A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Tatsushi Omori, 2010)

crowd-of-threeTatsushi Omori’s debut feature The Whispering of the Gods proved so controversial that he was left with no choice other than to set up his own temporary cinema to screen it. Five years later he returned with another uncompromising look at modern society which is only a little less grim than its predecessor. A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Kenta to Jun to Kayo-chan no Kuni) takes what has become a staple of quirky indie comedy dramas – a small group of disconnected people taking a road trip to look for something better, and turns it into a depressingly nihilistic voyage to nowhere. Never quite achieving the kind of painful, angst ridden atmosphere of disaffected young men desperately trying to break out of a social straight jacket, A Crowd of Three is an oddly cold film, undercut with a pervasive layer of misogyny and hopelessness which makes its ultimate destination somewhere few will wish to travel.

Kenta (Shota Matsuda) and Jun (Kengo Kora) are young men working dead end construction jobs. Growing up together almost like brothers in the same orphanage the pair share an intense bond but also a shared sense of having been badly let down by life even at such a young age. Their main source of relief seems to be in picking up “loose women” from the street by asking random ladies on their own for their ages. One evening Jun picks up Kayo (Sakura Ando) – a melancholy woman with low self esteem who sleeps around because she is insecure about her own plain looks. After Kenta is assaulted by the foreman, he decides to take revenge by smashing up the office and his boss’ car before taking off on a journey north to see his (biological) brother who is currently in prison.

Kayo tags along with the pair after apparently having fallen in love with Jun who is only interested in her for easy sex and occasional cash tips. Despite the fact that the film’s original Japanese title is “Jun, Kenta, and Kayo’s Country”, Kayo is quickly cast aside by the pair of travellers who think it’s funny to throw all of her stuff out of the window and abandon her at a service station in the middle of nowhere. Getting thrown out of cars and left behind in remote places is something which happens to Kayo repeatedly throughout the film as she tries to follow Jun despite his obvious indifference towards her.

Kayo just wants to feel love, but at least as far as the film goes she’s looking for it in all the wrong places. Even if Jun does start to feel something more genuine for her in the end, it’s born of a kind of shared insecurity as he worries about a repetitive strain injury from using the pneumatic drill which turns his hand white at moments of stress. After literally jilting Kayo, Jun takes up with a vacuous bar hostess who does, indeed, recoil from his pale hand. The bar hostess has very ordinary dreams – a big house, wealthy husband, children. She’s even planned out her own death. These are all things which Jun could never give her, a middle school drop out with no family he already fears he has no future but at least he’s not railroaded onto a pre-determined course and is free to choose his destination even if he feels there is nowhere for him to go.

Kenta expresses this early in the film when he states that there are two kinds of people – those who choose how they’re going to live, and those who don’t. The boys feel as if they’re in the no choice category – unceremoniously kicked out of social care and expected to fend for themselves with no education or contacts, reliant on poorly paid temporary work to get by. In a slightly overworked metaphor, Kenta and Jun’s jobs on demolition projects point to their desire to dismantle their world but the more they smash away at it the less progress they make. Kenta’s literal smashing of the car and office belonging to his boss are his final act of choice but again it gets him nowhere. Even talking to his brother who is in prison for the most heinous of crimes, Kenta finds no encouragement but only cold rejection.

A Crowd of Three goes to some very dark places ranging from work place harassment to child abuse and sexualised violence, but it largely fails to capitalise on its grim atmosphere to make any kind of impact aside from the pervasive melancholia. Omori mostly sticks to a straight forward approach with some interesting editing choices and composition but largely relies on the quality performances of his leading players. Far from youth aflame with nihilistic rage, A Crowd of Three is bleaker than bleak and frozen throughout making the battling of its heroes to transcend their difficult social circumstances a forlorn hope of epic proportions.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

all around usRyosuke Hashiguchi returns after an eight year absence with All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。Gururi no Koto) and eschews most of his pressing themes up this by point by opting to depict a few “scenes from a marriage” in post-bubble era Japan. Set against the backdrop of an extremely turbulent decade which was plagued by natural disasters, terrorism, and shocking criminal activity Hashiguchi shows us the enduring love of one ordinary couple who, finding themselves pulled apart by tragedy, gradually grow closer through their shared grief and disappointment.

