Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Masayuki Suo, 2019)

Famously, silent cinema was never really “silent” in Japan. As the quote from director Hiroshi Inagaki which appears after the end credits of Masayuki Suo’s ode to the early days of the movies Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Katsuben!) reminds us, audiences always had the benshi to guide them. These narrators of film were often more of a draw than the pictures themselves, cinemagoers keener to see their favourite storyteller perform than the story up on screen. A relic of a bygone age, the benshi has often been blamed for holding Japanese cinema back as studios continued to craft their films around audience appetites for live performance, but as we’ll see even the benshi themselves could sense their obsolescence lingering on the horizon. 

Beginning in 1915, the film opens with a retro mockup of a Toei logo from the silent era though the studio was only founded in 1938 and therefore produced only sound movies. Shot as a silent picture the opening sequence follows a gang of kids as they make their way towards an active film set where a classic jidaigeki is in production, confused on passing what appears to be a woman peeing standing up against a tree, a reminder that early cinema was largely inspired by kabuki and therefore featured male actors playing female roles. This is a disappointment to young Umeko, the daughter of an itinerant sex worker, who dreams of becoming an actress. Shuntaro, a little boy obsessed with the movies and dreaming of becoming a benshi like his idol the marquee draw Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), reassures her that plenty of films from other countries feature female actors as the pair bond sneaking into the local picture house together but as in any good melodrama they are separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited 10 years later when neither of them is quite living their best life. 

While Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) is a struggling actress trying to make it in motion pictures, Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is living as a “fake benshi” impersonating Yamaoka and others for clueless provincial audiences while the gang he’s running with rob local houses using the movies as a cover. Escaping with some of the loot, he rebrands himself as “Kunisada” after a favourite character from the silver screen and fetches up in his old stomping ground, getting a backstage job at the troubled picture house which finds itself at the mercy of the new outfit in town, a purpose built modern cinema run by local yakuza Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his movie-loving modern gal daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue). Like the film itself, the town is at the nexus of changing times. The Aoki cinema is housed in a former kabuki theatre with the staff dressing in kimono even if Shuntaro and his divaish rival Mogi (Kengo Kora) don suits to talk the pictures. The palatial Tachibana meanwhile boasts modern seating and has the habit of poaching the Aoki’s staff partly because they pay more and partly because no one wants to work with Mogi who is, in his own way, an exemplification of the ways the benshi can interfere with cinematic development in that he forces the projectionist to undercrank the movies to ensure they follow the rhythm of his narration and not vice versa. 

The handsome Mogi is still pulling in the crowds, but the ageing Yamaoka has become a melancholy drunk now convinced that his own art is an act of destruction, actively unhelpful in becoming a barrier between the audience and the movies rather than a bridge. After all, cinema is a visual medium, it shouldn’t need “explaining” in words. He’s actively standing in the way, imposing his own narrative over someone else’s vision just as Shuntaro is a “fake” benshi in that he merely copies the routines of others, adopting a “fake” persona while hiding out in the movie house from the gang he ran away from and the movie-loving cop (Yutaka Takenouchi) who’s chasing them. Yamaoka may have a point, the days of the benshi are numbered though there were those who argued the advent of the talkies was also a regression, the advances of the silent era squandered on the spectacle of sound. Nevertheless, filled as it is with silent-era slapstick, silly farce, melodrama, and romance, Talking the Pictures is a warm and nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of cinema and the men and women who guided us through it. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Takatsu River (高津川, Yoshinari Nishikori, 2019)

What price modernity? Post-war migration saw a rapid turn towards urbanisation with the young forsaking their countryside hometowns to chase the salaryman dream in the cities. Though there has in recent years been a mild reversal to the prevailing trend as economic fluctuation and technological innovation have a generation of anxious youngsters looking for a simpler life, the effects of rural depopulation have only become starker in light of Japan’s ageing society leaving the elderly isolated in inaccessible communities with few family members or facilities to support them. This push and pull of the traditional and the modern is at the heart of Yoshinari Nishikori’s The Takatsu River (高津川, Takatsugawa), in many ways an elegy for a vanishing Japan but also an ode to the furusato spirit and to continuity in the face of change. 

Set in a small town on the Takatsu River in Japan’s Shimane prefecture on the South West coast of Honshu, the central drama revolves around the middle-aged Manabu (Masahiro Komoto), a widower with a teenage son and a daughter recently returned from university in Osaka. His problem is that his son Tatsuya (Ishikawa Raizo) has been skipping out on rehearsals for the Kagura dance society, something which is obviously close to his father’s heart. About to graduate high school Tatsuya is perhaps at a crossroads, like many of his age trying to decide if his future lies in his hometown staying to take over the family farm, or in the cities as a regular salaryman. 

“Everyone thinks of leaving once” Manabu philosophically laments to the lady at the post office though like most of the other parents he does not try to influence his son’s decision even if he’s additionally grumpy about his lack of commitment to Kagura dance. The dance troupe is not just a precious artefact of traditional culture or a means of entertainment but a social hub for the small community in which the generations mix freely and are equally represented. One older man affectionately known as “Pops” (Choei Takahashi) is over 80 years old but refuses to give up the art of Kagura dancing, not only because he loves to perform but because he enjoys being part of the society especially as he lost his eldest son to a flood in childhood and the other, Makoto (Hiromasa Taguchi), has become a lawyer in the city who rarely visits his hometown claiming that his wife has a dislike of “bugs”. 

Acting as a surrogate son to the old man, Manabu’s other quest is to convince Makoto to visit a little more often, touting the idea of a reunion for some of their old elementary school friends a few of whom are, like Manabu, still living in the village. Unfortunately, however, Makoto’s time in the city has fully converted him into a heartless ultra-capitalist who struggles to understand a more traditional way of thinking. Meeting up to celebrate the successful graduation of another friend’s apprentice as a sushi chef, the guys lament the case of their friend Yoko (Naho Toda) who never married, apparently calling off an engagement to look after her elderly mother who has dementia while acutely feeling the responsibility of taking on her family’s 300-year-old traditional sweet shop. Confused, Makoto wonders why you wouldn’t just stick the parents in a home and get married, much to the consternation of his friends. Similarly, when Manabu asks him for some legal advice about how to stop a resort being built up river he reveals himself to be fully on the side of corporate power. After all, he points out, a resort will bring jobs and foot traffic to the area encouraging modernisation and better transport links which will also draw young people back towards the village. If you want to save the community, perhaps it’s the best and only way. 

Yet as Manabu points out, the Takatsu is the last clean river in Japan. His daughter Nanami (Ito Ono) came back after uni because she missed the taste of sweet fish that you just can’t find anywhere else. If the river is polluted by construction, the fish will disappear and perhaps there’ll be nothing left to “save”. With the local school set to close now there are only a handful of pupils, Manabu and his friends are minded to pick their battles and protect what it is that’s most important, eventually reacquainting Makoto with his furusato spirit by confronting him with the traumatic past which had kept him away. Bar repeated references to the double-edged sword of the Takatsu in the potential for lethal flooding, Nishikori’s gentle drama perhaps provides an overly utopian view of country living which sidesteps the hardships that can often accompany it, but also celebrates community spirit and an atmosphere of mutual support, qualities which have convinced city-raised farmhand Kana (Yurie Midori) that the rural life is the one for her. A gentle elegy for a disappearing way of life, The Takatsu River is ultimately hopeful that something at least will survive as long as the clear stream flows on.


The Takatsu River streams in Poland 25th November to 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2019)

The thing about hotels is, people often go to them when they want to be someone else, so how can you be on the look out for suspicious behaviour when everyone is to some degree acting out of character? Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best known authors particularly praised for his elaborately plotted mysteries. In contrast to some of his famous detective novels, Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル) leans into his softer side, taking its cues from Agatha Christie in its ultimately cheerful exploration of the strange world of hotels while praising the detective acumen both of cynical policemen and eager to please hoteliers. 

