Yakuza Taxi (893 タクシー , Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1994)

Like many fillmakers of his generation, Kiyoshi Kurosawa began directing commercially in the 1980s working in the pink genre but it was the early ‘90s straight to video boom which provided a career breakthrough. This relatively short lived movement was built on speed where the reliability of the familiar could be harnessed to produce and market low budget genre films with a necessarily high turnover. Kurosawa made his first foray into the V-cinema world in 1994 with the unlikely comedy vehicle Yakuza Taxi (893 タクシー, 893 Taxi). Although Kurosawa had originally accepted the project in the hope of being able to direct a large scale action film, his distaste for the company’s insistence on “jingi” (the yakuza code of honour and humanity) proved something of a barrier but it did, at least, lend free rein to the director’s rather ironic sense of humour.

The Tanaka taxi firm has hit on some hard times and is in trouble over a series of promissory notes owned by a former yakuza loanshark. Luckily, Tanaka is lifelong friends with a local yakuza boss who is angry about the dishonourable way his friend has been treated and is determined to help him. He also sees this as a rare opportunity to prove the yakuza can still be of help in an “honest” way and therefore instructs three of his guys to get some fake driving/taxi licenses and set about making enough money to fend off the loansharks. The guys are soon joined by the recently released Seiji who wasn’t really planning on a secondary career as a taxi driver after sacrificing precious time in service of his clan and is not happy with his current career track.

The set-up is, of course, primed for comedy as the yakuza, who are known for being rough, rowdy and rude, suddenly have to adapt to a job which requires absolute politeness and courtesy. The original trio do their best learning from the company’s only remaining professional driver, Kimura, and come to view radio girl and boss’ daughter Kanako as a kind of big sister figure. Once Seiji arrives things begin to become more complicated as he maintains a number of yakuza habits incompatible with taxi driving – namely all day drinking, hostess bars, and beating up the passengers.

Seiji and Kanako spit fire at each other in place of courtship though Kanako’s often surly attitude is later revealed as.partly driven by resentment at being forced to labour in a boring job at her father’s company. The guys are supposed to be earning the money back legally but Seiji has always been one for a short cut. His ill gotten gains are ultimately rejected by Kanako, but not before they’ve caused a lot more trouble. The situation becomes even more challenging when a corrupt policeman teams up with the loansharks to harass the guys, even going to far as to make them drive to remote places where they can be beaten up by motorcycle thugs. Finally the game appears to be up when Kanako attempts to renegotiate and is offered “alternative employment” with the threat of enslavement hanging over her head.

Despite the comedic tone, sleaze is never far from the screen with two quite odd and extremely gratuitous sequences of strange boob fondling, not to mention one set of passengers who are delighted that they’re “alone now” and decide to make the most of it with some distinctly kinky action (Seiji makes a point of giving the male customer a few lessons in taxi etiquette before they reach their destination). Comedy is the main draw, there are no gun battles and relatively few actual fights aside from failed jump kicks and the distant thud of crowbars. Remaining more or less straightforward in terms of style, Kurosawa nevertheless embraces his taste for the absurd as this gang of low level bad guys come together to help a friend and discover an unexpected affinity for the service industry in the process.


 

Antenna (アンテナ, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2004)

AntennaScarring, both literal and mental, is at the heart of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s third feature, Antenna (アンテナ). Though it’s ironic that indentation should be the focus of a film whose title refers to a sensitive protuberance, Kumakiri’s adaptation of a novel by Randy Taguchi is indeed about feeling a way through. Anchored by a standout performance from Ryo Kase, Antenna is a surreal portrait of grief and repressed guilt as a family tragedy threatens to consume all of those left behind.

Philosophy student Yuichiro (Ryo Kase) is currently working on a project which aims to reevaluate how pain is felt through attempting to identify with the pain of others. To do this he plans to investigate the S&M scene but before he can get started, a painful episode from his past is reawakened by current events. Yuichiro’s younger sister, Marie, has been missing since failing to return home from school one day when she was only eight years old. When news reports appear that another girl around the same age has been held captive in a nearby apartment complex since around the time Marie went missing hopes are sparked only to be dashed. Still no closer to discovering what happened to his younger sister, Yuichiro carries the guilt of having been unable to protect her as well as the inability to remember exactly what happened on that fateful day.

Matters come to a head when Yuichiro’s younger brother (their mother was pregnant with him at the time of the disappearance) turns up on his doorstep. Yuya (Daisuke Kizaki) repeatedly claims that Marie is about to return as he can feel her through his “antenna” (“like the horns of a snail”) and has a full scale fit aboard the train back. Things being what they are, the doctors advise Yuichiro to spend sometime at home as his distracted mother is no shape to cope with Yuya’s increasingly odd behaviour. A dutiful son, Yuichiro does what he can for what’s left of his family but his childhood home is far from a good environment for him.

Soon after Marie’s disappearance, both Yuichiro’s father and his uncle Shige who’d lived with them both died, leaving only Yuichiro’s mother and baby brother behind them. Unable to come to terms with Marie’s disappearance, Yuichiro’s mother has found religion, hosting Buddhist prayer sessions at the house and bringing in Feng Shui experts to try and heal the lingering sense of tragedy still present in the house. She has also become convinced that her second son, Yuya, is in fact the returned spirit of her daughter, raising him as a girl and dressing him in Marie’s clothes. This may explain some of Yuya’s conflicting behaviour and repeated insistence that his sister is “returning” in so much as something of her personality has become the ghost in his machine.