Tokyo, 1993. Kanao (Lily Franky) and Shoko (Tae Kimura) have had an “on and off” (but seemingly solid) relationship since their art school days. She works at a publishing house and he’s kind of a slacker with a job in a shoe repair booth. Shoko worries that Kanao plays around too much (but actually doesn’t seem that bothered about it) whilst continuing to attempt to micromanage their entire existence with her clearly marked calendar planning out the most intimate of actions. When Shoko discovers she’s expecting a child, the pair decide to finally get married and begin their lives as a family. Kanao also gets an opportunity on the work side when an old college friend helps him get a job as a courtroom artist for a news agency.

However, their joy is short-lived as an abrupt jump forward in time shows us a tiny shrine underneath the calendar (shorn of its red crosses) dedicated to the memory of their infant daughter. Kanao is the keep calm and carry on sort so he just tries to bluster through but Shoko is distraught and slowly descending into a mental breakdown. If that weren’t enough to contend with, Shoko’s estranged father has been tracked down and is apparently very ill dredging up even more pain an uncertainty from the long buried past.

We follow Shoko and Kanao over a period of nine years. As well as the ever present motif of the calendar, we feel the passage of time through Kanao’s work at the court house which sees him become the artistic recorder of some of the most traumatic moments of the age. Having entered into an era of economic turmoil following the end of the bubble economy, the 1990s saw not only the devastating Kobe Earthquake but also the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground perpetrated by a dangerous religious cult, members of which wind up in court in front of Kanao, tasked with the thankless task of bearing witness to their testimony.

Kanao evidently decided not to discuss his personal tragedy with his work colleagues or, one would assume, his boss would not have reacted so harshly when he made the reasonable request to turn down the opportunity to sit in on yet another child murder trial – either by accident or design, the trials which present themselves to Kanao (and are all real, sensationalised media events of the time) involve the horrific murders of small children with only one of the defendants voicing any kind of regret or remorse.

Meanwhile, Shoko has been trying to get on with life as best she can but finds herself sinking ever deeper into depression. Her uptight, controlling personality cannot cope with this perceived “failure” on her part or of the destruction of all her plans by a truly unforeseen tragedy. Having had her doubts before regarding Kanao’s commitment to her, she finds his lack of reaction puzzling. Mistaking Kanao’s lack of outward emotion for indifference, Shoko finds it hard to continue believing in their shared destiny and wonders if her husband ever really cared for her at all. Kanao is a laid-back soul, someone who’s learned to become used to disappointment by accepting it quickly and then trying to move on. His more grounded approach might be just the one Shoko needs in order to come to terms with what’s happened – never pushing or complaining Kanao is contented simply by her presence and is prepared to give her the space she needs whilst always being around to offer support.

Hashiguchi relies on visual cues to help navigate the shifting dynamics including the repeated use of the calendar as a symbol of Shoko and Kanao’s marital status, the now unneeded pregnancy books bundled to be thrown out, or rice discarded in the sink as a marker of a house proud woman’s slide into crippling depression. Small moments make all the difference from a mother’s bandaged wrists and a cutback to the only person who’s noticed them, to the repeated joke of all the veteran journalists suddenly falling over themselves in an attempt to escape the courtroom and be the first to file their copy. A necessarily sad story, but an oddly warm one as two people worried they may be mismatched grow into each other in the face of their shared tragedy. Anchored by the strong performances of its two leads (particularly Tae Kimura who manages some convincing on screen crying in a difficult role) All Around Us is another beautifully pitched human drama from Hashiguchi who proves himself an adept chronicler of the human condition even whilst stepping away from his trademark themes.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fish on Land (セイジ -陸の魚-, Yusuke Iseya, 2012)

fish on landYusuke Iseya is a rather unusual presence in the Japanese movie scene. After studying filmmaking in New York and finishing a Master’s in Fine Arts in Tokyo, he first worked as model before breaking into the acting world with several high profile roles for internationally renowned auteur Hirokazu Koreeda. Since then he’s gone on to work with many of Japan’s most prominent directors before making his own directorial debut with 2002’s Kakuto. Fish on Land (セイジ -陸の魚-, Seiji – Riku no Sakana), his second feature, is a more wistful effort which belongs to the cinema of memory as an older man looks back on a youthful summer which he claimed to have forgotten yet obviously left quite a deep mark on his still adolescent soul.