The police are hot on the trail of a serial killer and, due to clues found at the previous crime scenes, have concluded the next killing will take place at the Hotel Cotesia Tokyo. To scout out the potential crime scene, the detectives have co-opted the hotel’s basement as an incident room and are preparing to go undercover to keep an eye on things upstairs. Dishevelled detective Nitta (Takuya Kimura) has been assigned to the front desk because of his English skills apparently honed while living abroad in his youth, and is to be paired with earnest hotelier Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) who will do her best to turn him into a first rate hotelman. 

As might be expected, Nitta and Naomi do not exactly hit it off. Gruff and given to giving everyone in 50m radius the hard stare, Nitta is a shaggy haired middle-aged man in creased suits and shiny shoes. The first thing Naomi makes him do is get a haircut which does wonders for his image, but also plays into the peculiar art of masquerade which defines hotel life. Nitta is in the habit of calling the guests “customers” which instantly irritates Naomi who has spent the entirety of her professional life learning to be deferent. She reminds him that in here the guests are in charge, they make the rules and therefore can never break them. Her job is to provide the best service, which means she often has to set her personal pride aside and allow the sometimes unpleasant clientele, the ones who like to come to posh hotels to throw their weight around and abuse the staff, to get away with being obtuse because that’s just part of her job. 

That’s a big ask from Nitta who is both a proud man and a justice loving policeman to whom the idea of letting people act badly is almost anathema. To do his job, however, he’ll have to learn to bear it or risk letting a potential serial killer slip through his fingers. What Naomi realises is that they’re more alike than they first seemed. Both of their jobs rely on an astute assessment of their targets, even if they come at it from opposite ends. Naomi knows that each of her guests is wearing a kind of mask, taking on a slightly different persona when they enter her hotel, but her job is to see past it without ever letting on. A good hotelier knows what the guest wants before they do and is always ready to provide it, that’s the nature of service. So Naomi trusts her guests and is careful not to judge them. Nitta, meanwhile, is a policeman so he’s trained to question everything and suspect everyone. His job is to unmask and confront his suspects with who they really are. 

They both, however got into this game essentially because they want to protect people even if she wants to protect them inside and he out. Which means of course that they can work together after all, learning a little something from each other along the way. Naomi, well versed in the liberties often taken by her guests, is nearly taken in by an obvious scam that only Nitta is quick enough to catch thanks to his cynical policeman’s logic. He’s also first to suspect that there’s something not quite right with a harmless little old lady, and though Naomi senses it too she’s minded to let it go and doubles down on being the perfect servant thanks to her animosity towards Nitta. That “not quite right”, however, proves to be a slight misreading of the guest who, like many Nitta encounters, is pretending to be something they’re not for reasons that prove perfectly understandable once revealed. 

But then, Higashino characteristically pulls the rug out from under us and asks if we haven’t been suckered in buying all those reasonable excuses. Thanks to his conversations with Naomi, Nitta begins to get a grip on the crime, while she struggles with her conscience after learning that her guests may be in much more danger than she thought. Staking all on justice, the pair of them vow to abandon their respective professions if a guest gets hurt, but fail to realise that the crime may hit far closer to home than they’d anticipated. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a strangely whimsical admiration for the weird world of hotels where no one is quite the same person they were before they walked through the revolving doors.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Honnouji Hotel (本能寺ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2017)

According to the opening quote from Otto von Bismark, fools learn from experience and the wise man from history, but in truth you’ll need a little of the former to correctly interpret the latter. The heroine of Honnoji Hotel (本能寺ホテル) is not exactly lacking in life experience, but hers has been of the passive variety. She’s blithely gone along with the path her society laid out for her, but now she’s hit an unexpected bump in the road it’s prompted her into a reconsideration of where it was she was going. Most people wouldn’t meet such a crisis by asking “what would Nobunaga do?”, but that’s where our heroine finds herself after accidentally exiting a hotel lift right into the middle of the Sengoku era. 

