The Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Akira Ikeda, 2021)

“Just shoot where you’re told and you’ll be fine” a veteran advises an unusually curious newbie when asked who exactly it is they’re shooting at, beginning to question for the first time everything he’s been told. Continuing in the same vein as his 2017 surrealist drama Ambiguous Places, Akira Ikeda’s Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Kimajime Gakutai no Bonyari Senso) follows a more linear though meandering path in its timely anti-war message as the brainwashed hero comes to contemplate the tenets of his society thanks to a naive young man and the healing power of music. 

The small town of Tsuhiramachi has been at war with Tawaramachi across the river for so long no one can remember why it is that they’re fighting, least of all perpetually absent-minded mayor Natsume (Renji Ishibashi) who can’t even remember his own son’s name. Soldier Tsuyuki (Kou Maehara) is woken every day by a marching band, meeting friend and colleague Fujima (Hiroki Konno) in the street and walking over to the barracks where he changes into his uniform and then spends all day firing a rifle across the river. His identical days are disrupted when former thief Mito (Hiroki Nakajima) is conscripted into their group and Fujima is injured in seemingly the only instance of returned fire. Tsuyuki is then transferred to the marching band and begins practicing his trumpet by the water only to be surprised when he begins hearing someone joining him from the other side. 

Everyone in Tsuhiramachi walks with automaton rigidity and talks with an almost ritualistic austerity in which dialogue is repeated endlessly and conversation loops are common. The townspeople dress as if they were stuck in the 1940s though the uniforms are more European than Japanese while Tsuyuki and Fujima wear identical blue suits when travelling to and from their homes. The thief, Mito, meanwhile dresses in a less formal brown shirt and trousers, apparently engaging in stealing from the local simmered food stand for reasons of poverty while his friend, mayor’s son Heiichi (Naoya Shimizu), does so because he can. When the stall owner’s wife catches them, Heiichi allows his father to think he valiantly chased a thief and is made a police officer for his pains continuing to extort food and generally abuse his authority largely conferred through feudal dynastic privilege. 

There is certainly something in Mito’s tendency to frame each of his statements as a questions, asking “Am I a soldier now?” Or “My name is Mito?” when questioned. The lady who runs the diner where Tsuyuki frequently lunches is extremely proud of her son away fighting up river and resents being questioned by Mito, shovelling extra rice into the men’s bowls when impressed by something they’ve said and then taking it back when disappointed. Mito wants to know why it is they’re fighting and who the people across the river really are. Shiroko (Hairi Katagiri) doesn’t approve of asking such taboo questions and affirms that she doesn’t need to meet the residents of Tawaramachi to know that they’re “barbaric”, “horrible” people. Even the owner of the simmered food stall who insists he knows “everything” insists he’s no interest in knowing about Tawaramachi. 

Yet they’re always being told that the “threat” from across the river is increasing even if the mayor has forgotten what the threat exactly is. Meanwhile, an elite troop will soon be arriving to take part in the trials for a brand new super weapon. A disapproving Shirako asks Tsuyuki how music is useful for the war, but he doesn’t know, he’s merely following orders. Music however, along with Mito’s awkward questions, begins to open his eyes as he contemplates whether the trumpeter from across the water can really be so different from himself. He disapproves of Heiichi’s abuse of his authority, of civil servant Kawajiri’s apparent replacing of his wife with another woman because he believes she cannot bear children, and of the army’s treatment of a friend now struggling to find employment having lost his arm for the good of the town. Shiroko insists that dying in war is better than being injured, but the young universally agree that no, it isn’t. In this strangely Kafka-esque world of crypto-militarism and the feudal mentality, Tsuyuki finds freedom and escape in his trumpet but not even these it seems are enough to call the “meaningless” and internecine violence to a halt. Filled with a strangely poignant poetry, Ikeda’s absurdist drama takes aim at lingering authoritarianism but suggests that music may be panacea for human conflict if only we’d stop a little and listen. 


The Blue Danube streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Boy and His Samurai (ちょんまげぷりん, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2010)

Boy and his samurai poster 1Edo/Tokyo – what difference can a name make? A lot, it seems, but then perhaps not so much as you’d think. “Edo” was the seat of power in Japan from 1603 until it was renamed “Tokyo” during the Meiji Restoration, heralding a brand new era of modernity following more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation. Logically, there must have been people who went to sleep in Edo and woke up in Tokyo, but most of them didn’t nap for nearly 200 years. The hero of A Boy and his Samurai (ちょんまげぷりん, Chonmage Purin) didn’t exactly nap either, but he’s fetched up 200 years in the future, which, you have to admit, is very disorientating.