The unnamed narrator begins his tale as a disheartened salary man who tells us that his days simply pass monotonously. He no longer feels contentment but neither does he feel discomfort. Making an awkward phone call to a woman we assume is his wife, he reveals that a project has come up that he simply cannot ignore – one which takes him back to a particular summer he passed as a young man in which he encountered a lost soul and perhaps lost some of his own, too.

In the summer of 1990, the narrator was just about to graduate university and had already secured a job. Taking the final opportunity to indulge some wanderlust, he takes off riding his pedal bike across the country. However, after he gets knocked over and is taken to a local bar for some first aid treatment by its classically sad mama-san, he decides to stay and is given the nickname of “traveller” by the regulars at House 475. It’s here that he meets the titular Seiji – a cynical man with unusual presence which seems to inspire both admiration and exasperation in the small group of people who’ve come to regard the bar as a home from home.

Despite its genial, summery quality, the bar is home to several kinds of sorrow. Shoko, it turns out has her own reasons for her sadness and her relationship with Seiji is often a complicated one. It’s she who describes Seiji as a fish on land – completely at odds with his environment and entirely unable to live in the world or get along with his fellow humans. Carrying deep seated scars from his past, Seiji, she claims, is unable to feel joy so long he knows someone (anyone, anywhere) is suffering. Or, more to the point, he feels so intensely guilty that he will not allow himself to be happy and has, in some senses, given up living in this world in favour of his own filled with melancholy loneliness.

Indeed, the friendly grandfather from next-door remarks that Seiji sees things far too clearly and that’s why he’s given in to despair. According to him, our human defence against the powerlessness and fear inherent in being alive is simply becoming inured. Our insensitivity saves us, but men like Seiji feel too much and are unable to bear it. On the rare occasion Seiji smiles, it’s often to do with the little girl who lives next-door, Ritsuko, but tragedy is about to come crashing in, changing lives forever and shattering grandpa’s faith in the god he previously said granted us our lack of clarity to help us cope with life’s harshness. Seiji’s reaction is an extreme one, filled with a poetic weight that is difficult for those around him to understand but at the same time perfectly in keeping with his world view.

Framing sequence aside, Iseya opts for an interesting, slightly non-linear structure in which scenes jostle like memories, slightly disordered, sometimes repeated from a different angle and with greater insight. The framing sequence itself proves the least successful aspect of the film as it fails to marry itself to the implications of the central narrative and anchor its final scene to provide the necessary weight.

Mirai Moriayama imbues the unnamed narrator with an appropriate level of passivity whilst Hideyoshi Nishijima mirrors him with an equal and opposing force of presence which is by turns mysterious, intriguing, and occasionally threatening yet filled with vulnerability. Supporting roles are also well drawn notably by Hirofumi Arai’s local boy left behind and Kiyohiko Shibukawa’s up and coming businessman about to blow out of the small town for bubble era Tokyo, as well as the damaged bar owner Shoko played by Nae Yuki whose disintegration is slowed by Seiji’s presence but still very much in evidence.

If Fish on Land has a weakness, it’s that the invading dark forces it presents feel like a cruel, absurd, visitation on this otherwise idyllic place yet perhaps that’s entirely the point. Life is full of unpredictable cruelties which have to be accommodated no matter how difficult they may be to bear. Men like Seiji are carrying a heavy burden, one which was given to them when their arms were too weak to hold it, but still, you keep on living. Beautifully photographed, intricately plotted and rich with both character and philosophical detail Seiji: Fish on Land proves another interesting effort from Iseya who doubtless has even more to offer in the future.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Love’s Whirlpool (愛の渦, Daisuke Miura, 2014)

Love's WhirpoolNo names, no strings. That’s the idea at the centre of Daisuke Miura’s adaptation of his own stage play, Love’s Whirlpool (愛の渦, Koi no Uzu). Love is an odd word here as it’s the one thing that isn’t allowed to exist in this purpose built safe space where like minded people can come together to experience the one thing they all crave – anonymous sex. From midnight to 5am this group of four guys and four girls have total freedom to indulge themselves with total discretion guaranteed.