20-something Mayuko (Haruka Ayase) is in Kyoto for a short holiday and to meet up with her fiancé to be formally introduced to his family. The problem begins when it transpires that owing to an administrative error, her hotel reservation has been made for the following month and everything is currently fully booked seeing as the city is such a tourist hotspot. After wandering around a while, she stumbles across a dated, slightly musty establishment named the “Honnouji Hotel” which, she realises even given her shaky grasp of history, is a fairly inauspicious name. Everyone knows that 16th century general and noted tyrant Oda Nobunaga committed seppuku at the Honno temple after he was betrayed by one of his retainers who rose against him. Nobunaga had been primed to bring peace to Japan after more than a century of destructive warfare, paving the way for unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate, but is a somewhat ambiguous figure known for his extreme volatility and tendency towards cruel authoritarianism. 

That vision of Nobunaga is indeed the one Mayuko first encounters when she finds herself accidentally thrown back into the Sengoku era after exiting the lift in her hotel. The first person that she meets turns out to be Mori Ranmaru (Gaku Hamada) with whom she bonds over a shared sense of anxiety, she over meeting her boyfriend’s family, and he over an important tea ceremony with life or death consequences. She gives him some modern-day stomach medicine while he warns her that his lord is “cruel and demonic”. Still not quite grasping that things work differently (to a point at least) in the feudal world, she advises him to quit rather than allow himself to be exploited to the point that it’s ruining his health but he exasperatedly reminds her that you can’t simply drop out of samurai society. Mayuko gets another cruel awakening when observing the tea ceremony and witnessing a man, whom she later realises to be Nobunaga (Shinichi Tsutsumi), extorting a tea caddy from a distressed master who tries to protest that he’d only been informed that the caddy would be displayed and is unwilling to give it away. Nobunaga reminds him that the nation will soon be unified under his banner, at which point he will be in control of business affairs, threatening him with economic consequences backed up with the possibility of immediate violence. 

Despite her essential passivity, Mayuko cannot bear injustice and immediately springs into action, handing the caddy back to its original owner and instructing him that he shouldn’t allow himself to be intimidated into giving up his prized possessions. In her own life, however, she’s nowhere near as certain. We find out that she’s only known her fiancé for six months, and is still ambivalent about the idea of marriage. When the company she’d been working for suddenly went bust, she found herself at a loss, told that the teacher’s certificate she’d taken as a backup is largely useless because even teaching is oversaturated in today’s difficult job market. Now, it’s not feudal times anymore, but many people in Japan still expect a woman to give up her career to get married, which is what most of her friends advise her to do especially seeing as she had no particular ambitions or goals in life. Kyoichi’s (Hiroyuki Hirayama) proposal comes at an opportune moment, but she finds herself asking opportune for whom and if this is really what she wants or if she’s just allowing herself to be railroaded into conventional “success” without really thinking it through. 

It might be going too far to read too much in to a similarity between Nobunaga’s dictatorial dynamism and Kyoichi’s domineering manliness, but that’s largely where Mayuko seems to be. Beginning to realise his mistakes, Kyoichi confesses that he cynically took advantage of the situation to manipulate Mayuko into marrying him, believing that she was “insecure and unreliable”, “unable to do anything alone” and in need of his protection. Talking with Kyoichi’s father and beginning to assert herself in opposition to Nobunaga’s injustices, she begins to realise that she can take charge of her own destiny and has a duty to find what it is she wants to do, and do that as best she can.

The lesson is, however, somewhat problematically learned in her realisation both that she can’t change “history” and that she can because history is a consequence of our collective choices. This Nobunaga, apparently wanted a peaceful society for all, one in which class divisions had been eradicated and equality ruled. He sees our world and deems it good enough to sacrifice his life for, but Mayuko by turns becomes enamoured of the past, finding her vocation as a teacher of history in a move which is both progressive in seeing her reject a marriage of “convenience” to strike out under her own steam, but also backward looking in its reevaluation of Nobunaga and his unfinished revolution as if there is no real need for change “now”. Granted, Honnouji Hotel is partly concerned with selling the charms of Kyoto as an unchanging historical centre, but it’s difficult to escape the slightly sour note of conservatism as Mayuko finds her forward path only by embracing the samurai past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (シコふんじゃった, Masayuki Suo, 1992)

sumo do sumo don'tConsidering how well known sumo wrestling is around the world, it’s surprising that it doesn’t make its way onto cinema screens more often. That said, Masayuki Suo’s Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (シコふんじゃった, Shiko Funjatta) displays an ambivalent attitude to this ancient sport in that it’s definitely uncool, ridiculous, and prone to the obsessive fan effect, yet it’s also noble – not only a game of size and brute force but of strategy and comradeship. Not unlike Suo’s later film for which he remains most well known, Shall We Dance, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t uses the presumed unpopularity of its central activity as a magnet which draws in and then binds together a disparate, originally reluctant collection of central characters.

