Gu Gu the Cat (グーグーだって猫である, Isshin Inudo, 2008)

Gu Gu the cat posterJapanese cinema has long been in love with the local flavour movie. It may be true that many otherwise fantastic examples of the small subgenre have a “sponsored by the tourist board” aesthetic, but then the pure “furusato” love is usually genuine enough and often proves infectious. Gu Gu the Cat (グーグーだって猫である, Gu Gu Datte Neko de Aru) is a case in point in its fierce determination to sell the benefits of trendy Tokyo suburb Kichijoji – an upscale bohemian neighbourhood well known for being home to artists and dreamers who take care to foster the kind of hometown spirit you wouldn’t normally associate with city living. The film is also, however, the story of a struggling middle-aged mangaka who is forced to deal with a long delayed existential crisis after her elderly cat passes away.

Ça Va had been living with Asako (Kyoko Koizumi) for the last 15 years but passed away while she and her team were working flat out on a special Christmas issue. Asako is of course devastated and not least because she feels guilty that perhaps she was too busy to notice that Ça Va was ill until it was too late. According to her assistant Naomi (Juri Ueno), Asako’s career had been faltering even before Ça Va passed away – the Christmas issue had been the only thing she’d produced all year leaving her team of assistants out of pocket and worried for the future. Grief-stricken as she is, Asako eventually decides to get a new cat, Gu Gu, enabling a rebirth in her professional as well as personal lives.

Based on an autobiographical story by mangaka Yumiko Oshima, Gu Gu the Cat wastes no time in reminding us that being a mangaka is a precarious business. Asako is well acclaimed as an artist and has inspired countless young women with her shojo manga (Naomi not least among them) but is still pressed into working insane hours to meet publication deadlines and is constantly badgered by her publishing company to provide new material. Her mother (Chieko Matsubara), meanwhile, just wants her to settle down and get married before it’s “too late”.

Asako’s mother’s nagging may seem like the usual kind of conservatism that is a little embarrassed by an unmarried middle-aged woman, as well as with the idea of a woman having a career and especially in manga which is a “popular” art and therefore less respectable than literature or painting. It is also, however, born of knowing her daughter and seeing that there is a part of her that hasn’t quite matured thanks to working on manga all her adult life which has left her feeling isolated and lonely in a way a cat might not be able to satisfy. This is perhaps why potential love interest Seiji (Ryo Kase) describes all her manga as “sad”, and why Asako is somewhat uncomfortable with being treated as a “famous author” rather than as a person.

Gu Gu the cat takes a back seat to most of the action (as cats are want to do) but does help engineer a meeting with Seiji who, despite being much younger than Asako, begins to reawaken in her a sense of desire if not exactly for romance then perhaps for life. Following a familiar pattern, however, Asako re-channels that desire into her manga – coming up with an idea in which a teenager suddenly grows old, neatly mirroring her sudden sense of having become “a woman of a certain age” overnight without really noticing. Having lost Ça Va, Asako attempts to come to terms with lost time in accepting that many choices have already been made and opportunities lost. In that sense there is something sad in Asako’s decision to remain alone in knowing that in the end she lost love because she was too timid to claim it, but then, the answer isn’t new romance but an acceptance of being happy in the present in the knowledge that things change and people leave but it will all be OK in the end.

Based on Oshima’s real experiences, Inudo’s film takes a turn for the melodramatic towards its conclusion which feeds back into his “live every day” message but is perhaps a little heavy for the cheerful slice of life drama surrounding it. Likewise, his strange decision to sell the joys of Kichijoji (which appear to be many) through an American Eikaiwa teacher narrating a journey through the area in the manner of a TV programme aimed at tourists is a particularly strange one which in no way benefits from its surreal plot revelation. Nevertheless, Gu Gu the Cat is a warm and affectionate tribute to this seemingly warm and quirky area which acts as a kind of coming of age story for its middle-aged heroine who, in a sense, births herself in coming to an acceptance that life goes on and the best you can do go along with it for as long as you can.


Original trailer (English/Chinese subtitles)

Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

Dare to stop us posterUntil his untimely death in a road traffic accident in 2012, Koji Wakamatsu had been the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. An irascible but somehow much loved figure, Wakamatsu is most closely associated with a series of provocative sex films which mixed politically radical avant-garde aesthetics with pink film exploitation. Kazuya Shiraishi, himself a former Wakamatsu apprentice, takes a look back at the heady years of Japanese indie cinema in the aptly titled Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Tomerareruka, Oretachi wo) which explores the backstage environment at Wakamatsu Production from 1969 to 1972 (or, right before everything changed with the death of the student movement in Japan following the Asama-sanso incident).