The four couples are a disparate group which includes a primary school teacher, office lady, shy college student, and a brusque regular who apparently comes to the club five times a week. The male side consists of a slick salaryman, a freeter, a factory worker and an anxious NEET who’s cleaned out his bank account just to be here in this extremely expensive, upscale sex club. After receiving the instructions from the owner (shower first, after sex, after going to the toilet, always use a condom, and respect the women’s right to say no), the group sit awkwardly wearing only their towels waiting for someone else to kick things off.

Everyone is being extremely polite to one another, the women beginning to talk amongst themselves whilst the men do the same. Everyone has come here for the same reason but it’s not as quite as straightforward as they thought it would be. Soon enough, people start to pair up an head downstairs but after the initial ice is broken the edges sharpen, relationships change, and a kind of Bacchanalian harshness begins to take over.

Once inside the split level, trendy club style environment, the guests spend the entirety of the evening naked save for their white bath towels but this is about as far from intimacy as it’s possible to get. They may have all come for one reason, but they each had various different motives for doing so. The office lady and the school teacher are both attractive young women, confident in what they do and don’t want, and would prove a hit in any club or bar (though this is a safer option). The freeter and the salaryman could say the same though the salaryman spends half the evening phoning his wife to explain that he’s been kept out drinking with a boring colleague. College girl and Neet are both too shy to get it on independently, leaving the cynical regular and the overweight factory worker as the odd ones out. It’s not long before they’ve begun to dissect each other, ticking off the check list like remembering to buy washing powder and then discussing the merits of “Ariel” vs “Persil” with your fellow “shoppers” in the checkout line. Utilitarian as it is, as the night goes on the barriers fall away leaving both wild abandon and cruelty lying behind them.

Things are reinvigorated half way through when another couple join, a husband and wife duo who each claim to be 100% OK with how this is going to work but, as it turns out, one of them was more serious than the other. By this point, relationships have begun to solidify themselves and shy Neet has grown attached to the unexpectedly raucous, repressed college girl. Such attachments are unwise in an environment like this, and can become dangerous if everyone does not remain on the same page as to what’s going on. At the end of the evening, the guys are asked to wait so the girls can leave first – to help prevent stalking. This is no strings, remember. No names, no phone numbers, none of this ever happened.

This intense need for secrecy is understandable yet speaks something to the oddly specific conflict between repression and the open expression of erotic desire that is permitted inside the club but only if you follow its rather strict (if very sensible) rules, not to mention the arcane, underground directions needed to find it at all. For some the reason for coming here was loneliness but what they’ll find is only likely to exacerbate the aching lack of connection they already feel. The case of the college student becomes the most interesting as she fights both her own shyness and the intense shame she feels in regards to her own sexual desires. After the fact, she feels as if she’s betrayed herself, as if the “other self” that emerged during the previous night’s proceedings is a shameful doppleganger that must now go back into hiding. She wants to forget this happened, go back to being a lonely college girl but for the NEET, it’s the opposite, he feels unreal now – as if he left his “real” self behind in that unreal space.

A sophisticated take on modern human relationships, Love’s Whirlpool occasionally pulls its punches in opting for a satirical tone and only really skims the surface of why places such as these still need to exist. Stylishly shot and explicit without becoming exploitative or sleazy, Miura’s film proves a refreshingly nuanced, mature take on modern sexual behaviour even if it stops short of probing into some of the darker aspects that flicker around its edges. If Love is a whirlpool, desire is a tornado, but where a whirlpool may drag you under you’ll eventually float to the surface gasping for air. After a tornado burns through, all you’re left with is ashes and emptiness. Modern love, indeed.


English subtitled trailer (NSFW)

Parasyte The Movie Part 2 (寄生獣 完結編, Takashi Yamazaki, 2015)

parasyte part 2Review the concluding chapter of Takashi Yamazaki’s Parasyte live action movie (寄生獣 完結編, Kiseiju Kanketsu Hen) first published by UK Anime Network.