Once back in the house, Yuichiro’s mental state becomes ever more precarious as his memories of his sister’s disappearance begin to flicker to the surface. Overcome with repressed guilt, Yuichiro once again begins self harming by slashing his chest with a box cutter. Easing the mental pain with the physical, Yuirichiro finally begins to address some of his long buried trauma through repeated meetings with the dominatrix he was interviewing for his project. Undergoing a kind of S&M lead sex therapy, Yuichiro is slowly guided back through his memories to events he was too young to understand at the time and only now is fully able to comprehend.

Throughout his flashbacks Yuichiro is always sidelined, perched behind barriers or shut away by closed doors as the adults argue and loudly discuss things they claim are not suitable for children to hear. Crucial moments find him peaking through keyholes and seeing something he knew was not quite right but without knowing why. These incomplete and incomprehensible memories are the ones which haunt him, unresolvable but still trailing the guilt behind them of having seen yet done nothing.

Told in a slight non-linear fashion through frequent flashbacks, the film adopts a dreamlike tone and surreal imagery to make sense of the more extreme elements. The final sequence itself is either a hallucination or a dream that takes on a magical realist quality as the past is finally allowed to drift away from its lodging place, freeing up a space for light to return to the otherwise darkened house.

An intense exploration of buried trauma and childhood guilt, Antenna is a dark tale but does offer a glimmer of hope after all its hellish meandering. Kumakikri keeps things straightforward but his considered compositions have a strange kind of beauty despite the ugliness of the narrative. Embracing a number a taboo subjects coupled with strong emotion and explicit content, Antenna is not an easy watch but rewarding for those who can brave its extremes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hatsukoi (First Love) (初恋, Yukinari Hanawa, 2006)

hatsukoiThe 300 Million Yen Affair is one of the most famous and intriguing unsolved mysteries in Japan, not least because the missing cash has been lying dormant somewhere, apparently untouched, ever since that fateful day back in 1968. Seeing as the true story has never been discovered, the crime has taken on legendary status and become the focus of many kinds of fiction. Misuzu Nakahara’s fictionalised autobiography is just one of these as she retroactively claims responsibility for the robbery as a teenage girl in love with a detached revolutionary.

Misuzu (Aoi Miyazaki) begins her tale a couple of years before the crime as she lives a lonely and introverted life in the house of her uncle, her father having died and her mother apparently absconded with her older brother in tow but leaving her behind. It’s her 16th birthday, but no one cares. Soon enough she starts hanging around a shady jazz bar before another woman convinces her to come inside and join their group of layabout beatniks – a group which is actually lead by her estranged older brother, Ryo (Masaru Miyazaki). These are the heady days of students protests – against the old order, against the ANPO treaty, against the war in Vietnam, against just about everything. Misuzu grows closer to one of their number, the quiet and mysterious Kishi (Keisuke Koide), who has a proposition for her….

Hatsukoi (AKA First Love, 初恋) is a film which is thick with period detail from the authentically smokey, sweaty jazz bar and its counterculture denizens to the nostalgic atmosphere and 1960s street scenes. However, evoking Misuzu’s own sense of ennui, director Yukinari Hanawa opts for a detached, dispassionate tone which is entirely at odds with the otherwise searing, youth on fire tension of the time period. Misuzu is always on the edges of things, younger than the other members of the group she feels as if she’s merely being permitted to stay and listen rather than invited to participate. Nevertheless, even if it’s the case that Misuzu is a by nature a passive person, the film pushes the intense nature of the social revolution going on all around her into mere background, squandering its power to bring out the sense of passion that the film feels as if it needs.

At heart, the robbery is something of a mcguffin as the real story is the true love tragedy hinted at in the title. Misuzu and Kishi grow closer through their plotting of the crime which is born of his desire to commit a different kind of revolutionary act. The money is intended to pay the bonuses of Toshiba employees and Kishi feels the best way to make a protest against economic inequality and the power of large corporations is to hit them in the finances. Misuzu plays her part well enough and the robbery comes off OK despite minor hitches allowing only a brief honeymoon period for its would be Bonnie and Clyde before history begins to move forward and eventually rips them apart. For Misuzu the robbery becomes the defining event of her youth and the birth of the love that she seemingly cannot let go. After this the jazz club is over, the protest movement dies as do some of the protestors, or else they move on to more conventional lives. Not quite a coming of age, but a death of youth before it had hardly begun.

Some injuries never heal, says the kindly old man who teaches Misuzu how to drive. A prescient remark if ever there was one. Misuzu seems locked within this brief period of her youth, before her friends died, left, or disappeared once the turbulent atmosphere of protest and revolution gave way to the consumerist 1970s and everyone forgot about the necessity for social change in the hurry to make money.

Hatsukoi becomes less a about the first love itself than about the period that surrounds it. The love was lost, but so was the bubble in which Misuzu had begun to define herself as a young woman. What Hatsukoi lacks is a sense of personal tragedy, of a soul crushing, spiritual death which locks each of the group members into their own tragic fates and seems somehow dictated despite their insistence on defining themselves in the new, youth centric world. Often beautifully photographed, Hatsukoi’s air of desolation and cold, detached tone weaken its ability to engage making its painful end of youth journey all seem rather dull.


Hatsukoi was released with English subtitles on blu-ray in Taiwan, and on DVD in Hong Kong though both editions now appear to be OOP.

Unsubtitled trailer: