A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yujiro Harumoto, 2020)

“What’s moral isn’t always what’s best” according to the morally compromised heroine at the centre of Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yuko no Tenbin). To Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), a balance is what a documentarian should strike, not taking one side or another but shining a light on hidden truths. The irony is that in seeking to expose one truth she accidentally stumbles on another uncomfortably close to home and although her job is to highlight injustice finds herself making the decision to do the opposite concluding that in this case, and perhaps many others, keeping quiet may actually be what’s best for victims, victimisers, and everyone in-between. 

As the film opens, Yuko is shooting a potentially manipulative interview with the grieving father of a young woman, Hiromi, who took her own life after becoming the subject of scandal and rumour when it was revealed she may have been involved in an inappropriate “relationship” with a teacher. The teacher, Mr. Yano, eventually took his own life too leaving behind him a note proclaiming his innocence and explaining that death is the manner he has chosen for his resistance. Yuko is sympathetic to Mr. Hasebe (Yuya Matsuura), but also perhaps verging on the unethical in the depth of the questions she asks him of his daughter’s death. Soon enough a conflict emerges between the nature of the documentary Yuko would like to make which is more contemplative than polemical, and the “routine piece on bullying” the TV studio think they’ve commissioned. Consequently, we see the suits redacting problematic lines in Yuko’s scripts in editorial meetings, misrepresenting Mr. Hasebe’s words in removing his criticism of mass media which he blames for hounding Mr. Yano to his death and thereby depriving him of answers. 

Yuko remains determined to provide “a balance” in interviewing Yano’s surviving family members including his mother Toshiko (Mitsuko Oka) and sister Shiho (Misa Wada), but discovers them tyrannised by the treatment they’ve received at the hands of the media and a vindictive society. Toshiko near collapses towards the end of the interview when asked if there was anything the family could have done to prevent this tragedy happening, inviting Yuko to visit her at home whereupon she discovers her living in near total darkness, afraid to go out lest she be recognised and explaining that she has few possessions in case she has to move again in a hurry because someone has exposed her address online. This little old lady is living in terror because of something her son was accused of which later caused him to take his own life and even that did not end the torment for his family. 

Meanwhile, in an ironic touch, Yuko discovers that a young woman, Mei (Yumi Kawai), attending the cram school owned by her father where she also teaches part-time has become pregnant and claims her father, Mr. Kinoshita (Ken Mitsuishi), is responsible having accepted sex in lieu of her overdue fees. Yuko does not want to disbelieve her and confronts her father, holding up her iPhone as a record, who admits that what Mei has said is true. Yuko tells herself she’s doing what’s best for Mei, bonding with her as two women who lost their mothers young (as did Hiromi), understanding that she may not want to go to the authorities because of the lingering stigma of being involved such a scandal. But she also can’t deny that her actions are self-interested in that she doesn’t want her doc pulled or her career messed up by her father’s transgression, something which gets harder to ignore when she discovers Mei’s pregnancy may be high risk and requires immediate medical treatment from a proper hospital to ensure her safety. 

The lines become ever more blurred, Yuko developing a quasi-maternal relationship with the motherless Mei which is in its way perfectly genuine even as she pays their overdue gas bill and worries about her potentially abusive father (Masahiro Umeda), but is nevertheless coloured by her desire both to cover up this harmful secret and to atone for her father’s wrongdoing. For his part, Mr. Kinoshita wants to confess but as Yuko points out he’d be doing it to unburden himself which in effect would merely shift the burden onto others including Mei but also Yuko herself, her documentary team, the other students at the cram school, and in effect everyone else they’ve ever known. 

Yet can Yuko be an effective arbiter of the truth especially when, as it turns out, neither she nor anyone else is being entirely honest? Her job is to present information in such a way that conclusions can be drawn, but she is herself making decisions in selecting the information she presents and the manner in which she presents it. She may resent the interference of the studio, but in reality they aren’t doing anything she hasn’t already done even if they are acting less out of a sense of integrity than commercial concern. “Whatever we put together is the truth” as her exasperated producer (Yota Kawase) finally insists. It’s in this same conflict that she begins to lose her sense of balance, trying to help those victimised by an unforgiving society while attempting to protect herself from unwelcome consequences of social scandal aided and abetted by the industry in which she herself works. “Ask them who is the real victimiser” Toshiko asks of Yuko taking aim at the mass media who have shamed her into a life of total darkness, but all Yuko can in the end do is turn her camera back on herself in contemplation of her shattered integrity.  

A Balance screens Aug. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Special Actors (スペシャル アクターズ, Shinichiro Ueda, 2019)

When your made on a shoestring indie debut becomes an accidental international phenomenon, no one could really blame you for succumbing to imposter syndrome. Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead, a meta comedy with high concept conceit, delighted fans around the world but rather than slide into summer tentpole territory Ueda remains true to his roots with follow up feature Special Actors (スペシャル アクターズ) once again developed through actors’ workshops and owing a significant debt to contemporary stage comedy.

Our dejected hero, Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa), is an anxious young man burdened with PTSD from childhood trauma that causes him to faint when he becomes overly stressed or is confronted by an overbearing, if not actually violent, male authority figure. He dreams of becoming a hero who can protect people like Rescue Man, the star of an American tokusatsu-style show he’s obsessively watched dubbed into Japanese since childhood, and is determined to become an actor only his habit of fainting mid-audition constantly frustrates his ambitions. Already behind on his rent and about to be fired from his part-time job as a security guard on the grounds that he didn’t disclose his “illness” when he applied, Kazuto is reunited with his estranged younger brother Hiroki (Hiroki Kono), also an actor, who offers to introduce him to his agency, “Special Actors”. In addition to the usual TV and advertising work, Special Actors speciality is renting out talent for “real” as in providing professional mourners, bulking out theatre audiences with laughing stooges, and engineering long queues outside previously empty restaurants. 

Kazuto isn’t quite convinced, not only because it seems like anxiety central, but because it’s more than a little bit shady. The lead “scenario” writer was once a conman, and you can’t get away from the fact this is all quite manipulative and essentially unethical. Forced to take the job because of his financial predicament, he finds himself involved in various plots to change problematic behaviour at the request of well-meaning relatives such as a mother desperate to rescue her daughter from frittering all her money away at host bars. But are the Special Actors really any different than a host at a host bar who is after all only playing a role, as the young woman must know even if she has for some reason been taken in by it? Perhaps they’d be better to find out what is fuelling her obsession rather than coming up with some hokum involving a fake shaman to convince her that her behaviour is dangerous on a cosmic level. 

The moral ambiguity only deepens when the team take on their biggest challenge yet, taking down a shady cult at the request of an orphaned teenage girl whose sister seems primed to give away the family inn. Abruptly shifting into the realms of the espionage thriller reimagined as theatre, Ueda concocts an elaborate heist as the Special Actors infiltrate with the intention to expose. The central irony is of course that in practical terms there isn’t so much difference between them. They are both “lying”, manipulating vulnerable people and doing it for financial gain. “Acting is a big lie” the irate director had screamed in Kazuto’s face, “you have to mean it”. Is the shady cult merely “theatre” taken to an extreme, and if so who if anyone should be held responsible?

Ueda isn’t so much interested in these themes as the ironic potential of their latent comedy, stitching together a series of theatre skit set pieces working towards the epic finale in which the hero, Kazuto, learns to put on his cape and save the day by overcoming his internal “villain” in the shape of his abusive father. Like the cult, the Special Actors are also promising salvation or at least liberation from behaviours which others find problematic regardless of the target’s own wishes or desires even if in the case of some it may be for their own good, a more elaborate form of role play than that enacted in a therapy session. We are indeed all “acting” to one extent or another and you can never be sure that anyone is who they say they are because life itself is theatre. Shot with a perhaps thematically appropriate TV drama aesthetic, Kazuto’s zero to hero journey is pure wish fulfilment fantasy, but even if never reaching the perfectly constructed heights of One Cut of the Dead is undeniably entertaining. 

Special Actors is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts. Tune in for the live Q&A (available worldwide) after the movie on July 17 (also available afterwards on demand)!

Original trailer (English subtitles)