Divorced single mother Hiroko (Rie Tomosaka) is late getting her 6-year-old son Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki) out of the house and on his way to school so she’s less than interested when he suddenly stops in the street to stare at a severe man in samurai dress standing outside a supermarket. Assuming it’s some kind of advertising stunt, Hiroko drags her son away, but the man turns up again later wandering around their apartment block and seemingly very confused. Hiroko tries to help him, but he is extremely rude and intimidating, eventually demanding to be taken back to her apartment almost at sword point. Nevertheless, once everyone has figured out the man, who says his name is Kijima Yasube (Ryo Nishikido) and he’s a samurai retainer, is either quite mad or a time traveller, the trio being living together and trying to bridge their very different social values.

Those values have obviously changed a lot, but in many ways not enough. Hiroko has a regular job at an advertising agency but is disrespected by some of her colleagues because she can’t work overtime and has to leave early to make sure someone picks up Tomoya. We learn that the reason she divorced her husband two years ago is that while he pretended to be modern and progressive, he was unwilling to share his portion of the domestic burden and secretly wanted his wife to quit work and look after the house despite superficially encouraging her with her career. Hiroko figured it made no difference if he was around or not, so she left him and took Tomoya with her. Hiroko likes her job, but working also reinforces her individual identity (even if blending into the corporate) aside from that of wife and mother which has all too often been all that a woman is in a rigid and conformist society.

Indeed, when Yasube first arrives he adopts a superior tone and refers to Hiroko only as “woman”, viewing her as necessarily inferior by reason of sex while also reasserting himself as a samurai communicating with someone he assumes to be of the lower orders. Yasube is stunned to learn that Hiroko has a surname – a reminder that those of the lower orders did not (officially) have surnames until the Meiji Restoration. He now thinks she must be very noble, adopts a suitably humble tone, and resigns himself to accepting her hospitality in the absence of other options. He can’t get his head around her family situation or process the various motions towards sexual equality the modern world has produced. To him women manage the house and men protect it from outside. He finds Hiroko’s desire for independence strange and this new world uncivilised.

Nevertheless, he decides to give the Tokyo way a go by stepping briefly beyond himself – in return for room and board, he’ll effectively become Hiroko’s “wife”, managing all the domestic chores while she concentrates on her career. Yasube finds a strange affinity for domesticity, quickly getting to grips with white goods and taking recipe notes from cooking TV (to write them down with ink and a brush using classical Japanese script). Despite never tasting them before, he finds himself a natural baker providing sweet treats for all. However, Hiroko perhaps disappoints herself by accidentally slipping into the role of workaholic salaryman, suddenly embracing the art of overtime and leaving everything at home in the capable hands of Yasube without really considering his feelings even if he never seems to resent it.

Trouble brews when Yasube gets the opportunity to build a career of his own as a pastry chef. Hiroko, true to her word, is encouraging and obviously wants to give him the opportunity to fulfil himself, but the same situation recurs – Yasube becomes obsessed with his professional development leaving little Tomoya brokenhearted and missing his surrogate dad. The problem isn’t so much gender roles as a reluctance to fully commit by agreeing to share domestic responsibilities equally in recognition of equal commitment to a mutual endeavour. Then again, Yasube disappoints – his Edo ethics reassert themselves. he answers Hiroko’s pleas that he spend more time with Tomoya by suggesting she quit her job so he won’t be lonely while his wages can support them as a family. He thinks he’s saying something nice, confirming his loyalty to them as a father figure who will protect and provide, but it’s the wrong the thing to say and only goes to show that his “ancient” way of thinking is sadly not quite archaic enough.