Rather than follow Wakamatsu (Arata Iura) directly, Shiraishi frames his tale around aspiring director Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki) – the only female presence (besides the actresses) at the otherwise extremely masculine studio which focusses mainly on artistic soft-core pornography. A Shinjuku hippie and self-confessed fan of Wakamatsu, Megumi finds herself joining the team after being recruited to scout potential starlets who could pass for high schoolers. On arrival at the studio, Megumi is quickly mistaken for an actress or mistress but finally manages to win the guys round and is taken on as an assistant director with the possibility of stepping up to the director’s chair if she lasts three years working under Wakamatsu.

As the gruff director warns her, most don’t even last the month. Megumi is however determined, despite Wakamatsu’s continued show of forgetting her name and harsh on-set demeanour. Commiserating with her, another veteran affirms that the big studios wilfully exploit their ADs, at least with Wakamatsu his heart is in the right place even if he’s only a different sort of difficult. He also, however, hands her a bottle of hooch which serves an unfortunate harbinger of things to come as Megumi finds herself playing along with the hard drinking boys club but becoming ever more confused about her role in the organisation and the further direction of her life.

Wakamatsu and his partner Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto) vow to make films to shake the world, but are not above commercial concerns which is why they find themselves making pure sex films under pseudonyms to balance the books, much to the chagrin of some of the studio’s more politically engaged members. These are particularly politically engaged times in which the student movement is at its zenith, protesting not only the renewal of the ANPO treaty, but the Vietnam War, and the fiercely contested building of Narita airport. Mostly thanks to Adachi, Wakamatsu Production gradually shifts from indie film company to activist organisation in which political concerns are beginning to take precedence over the business of filmmaking.

The shift leaves those like Megumi who were not so interested in the political dimension floundering along behind and increasingly disillusioned with the world of Wakamatsu Pro. Megumi may admit that she had other problems that probably should have been better addressed, but remains conflicted as to her involvement with the studio. Feeling as if she has nothing in particular to say, she questions her desire to make films at all while clinging fiercely to the surrogate family that has grown up around the strangely fatherly director and continuing to feel insecure in her atypical femininity in a world which more or less requires her to act like a man but doesn’t quite accept her for doing so.

Wakamatsu said he wanted to hold the masses at knifepoint and create a film to blow up the world, but Megumi increasingly feels as if it’s she who will eventually face Wakamatsu with only one of them surviving. Megumi is, in a sense, a victim and encapsulation of her age in which she wanted a little more than it had to give her and found herself increasingly disillusioned with its various betrayals and disappointments. Given the chance to direct a 30-minute short for love hotels, Megumi spins a tale of Urashima Taro which is, as Adachi puts it, all about how she can’t go back to being a hippie after getting mixed up with Wakamatsu and has lost sight of her true self in her quest for acceptance. Both nostalgic look back to a heady era and a tragic tale of that era’s costs, Dare to Stop Us is a fitting tribute to the Wakamatsu legacy which portrays the irascible director as neither saint nor demon but painfully human and infinitely flawed.


Dare to Stop Us was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kanikosen (蟹工船, SABU, 2009)

kanikosenBack in 2008 as the financial crisis took hold, a left leaning early Showa novel from Takiji Kobayashi, Kanikosen (蟹工船), became a surprise best seller following an advertising campaign which linked the struggles of its historical proletarian workers with the put upon working classes of the day. The book had previously been adapted for the screen in 1953 in a version directed by So Yamamura but bolstered by its unexpected resurgence, another adaptation directed by SABU arrived in 2009.

As in the book the film follows the lives of a group of men virtually imprisoned on a crab canning ship anchored near Russian seas in the 1920s. The men on the boat are of various ages and come from various different backgrounds but each is here out of necessity – nothing other than extreme poverty and lack of other options would ever persuade anyone to take on this arduous and often unpleasant line of work. Technically speaking the boat has a captain but it’s the foreman who’s in charge – dressed like a European officer in a white frock coat and riding boots and with a vicious looking scar across his left eye, Asakawa rules the waves, barking out orders and backing them up with a walking stick.