We begin with a lecture given by Professor Anayama (Akira Emoto) in which he recounts the brief mention of sumo in the work of Jean Cocteau. It seems that Anayama is something of a sumo fanatic and had previously been a champion wrestler in his student days. Shuhei Yamamoto (Masahiro Motoki) is currently registered for Anayama’s class but he’s here on a party mandate and never attends classes – he even has someone raise their hand for him at registration. Shuhei already has a job offer for when he leaves so he needs to graduate – Anayama makes him a proposition, join the currently moribund sumo club and he’ll forget about the lack of attendance problem and fill his credits up too.

Actually, the sumo club has only one member – fanatical sumo fan and mature student, Aoki (Naoto Takenaka). Aoki takes tradition very seriously and it’s not long before he’s got Shuhei in a traditional “mawashi” sash (don’t call it a fundoshi!) and parading about the campus trying to find others they might be able to coerce into the club so they can compete in the next competition. Luckily they run into shy student Hosaku (Hiromasa Taguchi) who’s quickly convinced to help them keep the sumo club open, before also recruiting Shuhei’s younger brother Haruno (a refugee from the regular wrestling team), and even a foreign student, George Smiley, who only joins up to save on his rent. Together, they face an uphill battle but can they really conquer this demanding game with so little experience between them?

At heart, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is a standard sports comedy in which a rag tag collection of amateurs attempt to triumph over adversity whilst finding out more about themselves and each other.  No one, other than Aoki, really wanted to be in the sumo club with its embarrassing attire and total lack of social kudos. Shuhei is only there because he needs the grades, but after seeing how much Aoki cares about his sport he becomes determined to support his new found friend. Similarly, Hosaku had been leading quite a lonely life but enjoys being part of a team where his friends enthusiastically cheer him on.

By bringing in the foreign student (supposedly an English rugby player but played by an American with an unusually gung-ho attitude) Suo attempts to define sumo and, in a roundabout way, other aspects of Japanese culture from a more detached view point. “You Japanese never think things through” he’s fond of saying after asking a perfectly logical question that no one seems able to answer such as why they have a shrine to a household god in their clubhouse when this is a Christian university or why it’s frowned upon for him to wear shorts underneath his mawashi. Later, the group get a hanger on in the form of Masako (Ritsuko Umemoto) who has taken a liking to sumo, and more particularly to Haruno. Women aren’t allowed in the sumo ring but this is one aspect of tradition that it seems even the sumo diehards are prepared to let go. Far from the serious and rarified sumo world, the sumo club is a strictly equal opportunities enterprise built on mutual trust and acceptance. No one who loves the beautiful art of sumo is getting turned away.

Perhaps with less serious intent that some of Suo’s later works, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is a prime example of the ensemble comedy drama. The essence of the humour is physical leaning mainly on slapstick but with a side serving of wit and irony. Suo keeps things simple and straightforward, allowing the gentle comedy to emerge organically underpinned by strong characterisation and performances. Unashamedly feel good yet never tipping over into the mawkishly sentimental, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is the best kind of sports comedy where the outcome itself is almost irrelevant in light of the greater game that’s been in play right the way through.


Unsubbed trailer:

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラヂオの時間, Koki Mitani, 1997)

Welcome Back Mr. McDonaldKoki Mitani is one of the most bankable mainstream directors in Japan though his work has rarely travelled outside of his native land. Beginning his career in the theatre, Mitani is the master of modern comedic farce and has the rare talent of being able to ground often absurd scenarios in the  humour that is very much a part of everyday life. Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラヂオの時間, Radio no Jikan) is Mitani’s debut feature in the director’s chair though he previously adapted his own stage plays as screenplays for other directors. This time he sets his scene in the high pressure environment of the production booth of a live radio drama broadcast as the debut script of a shy competition winner is about to get torn to bits by egotistical actors and marred by technical hitches.

