight diner 2 posterThe Midnight Diner is open for business once again. Yaro Abe’s eponymous manga was first adapted as a TV drama in 2009 which then ran for three seasons before heading to the big screen and then again to the smaller one with the Netflix original Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories becoming the de facto season four. Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Zoku Shinya Shokudo) returns with more of the same as Master puts out his sign and opens the shop, welcoming the denizens of Tokyo after dark in search of a little place to call home amid all the chaos and alienation.

To re-cap, the Midnight Diner is a casual eating establishment run by Master which opens only between the hours of midnight and 7am. The restaurant has only a small formal menu but Master’s selling point is that he is prepared to make whatever the customer so desires (assuming the ingredients are available). Regulars and newcomers alike are given a warm welcome and a place to feel at home, free of whatever it was that was bothering them in the outside world.

Like the first film, Midnight Diner 2 is really three TV episodes stitched together. The first begins on an ominous note as each of the regulars arrives in mourning clothes only to be struck by the coincidence that they’ve each been to a different person’s funeral. A woman arrives dressed in black but reveals she hasn’t been bereaved, she simply enjoys dressing like this to destress from the difficult atmosphere at her publishing job. Noriko (Aoba Kawai) is a top editor but often finds herself sidelined – this time by a young author whose book she made a success but has now dumped her owing to all her notes on his second effort. Saddled with an elderly client who doesn’t like taking advice from a woman, Noriko’s fortunes fall still further when she finds him dead. A visit to a real funeral threatens to change her life completely.

Strand two follows the son of a nearby soba shop, Seita (Sosuke Ikematsu), who has fallen in love with a much older woman and wants to marry despite his mother’s reservations. The third segment continues along the familial theme with an old woman travelling all the way from Kyushu to Tokyo after falling victim to an “Ore Ore” scam.

Scams and parental bonds become the central themes tying the episodes together as each of the lovelorn protagonists finds themselves taking advantage of Master’s sturdy shoulders. Noriko and Mrs. Ogawa (Misako Watanabe) fall victim to an obvious conman but do so almost willingly out of their desperate loneliness. Noriko, dissatisfied with her working environment, takes to the streets dressed in black but becomes the target of “funeral fetishists” who are only interested in her “bereaved” state. A chance encounter at a real funeral makes her believe her life can change but she is deceived again when a man she came to care for is unmasked as a serial trickster. Mrs. Ogawa faces a similar problem when she races all the way to Tokyo to pay off a “colleague” of her son’s, so desperate to help that she never suspects that she’s fallen victim to a scam.

Mrs. Ogawa’s deep love for the son she has become estranged from is contrasted with that of the soba noodle seller for the son she can’t let go. Seita cares for nothing other than ping pong, much to his mother’s consternation and has little interest in taking over the family business. A young man, he’s tired of the constraints his lonely widowed mother continues to place on him though his determination to marry an older woman at such a young age bears out his relative maturity.

As usual Master has good advice and a kind word for everyone that helps them get where they need to go, softly nudging them in the right direction through the power of comfort food. By now the cast of familiars is well and truly entrenched but there will always be space at Master’s counter for those in need who will be greeted warmly by those already aware of its charms. True enough, Midnight Diner 2 offers little in the way of innovation (though we do get a little more information about the mysterious Master) but no one comes the Midnight Diner looking to try something new. In here, nostalgia rules and we wouldn’t have it any other way.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Monday (マンデイ, SABU, 2000)

mondayWaking up in an unfamiliar hotel room can be a traumatic and confusing experience. The hero of SABU’s madcap amnesia sit in odyssey finds himself in just this position though he is, at least, fully clothed even if trying to think through the fog of a particularly opaque booze cloud. Monday (マンデイ) is film about Saturday night, not just literally but mentally – about a man meeting his internal Saturday night in which he suddenly lets loose with all that built up tension in an unexpected, and very unwelcome, way.

Mild mannered salaryman Takagi (Shinichi Tsutsumi) wakes up in his cheap hotel room dressed in a pitch black suit and with no recollection of how he got there. A packet of purification salt reminds him he was going to a funeral, but what happened after that? Takagi, it seems, enjoys a drink or two to ease that ever present sense of dread and impotence which dominates his life and so the events of the previous two days are lost in that pale space obscured by a booze drenched curtain of brain fog. Spotting various reminders hidden in his room Takagi begins to piece his strange adventure together from a bad date with the girlfriend whose birthday he blew off to go to the funeral, to a weird fortune teller, a beautiful woman, guns, gangsters and a homicidal killing spree. All in all, perhaps it was better when he couldn’t remember.