Likewise, his old-fashioned parenting style of fatherly authority advanced with shouts and stares would likely not be approved by most today but it does uncomfortably seem to be accepted by the film, as if Tomoya needs male parental input rather than just benefiting from having a mum who’s less tired and stressed out for having someone to share her life with. He does, however, soften on exposure to Tokyo liberality, willingly embracing modern equalities in realising that there’s nothing wrong with a man supporting a woman and a child in ways other than the financial even if he eventually goes back on it when presented with the opportunity to reassert his male pride as a provider, declaring that domestic matters “no longer concern” him now that he has “other duties”. “Tokyo” still has a ways to go (where doesn’t?), but it’s moving in the right direction even if there are some who are content to be slow in catching up.


Original trailer compilation (no subtitles)

Chin-yu-ki: The Journey to the West with Farts (珍遊記, Yudai Yamaguchi, 2016)

Chin-yu-ki posterWhen a film tells you what it is, you should believe it the first time. Many fine films are undone by unwise titles, but if you were expecting anything more than what is promised by the title of Chin-yu-ki: Journey to the West with Farts (珍遊記), you have only yourself to blame. Director Yudai Yamaguchi is known for his distinctly lowbrow, zany humour and it seems he’s met his match in adapting the much loved Journey to the West parody manga, Chin-yu-ki – Taro to Yukaina Nakamatachi. Set in Japan in an indistinct period possibly somewhere around the Meiji restoration, Chin-yu-ki is a bawdy story of penis power, fantastic farts, romantic disappointments, and the ongoing path to enlightenment of its slightly more than cheeky hero.

Beginning as it means to go on, the film opens with a Buddhist nun, Genzo (Kana Kurashina – renamed “Shenzang” in the subtitles on this HK blu-ray to match the original Journey to the West), talking to an older couple referred to as “Old Fart” (Ryosei Tayama) and “Old Bag” (Takashi Sasano). The couple were never blessed with children of their own and so when they notice a great flash and something falling to Earth, they are delighted to find a lovely baby boy lying in the crater. Unfortunately, Taro Yamada (Kenichi Matsuyama), as the baby is called, is a wrong ‘un. Now 16 years old, Taro is a fiery demon who has robbed the entire area to build himself a giant mansion where he lives on his own and has provided his adoptive parents with a small hovel on the outskirts of town. Old Fart and Old Bag try to warn Genzo that Taro is not your average sinner – he controls people with his giant penis and stinky farts.

Genzo is undeterred and demonstrates her various skills which, strangely, centre around the ability to unping a bra at 20 paces (yes, apparently in this version of the Meiji era, people wear bras). Her other trick is magically hurling buns into people’s mouths which does at least shut them up for a bit. Against the odds she manages to tame Taro, reducing him to his basic, naked state in which she manages to shove a magic crown on his head which allows her to control him and stop him doing naughty things. Genzo determines to take Taro to Tianzhu to purify his soul and so the pair walk off together towards their joint destiny.

The road trip format provides plenty of scope for set piece gags as Genzo and Taro encounter various strange characters along the way who often make surprising returns. This is no character drama, but Taro does indeed learn a few things even as he remains as wilfully naughty as in his unreformed state. As it turns out, the major narrative event revolves around a grudge held by a man who previously encountered Taro at his most cruel. Ryusho (Junpei Mizobata), now a famous pretty boy actor, is still nursing a broken heart after Taro ruined his true love dream which had proved so difficult for him to win as a shy young schoolboy. Now backed by a series of strange companions including a dominatrix-type assistant who dresses in shiny leather and carries a whip, a woman in Cheongsam, and a man in anachronistic Chinese PLA uniform, Ryusho is still a hopeless romantic and develops an unlikely crush on Genzo, which she returns but is unable to act on because of her vows and her mission to reform Taro.

Misunderstandings abound and it has to be said, the crosstalk between Ryusho who has been abandoned by his buddies and has hired a series of Vietnam-era American mercenaries, Genzo, and Taro as they argue about an unclear subject is genuinely quite funny as is the reaction when Taro unmasks himself in a local bar full of bounty hunters who don’t believe he is who he says he is because he’s wearing a shirt with the name of a guy he just robbed on it. The rest of the humour is, however, of a lower order even if the penis and fart jokes fade out in the middle section of the film which does have a few amusing jokes of its own. Matsuyama delivers a surprisingly energetic performance which is in strong contrast with the distant, inscrutable characters he often plays but as cheerful as his Monkey King stand in is, he can’t compensate for the film’s otherwise disposable quality which seems primed to appeal to those seeking zany, lowbrow humour but offers very little else.


Original trailer (no subtitles)