So, at the end of Part 1, Shinichi and Migi had successfully dispatched their creepy fellow student enemy in the midst of high school carnage but if they thought it was over their troubles were only just beginning. While Shinichi and Migi struggle to define what it is that they are, Ryoko Tamiya’s network is also showing cracks as her increasing levels of humanity contrast with her fellow Parasytes’ ambivalent attitudes to their host species. Ryoko may regard humans as the best hope for the survival of her kind, but you can’t argue with the fact that humanity is often the biggest threat to its own survival. The Parasytes may have a point when they describe us as a pestilence, blighting the planet with our lack of interest in our own living environment. Parasytes, dispassionate as they are, are better equipped to take the long view and ensure the survival of the Earth if only so that they may live in it.

Diverging slightly from the sci-fi movie norm, the police have cottoned on to the Parasyte threat and even uncovered the city hall based conspiracy though they haven’t quite got it all figured out yet. They are also completely unprepared to deal with the big bad that is Goto – a super Parasyte introduced in a Hannibal Lecter inspired cameo at the end of the previous film. Goto also has a minion, Miki, intent on making trouble whereas Ryoko still has various “experiments” on the go including her recently born son and a blackmail scam involving a low rent photojournalist. Add to the mix a dangerous serial killer who can ID Parasytes and the end of mankind seems like a very real possibility.

By this point, Shinichi and Migi have developed a symbiotic relationship which includes endearing little episodes like cooking dinner together with Migi using his unique capabilities to chop veg and make the ultimate miso soup. Ryoko has now given birth to her son and finds herself unexpectedly attached to her experimental offspring. After playing peekaboo with him one evening, she mimics the baby boy by laughing out loud and observing her reflection. Her human disguise has begun to feel good – what she wants now is less colonisation than peaceful co-existence. If Parasytes and humans could truly become one, embracing both the dispassionate Parasyte capacity to plan for their survival and the human capacity for compassion, perhaps both could achieve mutual salvation.

However, Ryoko’s comparatively hippy trippy viewpoint won’t play city hall and the new mayoral stooge is not as well disposed to humanity as his co-conspirator. In attempting to remove Ryoko’s various irons from the fire, the local government gang do nothing so much as invite their own destruction both at the hands of Ryoko herself and at those of the police. However, the police have not banked on Goto who has already become more powerful than they could possibly imagine. The series’ big bad, Goto isn’t given much of an opportunity play the mastermind card but is allowed to expound on his philosophy during the final fight. He says he hears a voice which instructs him to devour the whole of humanity but, after thinking about who this voice might belong to, he concluded that it belongs to humanity itself, begging to be released from its cycle of self destruction.

Less than subtle philosophising aside, Yamazaki maintains the approach and aesthetic from the first film though Part 2 is a little more serious in tone and more given over to meaningful speechifying than its gore filled predecessor. The body horror shenanigans are much less prevalent until the quite gruesome practical effects based final fight, though we’ve already seen enough Parasyte carnage by this point to know the score. That said, the Terminator 2 inspired car sequence and Goto’s unexpected superhero metamorphosis more than satisfy the craving for explosive action.

Parasyte plays with dualities to the max as Ryoko and Shinichi travel the same path from opposite directions ending by meeting somewhere in the middle and parting on a note of understanding rather than one of conflict. In the end, the film’s major message seems to be a plea for harmony in all things. One of Ryoko’s final thoughts casts grief as another kind of parasite – invading the soul, corrupting it and transforming a once rational person into a creature of fear and rage. She eventually finds an answer to all of her questions in the most human of things, emotional connection becomes her salvation and her final hope was that this union of pragmatism and passion could serve as a plan for the salvation of both species.

Even if Parasyte is a little blunt in delivering its well worn messages about the mankind’s negative effect on the planet, the essential baseness of the human spirit, and that desire for survival in one form or another is the driving force of all life, it does so in an interesting fashion and generally avoids falling into the cod philosophy trap of more seriously minded science fiction adventure. Once again Yamazaki marshals all his powers to create a well produced genre-hybrid of a blockbuster movie which takes its cues from 80s genre classics and is well anchored by a series of committed, nuanced performances from its admittedly starry cast.


Parasyte The Movie: Part 2 is available on DVD and blu-ray in the UK from Animatsu Entertainment.