SABU films the workers’ struggles through the filter of absurdist theatre beginning with a darkly comic segment in which each of the men recount their poverty riddled circumstances and dreams for social advancement before one, Shoji, emerges and posits another idea. They will make a bid for everlasting freedom by committing mass suicide in protest to poor working conditions and consistent exploitation of their class by those above. Predictably, this fails when everyone realises they didn’t actually want to die in the first place. Later Shoji and another man are picked up by a Russian boat after being stranded at sea and after seeing how happy the Russian sailors seem to be, they return determined to enact the revolution at home.

Conveying the workers’ plight through production design, SABU opts for a packing room which is both oversized yet claustrophobic, filled with giant cogs and gears of the capitalist system in motion. The men are little more than fleshy gears themselves, just another piece of the production line to be thrown out and replaced once worn through. Gradually the workers start to realise that this system is only sustainable because of their own complicity. The foreman is, after all, only one man and the workers have made a decision to obey him – they also have the ability to decide not to. That said, the spanner in the works is that the foreman also represents the larger mechanism at play which is the imperial state itself and can call on its resources to defend himself against a potential mutiny.

Having decided to rebel and seen their revolution fail, the workers come to another realisation – that the only true path to social change is a movement for the people lead by the people as one, i.e. with no leaders and therefore no head which can be cut off to disrupt all their efforts. Hand in hand and with the bloody flag raised high do they march into battle to put an end to unfair exploitation of those without means by those that have. Ever since they’ve been on this boat, they’ve been told that they’re at war, that their services are necessary for the survival of the Imperialist state – and now so they are, engaged in the class war to end the imperialist hegemony.

In the end, SABU’s message is a little confused – he advocates collective action, but not the collective, as his revolution is born of individual choice rather than the workers linking hands behind a faceless banner. It works as a semi-effective call to arms, but more often than not undermines itself and has a tendency to pull its punches when it really counts. That said, even if it wasn’t perhaps quite what Kobayashi meant, the more general message that the revolution begins in the heart of the individual and that one has the possibility to choose to live in hell (as a slave of the state) or create a heaven for one’s self (as a free person) is one that has universal merit and appeal.


 

The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Yuki Tanada, 2012)

Cowards who looked to the sky posterThe work of director Yuki Tanada has had a predominant focus on the stories of independent young women but The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky sees her shift focus slightly as the troubled relationship between a middle aged housewife who escapes her humdrum life through cosplay and an ordinary high school boy takes centre stage. Based on the novel of the same name by Misumi Kubo, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Fugainai Boku wa Sora wo Mita) also tackles the difficult themes of social stigma, the power of rumour, teenage poverty, elder care, childbirth and even pedophilia which is, to be frank, a little too much to be going on with.

Told in a non-linear, overlapping structure the central spine of the film follows unfulfilled housewife Satomi who likes to dress up as her favourite character from the retro anime Magic Girl. Whilst dressed as its heroine, Anzu, she spots a high school boy at a convention who looks eerily like the anime’s hero, Muramasa. Takumi is only at the convention with a friend and has no particular interest in anime but as the two live in the same area “Anzu” convinces Takumi to come and try on a Muramasa outfit at her place. One thing leads to another and the pair embark on a proxy affair which takes the form of role-play between the two anime characters carefully scripted by Satomi. However, Satomi’s hitherto disinterested husband begins to notice a change in her behaviour and has spy cameras installed catching the hot cosplay action for all to see. When he uploads the video to the internet it causes a serious problem for the young and impressionable Takumi.

Actually, there’s a third person in Satomi’s marriage to her feckless husband Keiichiro in the form of his overbearing mother. So far, the couple have no children despite having been married for some time and this has distressed Michiko to the point that she’s the one dragging the couple in for IVF treatment and getting upset when it doesn’t work. Her son, Keiichiro, has weak swimmers and actively doesn’t want children but this doesn’t stop Michiko taking all her frustrations out on Satomi whom she brands as “defective” and gives the impression that she’d like to “fire” her if she could. A shy woman and probably quite bored as a stay at home housewife, Satomi retreats into fantasy by cosplaying as the familiar character from her favourite childhood anime Magic Girl. Becoming Anzu and having an affair with Muramasa isn’t quite cheating, after all, and perhaps she even hopes to have the child that her mother-in-law so desperately wants her to have even if her husband and medical science won’t help her.

