Cyclops (キュクロプス, Norichika Oba, 2018)

Cyclops still 1Though Japanese cinema is no stranger to noir, the genre has perhaps failed to gain the foothold it occupies in overseas. Nevertheless, noir is where Norichika Oba aims to take us in his second feature as an ex-con emerges from prison with only one thing on his mind – revenge. The poetically titled Cyclops (キュクロプス) is heady noir filled with unreliable narratives, not least that coming from our foggy headed protagonist, in which the sands of truth are constantly shifting beneath our feet. Then again, perhaps the truth is better off buried. Clarity delivers its own burdens.

14 years ago Shinohara (Mansaku Ikeuchi) went to prison for the murder of his wife, Akiko (Ako). He was discovered cradling her lifeless body in a hotel room covered in blood next to the body of another man – Tezuka, a politician, thought to be her lover. After his business went under Shinohara started to drink, heavily. At the time of the incident he was an alcoholic and claims to have no memory of anything prior to discovering his wife’s body owing to being in a state of permanent inebriation. He is sure, however, that he would never have hurt her and denies all the charges. Nevertheless, he’s spent the last 14 years in custody keeping his head down and is about to be paroled. Which is where Matsuo (Kouzou Satou) comes in. A sergeant on the original case, Matsuo has long been harbouring feelings of guilt over the way the affair was handled and claims to have discovered the identity of the “real” killer – a petty yakuza called Zaizen (Hikohiko Sugiyama) who was after the politician and offed Akiko to tie up loose ends. The law can no longer help in this case, but Matsuo suggests Shinohara pursue his own justice and put an end to the matter in the old fashioned way.

What ensues is a complicated cat and mouse game as Shinohara, a bruiser with a prison education in street violence, prepares to take on a vicious and vindictive mob boss who he believes took his wife’s life on a whim to further his own career. Matsuo teams him up with one of Zaizen’s guys, Nishi (Yu Saito), who supposedly wants to do “the right thing” in training a rookie to take out his boss. Meanwhile, Shinohara has also gotten himself into trouble by visiting a local bar named Galatea which is run by a mama-san who looks exactly like Akiko and is also under threat from Zaizen and his collection of sleazy henchmen.

Of course, nothing is quite as it seems and Shinohara, perhaps naively trusting almost everyone he comes into contact with, is left with no clear indication of who he should believe and which story is likely to be the most “true”. Lying back on a jetty under the pale white moon, he thinks he sees the image of his wife, ghostly yet dressed in a fiery red which reflects back on him, bathing his face. Shinohara has a series of nightmares or perhaps flashbacks in which he relives the murder, seeing the killer remove his balaclava but imagining a different face every time.

The title of the film comes from a painting in the bar which is inspired by Greek mythology and features a scene of the giant cyclops Polyphemus hovering behind a mountain while his unrequited object of affection, Galatea, hides herself below. Haru (Ako), the bar’s mama-san, aligns herself with Galatea as a woman trapped between conflicting emotions and effectively held prisoner by her own inertia, longing for escape but unwilling to accept it. Shinohara, at this point sporting an eyepatch and likened to the quasi-stalker giant, wonders if the cyclops has in some way forgotten what it was he was looking in the first place and is simply wandering without aim or purpose. Shinohara has indeed forgotten many things, holding the key to his own salvation all along but proving slow to realise the extent to which he is being misused.

Yet for all his talk of vengeance, Shinohara remains a good and kind man who wants to protect the innocent even while punishing the guilty. Adopting a stray dog, perhaps out of identification with its lonely existence, Shinohara’s humanity begins to resurface enabling him to form an oddly genuine friendship with Nishi even whilst suspecting that he is not all he seems. The bad guys get what’s coming them, but it’s forgiveness that eventually saves the day as the two men find a kind of brotherhood born of mutual understanding and respect. Freedom is won and then given away freely as the cyclops regains his sight, learning to look within for the key to all mysteries while walking a dark and dangerous path towards salvation.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Masanori Tominaga, 2009)

Pandora's BoxOsamu Dazai is one of the twentieth century’s literary giants. Beginning his career as a student before the war, Dazai found himself at a loss after the suicide of his idol Ryunosuke Akutagawa and descended into a spiral of hedonistic depression that was to mark the rest of his life culminating in his eventual drowning alongside his mistress Tomie in a shallow river in 1948. 2009 marked the centenary of his birth and so there were the usual tributes including a series of films inspired by his works. In this respect, Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Pandora no Hako) is a slightly odd choice as it ranks among his minor, lesser known pieces but it is certainly much more upbeat than the nihilistic Fallen Angel or the fatalistic Villon’s Wife. Masanori Tominaga had made an impact with his debut film The Pavillion Salamandre and seemed to be a perfect fit for the quirkier, darkly comic Pandora’s Box but perhaps in the end it was too perfect a fit.

Inspired by events from Dazai’s own life, the story centres around a young man at the end of the second world war who has been suffering from tuberculosis for some time but kept quiet about it expecting to die soon and remove the burden on his family. However, when the war finally ends Risuke (Shota Sometani) inherits a new will to live and commits himself to a sanatorium to treat his lung condition. Whilst in the hospital he comes into contact with writers and poets as well as pretty nurses all the while proceeding with his plan to become a “new man” for this “new era”.