English subtitled trailer:

The Whispering of the Gods (ゲルマニウムの夜, Tatsushi Omori, 2005)

whispering of the godsIf you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live in hell, you could enjoy this fascinating promotional video which recounts events set in an isolated rural monastery somewhere in snow covered Japan. A debut feature from Tatsushi Omori (younger brother of actor Nao Omori who also plays a small part in the film), The Whispering of the Gods (ゲルマニウムの夜, Germanium no Yoru) adapted from the 1998 novel by Mangetsu Hanamura, paints an increasingly bleak picture of human nature as the lines between man and beast become hopelessly blurred in world filled with existential despair.

Rou (Hirofumi Arai) has returned to the religious community where he was raised but his reasons for this seem to have everything and nothing to do with God. He claims that he “kind of killed some people” and also says he’s a rapist, but there’s no way to tell how much of what he says is actually the truth. After opening with a sequence of bulls trudging through snow, we see Rou listening to a priest read from the bible, but we also see that Rou is giving the priest a hand job whilst looking resolutely vacant. Later, after expending some pent-up anger by thrashing around some with junk and kicking a dog, Rou has a heart to heart with a novice nun, Kyoko, which quickly results in a forbidden sexual relationship. Forbidden sexual relationships, well – “relationships” isn’t quite the right word here, perhaps transactions or just actions might be more appropriate, are very much the name of the game in this extremely strange community of runaways and reprobates each keen to pass their own suffering down to another through a complex network of abuse and violence.

An early scene sees Rou throw a metal pipe across his shoulders in an oddly Christ-like pose. He’s certainly no Messiah, he wants to take revenge on these people by being the very worst of them, but ultimately he does come carrying a message. Using the same tools against them as they’ve used against him all his life, he exploits the loopholes of religiosity to expose its inherent hypocrisy. He confesses sins he may or may not have committed as well as those he plans to commit. In giving him unconditional absolution for an uncommitted sin, has the priest just given him a free pass to balance the celestial books by going ahead and violating a random nun? As well as well and truly messing with the resident priest’s head, Rou’s rampant sexuality also exposes the latent longings present within the nuns themselves who are supposed to control their sexual urges, brides of Christ as they are, yet they too covertly indulge themselves in receiving satisfaction from the various kinds of strange sexual behaviour currently on offer.

Life on the farm is nature red in tooth and claw as one particularly brutal scene sees a male pig castrated with a pair of garden shears during a failed act of copulation. Later a pig will lie in neatly dissected pieces, dripping with blood and fluid. There’s no romance here, just flesh and impulse. Forming a kind of friendship with a younger boy, Toru, who is also being abused by the priests at the compound, Rou offers to take revenge for him but it seems the boy just wanted to confide in someone, to begin with. Later, Rou will take a kind of action and Toru offers to repay him by continuing the behaviours he has learned through a system of perpetual manipulation, unwittingly drawing Rou even more deeply into the spiral of abuse and hypocrisy that he set out to destroy.

Omori opts for a straightforward arthouse aesthetic which matches the bleakness of the environment and barrenness of spirituality found in this supposedly Christian commune. In fact, Omori had to go a roundabout route to get this film shown given its controversial nature which saw him set up a temporary marquee theatre to avoid having the film cut to get an Eirin certificate before getting it into more mainstream cinemas in his desired version. What it has to say about the base essence of humanity is extremely hard to take, though no less valid, and its picture of a hellish world filled with nothing but despair punctuated by guilt filled sexual episodes and violence in which there is nothing left to do but continue shovelling shit until you die is an uncomfortably apt metaphor for contemporary society.


Mangetsu Hanamura’s source novel does not appear to be available in English but actually seems to be even more disturbing than this extremely depressing film – more info over at Books From Japan.

Unsubbed trailer:

69 (Lee Sang-il, 2004)

69Ryu Murakami is often thought of as the foremost proponent of Japanese extreme literature with his bloody psychological thriller/horrifying love story Audition adapted into a movie by Takashi Miike which itself became the cornerstone of a certain kind of cinema. However, Murakami’s output is almost as diverse as Miike’s as can be seen in his 1987 semi-autobiographical novel 69. A comic coming of age tale set in small town Japan in 1969, 69 is a forgiving, if occasionally self mocking, look back at what it was to grow up on the periphery of massive social change.

