Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Daihachi Yoshida, 2020)

“Landscapes don’t stay the same” laments a young woman in Daihachi Yoshida’s slick corporate drama, Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Damashie No Kiba), though the more things change the more they stay the same and the push and pull of traditionalists and modernisers seems set to be an unending battle. If someone were brave enough to think of it, there may be a third way, but one thing is clear – it’s adapt or die for the printed word and the real war is over who makes it onto the page and how they do it. 

When the CEO of a major family-owned publishing house dies of a heart attack while walking his dog, it throws the entire industry into disarray and even makes it onto the national news where pundits discuss who might be most likely to succeed while pointing out that publishing is already in crisis seeing as most novels are serialised in literary journals and magazine readership is on its way out. Earnest editor Megumi (Mayu Matsuoka) is forever told that old and new is a false dichotomy and in some ways it may be, but century-old literary journal Kunpu Review is quite clearly mired in a traditionalist past woefully out of touch with contemporary society. 

This Megumi learns to her cost when pulled straight from the CEO’s funeral to a 40th anniversary event marking the debut of their best-selling author Daisaku Nikaido (Jun Kunimura). Encouraged by rival editor Hayami (Yo Oizumi), she gives her honest opinion on Nikaido’s work pulling him up on the latent sexism in his novels by suggesting his sexual politics are at best old-fashioned. This is of course a huge faux pas and a moment of minor embarrassment for all concerned, though it will also become a repeated motif Megumi again trying to bring up a younger author on his subpar portrayal of women but finding her concerns falling on deaf ears. 

Part of the problem is that authors, and particularly well-established ones, rarely undergo a rigorous editing process such as they might outside of Japan. Kunpu is so desperate to keep Nikaido on side that they treat him as a mini god, wasting vast amounts of their budget expensing him for “research” holidays and a healthy interest in fine wines. They simply wouldn’t have the courage to tell him that his drafts are improvable or that elements of his writing may cause offence. 

Hayami, the tricky editor of rival culture mag Trinity, is by contrast deliberately looking for the modern but in other ways is not so different from Kunpu. Poaching an up and coming author Megumi had pitched but was rejected, Hayami embarks on an elaborate PR campaign casting the young and handsome Yajiro (Hio Miyazawa) as a literary idol star. But Yajiro seems to be uncomfortable with the attention, unprepared to deal with demands of being a prominent writer and resenting Hayami’s attempts to manipulate his image by forcing him into photoshoots dressed in outfits he would never wear. Hayami also engineers a publicity stunt implying Yajiro is in a relationship with his other protege, a young model and unexpected firearms enthusiast (Elaiza Ikeda) who is later arrested after shooting a stalker with a homemade pistol. 

What happens to Saki Jojima is either an unintended consequence or direct result of Hayami’s inability to fully control the situation, but it also creates both crisis and opportunity for Trininty when Hayami breaks protocol and decides to run Saki’s issue rather than pulling it entirely with an apology as is usual in Japan when a celebrity is the subject of scandal. This places him in direct opposition to the traditionalist Kunpu, horrified and insistent that his decision stains the integrity of the publishing house. Like Hayami, however, new CEO Tomatsu (Koichi Sato) is determined to do things differently and prepared to take a gamble, secretly working on his own plan to streamline the business and build their own production/distribution facility in Yokohama. 

Everyone is so absorbed in their own plotting that they fail to notice others plotting around them. Megumi, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the survival of her father’s old-fashioned book shop which itself badly needs another literary hit because half the customers are kids who come in to browse the manga and then download the good ones when they get home. One young woman looking for a particular novel even explains that she only wants to read it because there’s no movie or drama adaptation. With all this finagling, it’s easy to think everyone’s forgotten about the books while Megumi desperately tries to get someone to let her do some actual editing because they’re all too busy mollycoddling their authors. Nevertheless there’s more to the Kunpu vs Trinity battle than it first seems as they vie for the future of Japan’s publishing industry little suspecting that there may be another contender with a less acrimonious solution. “If something could be updated it should be” Megumi insists, a sentiment which apparently goes both for dinosaur writers unwilling to reckon with their latent misogyny and the book business itself. 