As usual, SABU weaves his complex comedy into a complicated cycle of interconnected gags. Takagi remains within the purgatory of his hotel room, furiously trying to remember how he got there but this otherwise anodyne space seems to be a reflection of his everyday persona in its inoffensive blandness, littered as it is with indications of the deeper layers implied by the still unknown actions of the previous few days. Judging by his appearance, Takagi is a shy, nervous man hidden behind his unstylish glasses and neatly swept back hair. Fearing his adventures are about to signal the end of his existence, Takagi suddenly gets the inspiration to make a proper will/suicide note which largely consists of a number of apologies firstly to his parents and siblings and finally to the girlfriend who walked out on him in the bar owing to his failure to appear for her birthday celebration and subsequently bizarre behaviour. The second portion of the letter also includes some advice to his siblings about how to look after the family pets and some horticultural tips but as he takes a few more drinks to steady his nerves, those deeper layers start to bleed through and so he takes this opportunity to advise his girlfriend that she should work on her anger issues and also avoid finishing other people’s sentences for them.

In Takagi’s defense, he has had a strange few days. The funeral of a close friend, especially one so young, might be enough to tip anyone into a spot of drunken introspection but the send off for former hair model Mitsuo (Masanobu Ando) is hardly a typical one given that it ends with the corpse exploding after Takagi is asked and then fails to “defuse” it. When he should probably take the opportunity to talk to someone about the things which are bothering him, Takagi has another drink, does his strange little laugh, and internalises his irritation with the very people who might be able to help him. Retreating to the bathroom carrying the memory of a stunning woman spotted at the bar with him, he returns to find a gloomy yakuza sitting in the adjacent seat intent on drinking and talking. Rather than saying a flat no and going home like a sensible person, Takagi keeps drinking until he feels like partying with the most dangerous guys in the room, even going so far as a raunchy dance with the gangster’s girl. The gangster, strangely, doesn’t mind and even seems to think he’s found a cool new friend but when everyone’s this drunk and there are guns around nothing is going to end well.

The finale finds SABU at his most sarcastic as the imprisoned Takagi indulges in a hero fantasy of taking the cops hostage and heading outside to meet the forces of authority head on only to give them a lecture about the danger of firearms and the necessity of love and kindness in a strange world. Needless to say, his message of peace is not universally well received. Takagi might have a point when he says that none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the shotgun – such a powerful and easy to use weapon in the hands of those who previously felt so powerless can indeed be a dangerous thing, but the fact remains that he harboured all of this fear and resentment inside himself, attempting to drown it with booze but continually failing. We leave Takagi trapped inside the hotel room, as he’s always been trapped inside his mind, holding a possibly empty shotgun at a flimsy hotel room door with all of that pressure pushing down outside it. The gun is one thing, and guns are bad, but the enemy will always be Monday – the modern world is driving people crazy and could use some of that love and kindness Takagi was so keen on during his hostage crisis but it probably won’t work until he puts the gun (and the booze) down and opens that hotel room door.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Black Kiss (ブラックキス, Macoto Tezuka, 2006)

Black KissThe somewhat salaciously titled Black Kiss (ブラックキス) comes appropriately steeped in giallo-esque nastiness but its ambitions lean towards the classic Hollywood crime thriller as much as they do to gothic European horror. Directed by the son of the legendary father of manga Osamu Tezuka (not immune to a little strange violence of his own) Macoto Tezuka, Black Kiss is a noir inspired tale of Tokyo after dark where a series of bizarre staged murders are continuing to puzzle the police.

We witness the first of them as a sleazy producer type takes a prospective new sign out for a night on the town. He promises to make her a star but predictably the evening ends in a fairly grim love hotel. This early episode is brought to an abrupt halt as the man is conked on the head in the bathroom only to wake up tied to the bed for a spot of vivisection.

However, it turns out there is an unexpected witness to the crime in the form of aspiring model, Asuka, who we now meet by hopping back week as she moves into the flat opposite with the rather sullen and reluctant street punk Kasumi. The pair then get involved with the police as well as with a local paparazzo but what does Kasumi’s missing former roommate have to do with all of this and why does all the evidence keep pointing back to her? The reason may surprise you.

Black Kiss is playing with several genres during its running time but it certainly packs in its fair share of red herrings. Far too many, in fact, leaving its ultimate explanation feeling oddly hollow. Given this amount of build up and a careful arrangement of clues, Tezuka’s decision to end as a standard slasher leaves the viewer feeling cheated as our intrepid heroines make an admittedly exciting final run for it across the rooftops of Kabuki-cho. After throwing so many possible solutions on the screen, the one that is finally offered seems extremely dull in comparison and makes little to no internal sense.

That said, Black Kiss is actually quite good at painting its shady world with an appropriate layer of detail. Tezuka returns to the ideas of duality which play into his Vertigo homage, casting his two leading ladies as alike in some senses – both having been involved in the fashion industry, both half Japanese, both adrift in terms of their lives and ambitions, but is also careful place them on opposing sides as Asuka dresses in light colours to bring out her sweetness and innocence whereas Kasumi is all punk/goth darkness and aggression borne of self loathing. Though originally reluctant roommates, Asuka and Kasumi eventually bond though it’s another weakness of the film that aspects of their relationship appear curiously unresolved adding yet another layer of ambiguity to the already hard to pin down central narrative.