Among the younger generation, Takumi lives with his mother, Sumiko, in a residential maternity clinic that she runs where pregnant women can come and be looked after in a more natural and homely environment than the comparatively cold and sterile hospital. Takumi is best friends with a boy who lives near by who, like him, has no father but unlike Takumi his mother is also an absent figure too so Ryota must work part-time at the combini whilst also looking after his grandmother who is suffering with dementia.

Sumiko tries to support Ryota by giving him occasional food parcels but as a young man Ryota sometimes finds this a little embarrassing and is offended by the idea of receiving charity. When it comes right down to it, he resents Takumi’s happy relationship with his mother and their relative financial security. The manager at the store brands Ryota a “ghetto kid” and even blames him for the increase in shoplifting by kids from the estate. He has little time to study even if he wanted to, but all he sees for his future is a great big dead end. Another worker at the store who previously worked as a teacher offers to help Ryota improve his grades and maybe even try for a university scholarship but turns out to have a dark side of his own.

Simply put, there are far too many plot strands in rotation here and the screenplay never manages to corral them into any kind of satisfying arrangement. There is a moment of unity where Ryota’s story meets Takumi’s but it’s a fairly brief point of intersection (though a hugely important one both in terms of themes and storyline) leaving Ryota’s entire subplot feeling like a distraction to the main high school boy meets damaged older woman narrative. That’s without all of the goings on at the clinic, the brief appearance of Takumi’s father and the disappearing act of Ryota’s deadbeat mother who makes off with all his savings. The film’s scope and ambition is admirable but it ultimately fails to unify its disparate plot strands into a convincingly focused form.

That said, other than running too long the The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky does have a lot of interesting elements and is always beautifully shot showing off a rarely seen side of suburban Tokyo. The performances are also of a high quality particularly given the film’s frank erotic content which is played with refreshing realism by the veteran former child actress Tomoko Tabata and the comparatively less experienced Kento Nagayama as the confused high school boy caught in the fire of his first affair. At once too superficial and too deep, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky spreads itself too thin to make a lasting impact though does offer enough rewards to justify its lengthy running time.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

 

Hazy Life (どんてん生活, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 1999)

51GlvZf-iiLStarting as he meant to go on, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s debut feature film is the story of two slackers, each aimlessly drifting through life without a sense of purpose or trajectory in sight. His humour here is even drier than in his later films and though the tone is predominantly sardonic, one can’t help feeling a little sorry for his hapless, lonely “heroes” trapped in their vacuous, empty lives.

Kee (Hiroshi Yamamoto), a rocker with a giant quiff, meets Tsutomu (Teppei Uda) outside a pachinko parlour and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Tsumtomu, a little gormless looking and near silent, ends up moving into Kee’s apartment where his main “job” appears to be copying videotapes of the amateur porn (sorry, “erotic cinema” movies) made by his friend Todokoro and his girlfriend(?) Akiko. In fact, Kee sometimes “stars” in the films too, which is something he might have wanted to tell Tsutomu before showing him the video. Kee also has a four year old child he doesn’t really get to see who lives with his ex-partner and only knows him as “uncle”.

As in many of Yamashita’s other films, nothing much happens as Kee and Tsutomu kill time whilst worrying and not worrying about the future. Neither of the guys has a proper job or any concrete ambitions, they mostly just eat time playing pachinko, drinking and hanging out with Tadokoro and Akiko. Kee is still mooning over his ex-girlfriend and, though it’s not clear why they split up, his own fecklessness may be the reason he’s not more involved in his child’s life even if he clearly would like to be. Tsutomu has developed a bit of a crush on Akiko but he never really tries to do very much about it (though he does have the good grace to turn down Kee’s invitation to become a star in one of the videos).

In constrast to his later work, Yamashita injects a number of fantasy sequences which seem to take place entirely within Tsutomu’s mind. Mostly they’re quite gentle – making a bunch of money at Pachinko and taking Akiko out for a slap-up meal or the poignant final scene of all the characters together as they enjoy a picnic under the cherry blossoms like one big happy family. However, there is one very unexpected scene which occurs after Tsutomu is caught shoplifting (which he does very badly) offering only the excuse that he’s forgotten his wallet and was too lazy to go back and get it. This fairly shocking scene of violence is one that does not typically re-occur in Yamashita’s later work and is notable for its extreme bloodiness and direct contrast to the overall tone. Perhaps intended to show Tsutomu’s inner frustrations (he spends much of the rest of the film asleep), this scene becomes one of the most intriguing in the film.