At once both hopeful and nihilistic, Pandora’s Box mixes gallows humour and denial in equal measure as the motley collection of inpatients waste their days away in this eccentric establishment which looks after them well enough but promises no real progress in terms of their health. Each of the patients receives a nickname when they enter the sanatorium so Risuke quickly becomes Hibari (sky lark). Tellingly, these nicknames overwrite real world personas – original names are recalled only at the time of death. Deaths do indeed occur but aside from these unhappy events, no one acknowledges the seriousness of their condition or the possibility that they may die from it, never leaving the hospital again. Physical pain and suffering is almost entirely absent though Risuke gives ample vent to his mental anguish through his letters to a fellow patient who has now been discharged back into the unseen chaos of the post-war world.

Indeed, the sanatorium might be a kind of idyll in this era of instability. Well fed and well cared for, the patients are far better off than many left adrift in the starving cities but the outside world rarely impinges on the isolated atmosphere of the sanatorium. Events change slightly when a friend of Risuke’s, Tsukushi (Yosuke Kubozuka), is discharged and a new nurse, Take (Mieko Kawakami), arrives stirring up various different emotions amongst the male patients in Risuke’s ward. Striking up a friendship with the younger nurse, Mabo (Riisa Naka), Risuke finds himself torn between two very different women.

Although its tone is necessarily one of depression and numbness, Pandora’s Box ends on an improbably upbeat note in which Risuke remarks that just like a climbing plant he may not know where he’s going, but it will certainly be a place of bright sunlight. A minor work filled with dark, ironic humour it’s perhaps unfair to expect the same kind of impact as Dazai’s more weighty efforts but Pandora’s Box is a lower budget affair which, although interesting enough in terms of direction, fails to make much of an impression outside of its obvious pedigree. The light jazzy score and deadbeat voice over add to the period feel whilst also lending an air of hopeless yet buoyant resignation to Risuke’s ongoing journey into the post-war world. This, in many ways, is what we’re here for – Risuke, unlike Dazai, has made a commitment to forge a way forward in which he plans to fight for the sun rather sink below the waves.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rolling (ローリング, Masanori Tominaga, 2015)

384f90_4054bb8ba5554cc186f2bce4c6beb853“Weird teacher” is almost becoming a genre now. Even so, the teacher at the center of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling may give them all a run for their money (well, for about five yards before having somekind of bizarre accident, anyway). Gondo is a feckless middle aged man who was fired from his teaching position ten years previously after having been caught secretly filming the girls’ changing rooms. Now he’s back in his old stalking ground after having pulled off an improbable white knight routine by rescuing the young and pretty Mihara from a bad boyfriend in Tokyo. However, his former students have not forgotten him or his pervy ways! It’s not long before the entire town of twenty somethings are on Gondo’s case hoping for a little vengeance for their teenage betrayal.

However, Gondo’s fortunes improve slightly when it’s discovered that some of his secret recordings feature some rather salacious goings on starring a former classmate whose TV career is just about to kick off. Smelling money in the air, Gondo is suddenly everyone’s best friend again. Gondo is…still Gondo though so as you may expect this state of affairs will not last. He’s even lost Mihara to a former student of his, one he even quite likes too…

Despite his failings and protestations to the contrary, what Gondo ultimately remains is a teacher. Yes he’s made some mistakes (understatement of the century), and he’s actually quite unpleasant in a lot of ways but somehow he still wants to protect this ragtag bag of not quite young people that he previously harmed. Coming to the realisation that his actions not only resulted in revulsion and violation of trust but also had a disruptive effect on the educational progress of his students simply resulting from his abrupt dismissal, Gondo does at least want to make amends (in his own way).

However, Gondo’s just the kind of guy things never work out for. “All my students are idiots” he proclaims at one point and he’s not altogether wrong. Attempting to hatch a blackmail plot with a very strange group of a idol managers-cum-gangsters and an ex-policeman, the gang get themselves into a whole world of trouble which is only exacerbated when the almost famous subject of the video comes forward and makes a very surprising request of her old flame and Gondo’s kindly love rival Kanichi.

Darkly comic, Rolling has the air of a film noir B movie with its ever present voice over and thriller trappings including secret video taping, a blackmail plot and trio of business-like gangsters. It is though, also firmly grounded in the now despite its often surreal humour. Also branded an “erotic comedy” Rolling is fairly high on sexual content adding to its generally sleazy feeling. It may well go down as a cult hit simply for the phrase “I’m going to make a milkshake out of your filthy boob juice” which gives you some indication as to the tone.

Far from perfect but oddly touching if sometimes baffling too, Rolling is another strange and surreal adventure from Tominaga. Its slightly vulgar tone may put off some but by and large it gets away with it through sheer cheekiness and absurd humour. Gondo is a dreadful person almost all of the time, selfish and needy yet he also seems to have this yearning for redemption which makes him seem not so bad really, as does the fact that most of his former students have not turned out all that well – even the “hero” Kanichi has his problems. For those that can accept its oddly surreal tone and decidedly old fashioned gender politics, Rolling is a rewarding and delightfully absurd film that does also manage to pack in a decent (if subtle) amount of social commentary.


Reviewed at Raindance 2015.

Review of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling (ローリング) – first published by UK Anime Network.