What Tezuka really seems to want to do is use the central mystery to explore notions of genre rather than actually follow or even blend them. He quotes Hitchcock both overtly onscreen with the oddly named “Bats Motel” and Vertigo night club as well as in his Rear Window and Dial M for Murder plot elements but then he veers widely off course into the world of giallo with his semi-explicit sex scene and leather clad avenging murderess. As an exercise in style, Black Kiss is frequently impressive with its innovative cinematography and unusual composition but dramatically it can’t unify its underlying concerns in a way which makes both visual and narrative sense.

A noble failure, there is much to admire in Black Kiss which is only let down by its non-sensical finale. Deliberately or otherwise, Tezuka constantly undercuts himself and pulls his punches just when it seems as if he may be about to move into a more interesting area. The final mystery makes no sense at all and, in what may be Tezuka’s biggest failed ambition, leaves the murders themselves as an odd kind of McGuffin. Quite a big ask in what is, essentially a serial killer movie with a significant lean towards giallo inflected horror. Nevertheless, though Black Kiss fails on many levels it does prove intriguing enough to maintain interest even if it ultimately loses all of the good will it accrues with its dramatically unsatisfying slide into slasher territory in the final quarter.


Unsubbed trailer:

Otakus in Love (恋の門, Suzuki Matsuo, 2004)

koi no monReview of Suzuki Matsuo’s Otaku’s in Love (恋の門, Koi no Mon) first published on UK Anime Network in February 2014.


The word “otaku” is a difficult one to pin down. In the West, it’s often come to be a badge of pride and respect, a label that many fans of what most people would perceive as a niche subculture actively identify with and eagerly apply to themselves. However, the roots of the term are much darker and in its native Japanese, “otaku” can be far from a nice thing to call another person. Of the central couple in this film perhaps only one can be thought of as a traditional “otaku” the other being more of a “tortured artist” whose eccentric behaviour makes it difficult for him to survive in the real world. Well, to be honest finding a base line for “normal behaviour” in this film is a pretty tall order, we run into bizarre anime conventions, cosplay obsessives, broken hearted ex-mangaka (manga) bar owners and a bizarre cult like office environment where the only rule is you must be “happy!” all the time. Otakus In Love is an endearingly odd film that is jam packed full of in jokes and meta references that knows its audience very well and never fails in the humour stakes as a result.

Mon is a down on his luck, in fact totally broke, manga artist. Well, he calls himself a “manga artist” but his work isn’t exactly what most people would expect. In a touch of the avant garde, Mon makes his manga out of rocks. Mon’s “manga” are, in fact, a collection of rocks painted with a single kanji character and arranged inside a custom made wooden box. Needless to say each of Mon’s works is a one off piece and his sales record is not exactly going to get him on the best seller list. He can’t seem to hold down a part time job either due to his extreme reactions to people not taking his art seriously and his strange appearance which is something like a seventies guru come glam rock god whose ragged clothes have an oddly deliberate look to them. One fateful day he has an interview for Tsugino Happy Inc which turns out to be a cult-like office environment which seems to advocate happiness through total subjugation. He lasts about an hour at this job before punching his new boss in the face for failing to appreciate his artistic qualities.

However, on the way there about to pick up a particularly fine looking rock, he meets Koino who turns out to be a colleague of his at Happy Inc. The two go out for drinks which ends up at Koino’s apartment where upon Mon wakes up the next morning to find out he’s been a victim of forced cosplay! Unwittingly dressed up as Koino’s favourite character from Soul Caliber II, he’s quickly posed by Koino for her cosplay wall and dragged into a world of doujinshi, comiket, cosplay and all things geeky. Koino is an amateur manga artist who claims to have made a small fortune selling her home made manga at conventions and is well and truly an otaku. Can two such different people really find love? There’s only one way to find out!

Otakus in Love is based on Jun Hanyunyuu’s manga Koi no Mon (also the original Japanese title of the film) and as such carries over various extremely clever meta visual references. Directed by well known actor Suzuki Matsuo (Ichi the Killer) the film is often about as close as you could get to being a live action manga as Matsuo manages to make standard manga tropes like reaction shots and surreal action scenes work in a totally believable way. In the course of the film we’re treated to full on musical sections and ridiculous comic motifs that resurface at fairly predictable moments which could all end up just being far too much, but under Matsuo’s steady hand the film comes out on the right side of crazy and is never anything less than totally zany fun.

The film isn’t afraid to wear its otaku badge on its sleeve, either. Jam packed with references from video games, anime, and manga, Otakus in Love gets its audience completely and trusts it to understand all of its allusions and homages without needing to repeatedly bash the viewer over the head with tie-ins. It also takes an affectionate side swipe at fan culture with some bizarre interactions with cosplay, conventions and ani-singers which any anime fan can probably relate to. The film also has a fair few cameos from such well known personages as Hideaki Anno, Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike to name but a few.

At a 114 minutes it does run a little long and occasionally feels like it’s going to run out of steam but for the vast majority of its running time Otakus in Love is a genuinely hilarious, truly bizarre, romantic comedy. Full of warmth and exuberance, it’s difficult to image anyone not being swept away by its surreal humour and though it’s certainly on the broader side of comedy it never feels particularly over the top (or at least not in a bad way). Otakus in Love is a romanic comedy that no self confessed otaku should miss out on seeing.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2014.