Once again adapting a literary source, Yoshida’s gentle farce quietly builds the tension with courtly intrigue as the wider society remains rapt over the succession crisis at a publishing firm while its ambitious courtiers plot amongst themselves in order to steal the throne. Casting Yo Oizumi in the role he apparently inspired in the book is another masterstroke of meta commentary as his thrill-seeking manipulator plays the long game but even if the prognosis for Japan’s publishing industry may be bleak there is unexpected glee to be had in the eventual triumph of a righteous underdog over a thoroughbred plotter. 


Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction screens on Aug. 26 and 28 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

his (Rikiya Imaizumi, 2020)

Though Japanese society is often regarded as comparatively liberal, that liberality can sometimes reflect a superficial politeness and respect of discretion more than true acceptance. Though several prefectures have now made local provision for same sex unions, Japan lacks a basic anti-discrimination law at the national level protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ people and has often been slow to accommodate social change especially when it comes to the organisation of the family unit. The journey of the two men at the centre of Rikiya Imaizumi’s his, a sequel to the TV drama of the same name set some years earlier, perhaps travels at a rapid pace from internalised homophobia to the acceptance of identity and foundation of a home but mirrors the path of society at large as it edges its way towards the truly liberal in which all are free to live in the way they choose. 

Beginning with an ending, Imaizumi opens in the “past” as Shun (Hio Miyazawa), now an isolated young man living alone in the country, dwells on ancient heartbreak as his first love Nagisa (Kisetsu Fujiwara) abruptly breaks up with him as they prepare to graduate from university. We subsequently discover that Shun got a regular salaryman job but remained in the closet only for rumours to circulate around him at work forcing him to endure the casual homophobia of his co-workers at the compulsory nomikai all the while denying his true identity. This seems to be the reason that he’s taken up the offer of cheap rural housing designed to bring the young back to the depopulated countryside and has been largely keeping himself to himself, growing his own produce and deliberately keeping the locals at arms’ length. All that starts to change, however, when Nagisa suddenly turns up on his doorstep with his six-year-old daughter Sora (Sakura Sotomura) in tow. 

Though not exactly overjoyed, Shun allows the pair to stay but remains conflicted unsure what it is Nagisa wants from him and also fearful of his new life being derailed should the local community discover what it is that he’s so obviously in hiding from. Nagisa, meanwhile, apparently broke up with him for the same reasons, afraid to continue into his adult life as an openly gay man eventually travelling to Australia where he drifted into a relationship with a Japanese woman, Rena (Wakana Matsumoto), working as an interpreter with whom he later conceived a child and formed a conventional family. Struggling with himself he tried to maintain the facade through casual relationships with men, but discovered that he couldn’t make it work and unlike Shun decided the only way out of his predicament was to embrace his sexuality and attempt to live a more authentic life with the man he never stopped loving. 

Having pursued contradictory solutions to the same problem, the two men find themselves still in some senses at odds even as they reunite in their obvious love for each other. Nagisa envisages for them a family life raising Sora together and with the help of his sympathetic, supportive lawyer intends to have his conviction vindicated by a verdict in law but his former wife, while not openly hostile if obviously hurt and feeling humiliated in having been deceived, wishes to retain custody of her daughter even though she was not the primary caregiver. The court battle opens a veritable can of worms in a fiercely patriarchal, conformist society, Nagisa’s lawyer reminding him that he has an uphill battle because society inherently believes that women are better suited to childrearing. Rena’s lawyer throws the homophobic book at them, describing the relationship between the two men as “eccentric”, implying it cannot be other than harmful to Sora not least because of the bullying and social stigma she may face as a daughter raised by two fathers. Even the judge agrees that the situation is “not exactly normal”, though in this he may have a point in the fact that Nagisa had been a househusband and his wife the breadwinner, still an extraordinarily unusual family setup in a society in which women are expected to shoulder the domestic burden sacrificing their careers in the process. 

Indeed, it’s this same paradox that Nagisa’s female lawyer eventually throws back at Rena, that she cannot claim to adequately care for her daughter while working especially as she is a freelancer whose hours are often unpredictable. Rena had been reluctant to involve her family because of the shame of admitting her marriage has failed and for the reason it has but is later forced to ask her mother for childcare assistance only to receive a curt “I told you so” which speaks volumes as to the quality of their relationship. Meeting in a coffeeshop Rena looks at her mother looking askance with mild though unvoiced disgust at two men holding hands, reflecting both on her unforgiving austerity and her relationship with her granddaughter. The two women obviously differ when it comes to childrearing philosophy, Rena not wanting her daughter to suffer in the same way she has suffered because of her mother’s unforgiving conservatism and is extremely worried on being called to the school and told that Sora, who had previously been so cheerful and outgoing, has become sullen and withdrawn. 