Hazy Life is a “zero budget” affair and makes no attempt to hide that. Shot on low quality equipment and committed to a “natural” look, it makes no claim to aesthetic prettiness though it does display Yamashita’s gift for interesting compositions this time working within a 4:3 frame. The fantasy sequences themselves are presented as reality bar one use of double exposure which is in general out of keeping with Yamashita’s naturalistic style as is the brief use of time-lapse photography.

Not uninteresting, but perhaps more interesting as a taste of things to come rather than as a feature in its own right. Hazy Life is just that, hazy and somewhat meandering as Kee and Tsutomu muddle through life with an air of mild depression and no particular hope in sight. “what day is it?”, “I don’t know”, “Well never mind – at least we’re alive”. This late conversation more or less sums the entire film and it’s poignantly sweet, fantasy sequence ending adds another layer of pathos to this subtly humorous look at laid-back modern life at the bottom of the heap.


 

Ramblers (リアリズムの宿, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2004)

ramblers-riarizumu-no-yado.39798

Nobuhiro Yamashita is well known for his low-key, naturalistic style often focusing on the everyday musings of youthful slackers. Ramblers (リアリズムの宿, Realism no Yado), his third feature film takes this idea and pushes it to the max as it follows two filmmakers wasting time in the mountains after their ultimate slacker actor friend lets them down at the last minute.

The two guys are Tsuboi, a screenwriter and the younger of the two, and Kinoshita – a director and a little bit older in his late twenties. The trip has been organised by a mutual acquaintance, Funaki, who’s an actor and the other two have met once or twice before but don’t exactly know each other. Funaki has overslept and will be late, or he might just come tomorrow or something. He tells the other two to go ahead without him. With nothing else to do the two guys wander off into the mountains to kill time while they wait for their Godot-like friend where they have various encounters with the strange mountain-folk all while a gentle friendship builds up in the background.

By far the most important episode occurs whilst the pair are sitting on the beach “rambling” on about nothing in particular when a scantily clad young woman, Atsuko, comes running towards them out of the sea. Hilariously, the pair try to run away as if she were some kind of terrifying sea monster but eventually decide to help her after she tells them that all of her belongings, including her wallet with her ID and money, have been washed away to sea. They end up adopting her for two or three days, paying for her new clothes, meals and board each a little taken with her but nothing untoward in mind. Suddenly this episode ends, leaving a curious hole in the young guys’ relationship.

Other than getting to know Atsuko, the guys waste time fishing, chatting with the interesting staff at the various inns they end up staying at and just generally hanging around wondering where the hell Funaki has got to. Having failed to arrange accommodation (slackers!) the pair decide to inn hop a little whilst roaming around the area though it’s definitely the off season. After their adventure with Atsuko the boys’ funds start to run down and they’re reduced to sharing meals which gets them noticed by a shady guy in cafe who insists they stay over with his friend – though it turns out to be not really his friend’s place at all and, feeling awkward, the pair attempt to find somewhere else last minute ending up at every traveller’s worst nightmare. The final “inn” is not even really a B&B, just a freezing room in someone’s house which is filled with children, a father who’s dying in the corner and a bathroom which would definitely not pass any kind of health and safety regulation. Getting a little fed up, the boys spend their final night laughing off the strange and sometimes rotten adventure they’ve been having – wondering first about Atsuko and then feeling annoyed about their “friend” who doesn’t seem to have been very invested in this particular enterprise.

As usual for a Yamashita movie, nothing really happens while quite a lot is happening. We get invested in Tsuboi and Kinoshita’s vacation as their friend pulls a Godot style stunt on them by repeatedly failing to appear but always promising to be there soon. Whilst travelling and killing time the two guys talk about various things and get to know one another better. Their time with Atsuko actually seems to bring them closer together rather forcing them into the roles of rivals, though a late stage revelation about Atsuko’s sudden disappearing act may also give them a collective sense of befuddlement mixed with mild guilt. The Ramblers ramble on for 83 minutes, though it never feels like an over extended stay. Once again Yamashita crafts a low-key, nuanced character piece that allows his naturalistic, humorous eye to shine through.


Suprisingly, you can actually buy this on UK iTunes with English subtitles!