The swinging sixties may have been in full swing in other parts of the world with free love, rock and roll and revolution the buzz words of the day but if you’re 17 years old and you live in a tiny town maybe these are all just examples of exciting things that don’t have an awful lot to do with you. If there’s one thing 69 really wants you know it’s that teenage boys are always teenage boys regardless of the era and so we follow the adventures of a typical 17 year old, Ken (Satoshi Tsumabuki), whose chief interest in life is, you guessed it, girls.

Ken has amassed a little posse around himself that he likes to amuse by making up improbable fantasies about taking off to Kyoto and sleeping with super models (oddly they almost believe him). He talks a big about Godard and Rimbaud, posturing as an intellectual, but all he’s trying to do is seem “cool”. He likes rock music (but maybe only because it’s “cool” to like rock music) and becomes obsessed with the idea of starting his own Woodstock in their tiny town but mostly only because girls get wild on drugs and take their tops off at festivals! When the object of his affection states she likes rebellious guys like the student protestors in Tokyo, Ken gets the idea of barricading the school and painting incomprehensible, vaguely leftist jargon all over the walls as a way of getting her attention (and a degree of kudos for himself).

69 is a teen coming of age comedy in the classic mould but it would almost be a mistake to read it as a period piece. Neither director Lee Sang-il nor any of the creative team are children of the ‘60s so they don’t have any of the nostalgic longing for an innocent period of youth such as perhaps Murakami had when writing the novel (Murakami himself was born in 1952). The “hero”, Ken, is a posturing buffoon in the way that many teenage boys are, but the fact that he’s so openly cynical and honest about his motivations makes him a little more likeable. Ken’s “political action” is merely a means of youthful rebellion intended to boost his own profile and provide some diversion at this relatively uninteresting period of his life before the serious business of getting into university begins and then the arduous yet dell path towards a successful adulthood.

His more intellectual, bookish and handsome buddy Adama (Masanobu Ando) does undergo something of a political awakening after the boys are suspended from school and he holes up at home reading all kinds of serious literature but even this seems like it might be more a kind of stir crazy madness than a general desire to enact the revolution at a tiny high school in the middle of nowhere. Ken’s artist father seems oddly proud of his son’s actions, as if they were part of a larger performance art project rather than the idiotic, lust driven antics of a teenage boy but even if the kids pay lip service to opposing the war in Vietnam which they see on the news every night, it’s clear they don’t really care as much as about opposing a war as they do about being seen to have the “cool” opinion of the day.

Lee takes the period out of the equation a little giving it much less weight than in Murakami’s source novel which is very much about growing up in the wake of a countercultural movement that is actually happening far away from you (and consequently seems much more interesting and sophisticated). Were it not for the absence of mobile phones and a slightly more innocent atmosphere these could easily have been the teenagers of 2003 when the film was made. This isn’t to criticise 69 for a lack of aesthetic but to point out that whereas Murakami’s novel was necessarily backward looking, Lee’s film has half an eye on the future.

Indeed, there’s far less music than one would expect in the soundtrack which includes a few late ‘60s rock songs but none of the folk/protest music that the characters talk about. At one point Ken talks about Simon & Garfunkel with his crush Matsui (Rina Ohta) who reveals her love for the song At the Zoo so Ken claims to have all of the folk duo’s records and agrees to lend them to her though his immediately asking to borrow money from his parents to buy a record suggests he was just pretending to be into a band his girl likes. Here the music is just something which exists to be cool or uncool rather than an active barrier between youth and age or a talisman of a school of thought.

Lee’s emphasis is firmly with the young guys and their late adolescence growth period, even if it seems as if there’s been little progress by the end of the film. There’s no real focus on their conflict with the older generation and the movie doesn’t even try to envisage the similar transformation among the girls outside of the way the boys see them which is necessarily immature. That said, the film is trying to cast a winking, wry look back at youth in all its eager to please insincerity. It’s all so knowingly silly, posturing to enact a revolution even though there’s really no need for one in this perfectly pleasant if slightly dull backwater town. They’ll look back on all this and laugh one day that they could have cared so much about about being cool because they didn’t know who they were, and we can look back with them, and laugh at ourselves too.


Ryu Murakami’s original novel is currently available in the UK from Pushkin Press translated by Ralph McCarthy and was previously published in the US in the same translation by Kodansha USA (but seems to be out of print).

Unsubtitled trailer:

and just because I love it, Simon & Garfunkel At the Zoo