Yet Sora is perhaps the force which allows each of her parents to accept themselves for who they are and embrace their true identities. Worried that she might be a burden to her mother who often drinks and appears to resent her for interfering with her work, Sora wonders why everyone can’t just get along and live together happily. She sees nothing “weird” in her father’s new relationship, though perhaps fails to understand why the four of them might not be able to live together as a family. Supported by Sora, Shun begins accept himself for himself, eventually coming out to the community and finding them entirely unbothered by his revelation bearing out the commonly held belief that small rural communities are often far more liberal than the famously conservative capital. Filled with a sense of love and mutual support, his presents a perhaps idealistic view of the modern society but an infinitely hopeful one as the three adults resolve to be kinder to themselves and others as they move forward together into a happier, more authentic existence. 


his streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2019)

Gambling, the ultimate act of faith or the height of anarchic genius? Based on the hit manga which has already been adapted as a popular TV anime, Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ) is the sequel to two seasons of a live action TV drama set in a school where hierarchy is decided not by grades or by fists, but by prowess at the gaming tables. Those who lose so badly they bankrupt themselves become a kind of subhuman underclass, tied up like dogs and routinely humiliated, while the Student Council becomes a stand in for an oppressive social order ruling over all and enforcing the law with an iron hand. 

Into this high stress environment walks Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), a transfer student to the elite Hyakkaou Private Academy determined to bend its rules to her own advantage. Meanwhile, Student Council President Kirari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda) is forced to deal with a new and unexpected threat – The Village, a small cult made up of students who have rejected the system, dropped out to live a hippy lifestyle in the grounds, and refuse to participate in “meaningless” games of chance. Their priest-like leader, Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa), once beat Kirari at cards becoming something like a god of gambling, but lost his zeal for the game after losing the only thing he ever cared about. 

Where he opposes the system passively yet pointedly, Yumeko rebels in her own, fiercely individualistic way by superficially conforming, becoming a top gambler, but only because she is exercising a free choice to do so. She plays for kicks alone, and generally wins because she isn’t stressed enough about losing to let it bother her. This individualist streak makes her a hidden threat against Kirari, but one that might in itself be an interesting gamble for the infinitely bored Student Council President. 

While Yumeko’s individualism threatens to unbalance the system, The Village presents a collectivist threat, agitating wholesale revolution and an end to the oppressive rule of the Student Council which renders losers inhuman. Yet there’s an essential irony in The Village’s creepy monotony that stands in stark contrast to Yumeko’s seeming conformity but insistence on her own freedom. Your life’s your own, she later explains, it’s annoying if people try to manipulate it. In this instance she’s talking not about the “life plans” handed out by the Student Council, but the egotistical desire to “save” the lives of others without considering if they want them saved or if you’re merely infringing on their personal freedom in attempting to make choices for them based entirely on your own value system. 

Murasame perhaps bet something he shouldn’t have and technically won, but ended up losing anyway which is what has made him turn against gambling. Yumeko, meanwhile, believes that the only way to be truly free to entrust yourself to luck and destiny. That is, however, somewhat disingenuous, because what Yumeko excels at is mind games, essentially manipulating those around her in order to win. Yumeko plays players, not cards, and is rarely played herself. Unlike Murasame’s righthand woman Arukibi (Haruka Fukuhara), she doesn’t care that much what people think. Arukibi, meanwhile, is desperate for approval and is playing her own game just to get someone’s attention which makes her a volatile, if easily manipulated, opponent.

Essentially, Murasame wants freedom outside of the system where Yumeko has found it within, but her philosophy is perhaps the more dangerous in that it proposes total freedom that has no regard for the systems of governance. Then again, maybe this is all a long con to get better cakes in the cafeteria, merely gaming the system rather than actively undermining it. Nevertheless, for Yumeko life is risk, rebelling against an oppressive social order through the anarchic individualism of living by “chance”. Living in a society as highly regimented as this is a high stakes game, but you can’t win if you don’t play, and you need to play smart. That’s the peculiar irony of life at Hyakkaou Private Academy where the Student Council literally owns your future but you can win it back by playing them at their own game. Bet your life, win your freedom Yumeko seems to say but she still makes sure to bring cake for everyone, not just the “winners” or the privileged few. 


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

International trailer (English subtitles)