Mild-mannered housewife Miyako Suzuki (Kyoka Suzuki ) has won a competition to get her radio play, titled “Woman of Destiny”, on air. A romantic tale of a bored housewife unexpectedly finding love at the pachinko parlour, her story may have a thin layer of autobiography or at least wish fulfilment but at any rate she is very close to her material. Unfortunately, “difficult” actress Nokko (Keiko Toda) has been foisted on the production crew due to entertainment world politics and objects to her character’s name because she once dated a married guy whose wife shared it. Eventually Nokko demands to be called something more interesting like “Mary Jane” (the irony!). At this point, all the other actors start wanting changes too and before you know it Miyako’s gentle tale of forbidden romance has become a gangster crime thriller set in Chicago filled with mobsters and tommy guns!

The writer is god, in one sense. Only, god has been locked out of the room leading to total chaos. Each small change necessitates a series of other changes and seeing as this is all being done live and on the hoof, no one is quite thinking through the implications of each decision. When the actor playing “Mary Jane’s” love interest suddenly goes off book and declares his name is “Donald McDonald” (inspired by left over fast food cartons) and he’s a pilot not a fisherman as agreed (though why would a fisherman be in the mountains of Chicago anyway?), everything goes completely haywire eventually ending up in an outer space based love crisis!

If all this wasn’t enough, someone has also wandered off with the key to the sound effects machine which would be fine if they hadn’t added all the gangster shenanigans in the first place. The show’s producer, Ushijima (Masahiko Nishimura), explains to Miyako at one point that radio has a very important advantage over visual media as you really can do anything even on no budget because your biggest resource is your audience’s imaginations. He has a very real point, though the completely bizarre saga of “sexy female lawyer” Mary Jane, her “Nasa Pilot” (a quick save after “Donald’s” plane is reported missing and someone remembers this slot is sponsored by an airline) true love, and her husband who for some reason is a random German named Heinrich is going to require a significant suspension of disbelief from the confused listeners at home.

As a theatre practitioner Mitani is an expert at creating ensemble comedy and even though he is playing with a large cast and a fast moving environment each of his characters is extremely well drawn. We see the shy writer beginning to lose heart after her story is shredded by the unforgiving production environment whilst also trying to persuade her husband who has turned up unexpectedly to go home before he figures out her script is suspiciously close to their real lives. We also see the production team frantically trying to fulfil their obligations so they can avoid getting into trouble with the higher ups and finally go home for the day. Ushijima is caught in the middle, surrounded by nonchalant yes men and lazy bosses, he’s desperately trying to compromise to keep everything on schedule whereas the jaded director just wants to do his job as written. However, it’s the director who is ultimately most moved by Miyako’s script and eventually decides it does deserve the happy ending that Miyako has been longing for.

By the end of the recording, something of the old magic has returned to the otherwise work-a-day world of the radio studio. They’ve even brought back old fashioned foley effects and retrieved the old school sound guy who’d been relegated to playing his gameboy in the security booth because no one needed his expertise anymore. Nothing went as planned, but everything worked out in the end and it’s happy endings all round both in the real world and in the completely surreal radio play. They might even do a sequel!

Mitani breaks the action every now and then to take us outside of the studio environment and into the cab of a petrol tanker being driven by a strangely dressed trucker (in a brief cameo from Ken Watanabe, no less!) who keeps trying to change the channel for more country influenced Enka but finds himself enthralled by the strange tale of the true love between Mary Jane and Donald mcDonald. We might not be quite as moved as he is, having been party to all the backstage goings on, but we have perhaps laughed more than cried through the almost screwball comedy and farcical set up of Mitani’s spot on depiction of the less than glamorous workings of the fast paced live production environment.


English subtitled trailer: