JK Rock (JK☆ROCK, Shunji Muguruma, 2019)

JK Rock poster 1The heyday of the idol movie may have passed with the Showa era, but the genre proves itself alive and kicking with the infinitely charming JK Rock (JK☆ROCK). Starring the members of Drop Doll – a band formed by the three actresses from director Shunji Muguruma’s previous short Little Performer: The Pulse of Winds, JK Rock is a spunky coming of age tale in which three lost high school girls end up starting band at the behest of a strange old man (Masahiko Nishimura) who owns a rock and roll bar in bohemian Kichijoji and secretly wants to coax reluctant rocker Joe (Shodai Fukuyama) back to the stage.

Joe was once in a promising band, JoKers – a combination of his own name and that of his best friend and bandmate whose initials are also JK. A year earlier, however, he appears to have got cold feet and left music behind him for good in order to concentrate on a law degree. He still has his adoring fans though, these days he’s known as the “purple prince” because he drives round campus in an ostentatious purple Lamborghini. A fateful meet cute brings him into contact with feisty high school girl Sakura (Chihiro Hayama) when she decides to take a middle-aged man to task for queue jumping in a convenience store only for Joe to calmly point out that she’s now the one holding everyone up. Somewhat grateful for Joe’s life lesson, Sakura is non-plussed when he calls her a weirdo as he leaves. It’s no surprise to discover that Sakura is a regular at Teru’s Rock ’n Roll Cafe where Joe used to play and so fate is set in motion.

The film’s name, “JK Rock” is a witty multilayered pun in that it refers both to the multiple “JKs” and to the more obvious “Joshi Kosei” which means “high school girls”. Sakura is joined by two more frequenters of Teru’s – waitress and track star Mao (Yuina) who takes up the guitar, and fabulously wealthy Rina (Yukino Miyake) who practices bass in secret so her ultra ambitious mother won’t stop her doing what she loves. In true idol movie fashion, everyone seems to be fairly well off in an aspirational sense but each has their own problems which run from an inappropriate crush on a supportive teacher to overbearing parents keen to stamp their own view of success on their kids in order to stop them making their own mistakes.

Meanwhile, Joe is battling the usual early life crises as he weighs up following his dreams against the safety of conventionality. “You can’t fire up my rock spirit and then run away!” Sakura angrily tells him in a line that seems oddly filled with subtext, but running away does seem to be Joe’s problem. He didn’t go with his friend to America, and the other Joe is now big international star. Snapped at by the band’s manager that he had no guts and no love for rock, Joe decided he was unworthy for the stage and had no right to play, forcing himself into a dull but conventionally successful life as a lawyer. Consequently, he is a grumpy, empty shell of a man driving round in a stupidly big and colourful car with a superficial girlfriend who assumes she’ll soon be getting married to an independently wealthy professional grade husband. Through jamming with Sakura he begins to rediscover some of his rock spirit and get his mojo back to realise he’s free to play with whoever he wants on his own terms.

A musical coming of age tale, JK Rock does its best to showcase the musical talents of Drop Doll which appear to be vast. JoKers plays only a minor role in brief flashbacks of what might have been (and perhaps could be again) for the dejected Joe while the girlband studies intently under his, originally reluctant, tutorship to become fine musicians in their own right. Of course, when it comes down it, it’s not just music but youthful solidarity and the true power of friendship which eventually show the way as old wounds are repaired and new bonds formed between the variously troubled youngsters who eventually realise that they’re figuring things out and will probably be OK. A charming, sprightly youth movie filled with true punk spirit and genuine warmth, JK Rock is an improbable delight and sure to make stars of its three leading ladies.


JK Rock was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Short version of the music video for the movie’s theme song – Secret Voice

Dead or Alive (DEAD OR ALIVE 犯罪者, Takashi Miike, 1999)

dead or alive
Prolific as always, Takashi Miike released four feature length films in 1999, in addition to working in TV and video. Dead or Alive (DEAD OR ALIVE 犯罪者, Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha) came out within the same year as Miike’s seminal Audition and though it is the latter which has gone on to define his reputation, the Dead or Alive Trilogy is equally responsible for the director’s ongoing popularity. Following the Black Society Trilogy the finale of which, Ley Lines, was also released in 1999, Dead or Alive returns to the world of orphaned exiles and Chinese gangsters, men looking for family in all the wrong places and finding only loneliness, rage, and disappointment. Criminal or cop, everyone is looking for the same old thing but for one reason or another it continually evades their grasp.

Late ‘90s, Shinjuku night life. Miike captures all of its sordid glory in a wordlessly frenetic opening sequence which begins with a naked woman falling off a building and ends with the exploding belly of a noodle loving Triad. The Shinjuku gang scene is a large and complex one but this tiny corner is about to be torn apart by the opposing forces of petty Chinese gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and veteran policeman Jojima (Sho Aikawa).

A little later, the major antagonist – yakuza boss Aoki (Renji Ishibashi), asks a drugged up woman he’s immersed in a pool of her own excrement he himself extricated by means of a series of enemas if she’s high or if she’s come down. Drugs are always on the periphery from the bag in the hands of the falling woman to the deluded hopes and dreams of everyone who’s had the misfortune to find themselves here but Miike takes things one step further and structures his film like the inverted bell curve of a strange trip. The relentless pace of the opening sequence with its constant noodle refills, cocaine excess, and eventual bathroom sex and murder combo gradually winds down giving way to the comfortably numb central section in which Jojima and Ryuichi mirror and circle each other in the murky Shinjuku streets but, as he often does, Miike refuels for an angry, increasingly bizarre final sequence as two men whose quests have cost them everything they were fighting to protect prepare to burn the world rather than see the other live another day.

Ryuichi, like many a gangster hero, is an orphan. His major motivation is a desire to protect his delicate younger brother whom he has sent abroad to study in the hope that he will be catapulted into a successful middle class life while Ryuichi takes over the criminal underworld. Toji (Michisuke Kashiwaya) has returned, but such close proximity to his brother’s darkness may have destabilising consequences for both of them. Ryuichi’s “family” is a constructed one made of other similarly lost or discarded kids of Chinese descent, all looking for a home when neither of the two which present themselves is willing to offer them full acceptance but there is no unconditional love here, betrayal is an easily applied judgement met with a harsh and irreversible punishment.

Even if Ryuichi’s world is cold, Jojima’s may be colder. Despite his wife’s pleas he sleeps on the sofa and seems to have a difficult, strained relationship with the family his life is founded on protecting. Jojima’s reasons for continuing to avoid his marital bed are unclear whether from simple consideration of his strange policeman’s hours or the hushed phone call his wife receives which suggests she may be seeking comfort outside the home, but the one thing which is clear is that this is a family already deeply fractured. Adding to the strain, Jojima’s daughter is seriously ill and his wife has worked out that they will need an enormous amount of money for her treatment. Jojima continues to proclaim that he is “working on it” and will find the money somewhere, reacting angrily to his wife’s desperate suggestion of asking her family for a loan. Wanting to save his daughter himself, he ventures ever deeper into the criminal underworld, crossing the line from law enforcer to law breaker.

Miike operates a tightly controlled approach to pacing after the frenetic opening, slowing right down before exploding in a flurry of gun fire for the climactic shootout (flying chicken feathers and all) and then taking a break until the bonkers finale with its self amputations, mysterious bazookas and strange power orbs. Dead or alive, these are men living in a furious purgatory each denied the very thing they’ve been searching for, but in the end they mirror each other, locked in a vicious cycle of rage and violence which threatens to engulf us all.


Out now in the UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love Ghost (死びとの恋わずらい, Kazuyuki Shibuya, 2001)

love ghost posterWhat is it about ghosts and high school girls? Maybe it’s shrines and graveyards mothers ought to be warning their daughters about rather than moody guys with motorbikes. Anyway, the somewhat salaciously titled Love Ghost (死びとの恋わずらい, Shibito no Koiwazurai) is not quite the film it claims to be, though it is haunted by the violent spirit of strong emotion. Innocent high school romance is suddenly infected with the cruel complications of adult love, mental illness, and suicide as a strange curse descends over a previously peaceful town.

Taking on the classic “mysterious transfer student” role, protagonist Midori (Lisa Goto) is about to set off for her first day in a new school after moving back to her home town ten years after her father left the family for another woman. Midori is frequently plagued by a recurring nightmare in which she indulges in the local practice of Tsuji-ura whereby girls wait near the temple and ask a passerby what they think their chances are with their current crush. Only, Midori’s visions have started to bleed into the real world and often end in a storm of fire and blood. For this reason she finds herself unable to enter the school building but is rescued by new classmate, Suzue (Asumi Miwa), who shows her another way in. On the way the pair meet clueless popular boy Kotaro (Takahashi Shinji) who is instantly smitten with the new girl, much to Suzue’s consternation.

Kotoro is, to put it mildly, a little on the dim side and either hasn’t noticed that the entire population of the school, including his good friend Suzue, is love with him or is just refusing to acknowledge it. Romance is the major occupation of the school girls who spend their break times reading tarot cards and talking about Tsuji-ura and the handsome boy dressed in black who often appears there, be he a force for good or ill. Midori isn’t really interested in her classmates but is captivated by the near silent boy at the back of the room whom everyone else is ignoring. She eventually recognises him as a boy she knew before she left and used to play with all the time. Meeting up on the roof, Ryusuke (Ryuhei Matsuda) reveals he’s been waiting for her to come back all this time. However, there is definitely something strange about this quiet boy, not to mention the ever expanding mould stain in Midori’s bathroom…

There’s a lot of obviousness in Love Ghost, but this is later revealed to be a master stroke undercutting the extreme reversals of the big reveals. Madness quickly takes hold in the school, fortunately it does not claim many victims though those who do succumb find themselves cutting their own throats out of sense of heartbroken helplessness unable to accept the fact that their romantic destinies are not the ones they would have chosen.

On the one hand there are Midori’s recurrent memories of her idyllic childhood playing with Ryusuke in beautiful green, sunlit forests which later gives way to tentative teenage romance – a perfectly natural development. However, that’s set against the increasing strangeness of the environment with its oddly ethereal atmosphere. The other girls are experiencing a dangerous kind of romantic madness turning to obsessive, unrequited love yet Midori’s own experience is seemingly a gentle and innocent one. Of course, there’s more to it than that, and Midori’s world is also “unreal” in a hundred other ways. As usual, her link to the curse is tied up with her long buried past which must once again be exposed to the light in order to move forward and finally bid goodbye to the ghosts of forgotten cruelty.

Love Ghost’s central curse is a little confused and never satisfactorily explains itself. There might be more to say about the way the intense emotions of adolescence don’t always dissipate on reaching adulthood in the way they are supposedly intended to, or about the obsessive preoccupation the schoolgirls have with romance, but Love Ghost isn’t interested in any of that. In fact, it’s a little confused what it is interested in but at heart its a series of intertwined ghost stories as Midori haunts herself whilst still alive with memories of the childhood cruelly ripped away from her by the selfish actions of a stranger which have also left her with a deep seated sense of unresolved guilt. An imperfect exercise, Love Ghost has little to recommend it aside from providing an early outing for later star Ryuhei Matsuda yet does offer a poetic, if poorly put together, take on a teen ghost story that is like to offer more to fans of supernatural romance than of J-horror gore.


Love Ghost is available on R1 US DVD from Tokyo Shock.

US release trailer:

At This Late Date, the Charleston (近頃なぜかチャールストン, Kihachi Okamoto, 1981)

At this late date, the charlestonKihachi Okamoto first made his name with his samurai movies but his output was in fact far more varied in tone than the work most often screened outside of Japan might suggest. Marked by heavy irony and close to the bone social commentary, Okamoto’s movies are nothing if not playful even in the bleakest of circumstances. He first teamed up with Japan’s indie power the Art Theatre Guild for The Human Bullet in 1968 which recounted the absurd final days of the war in true Okamoto fashion and then bounced back to the Edo era for Battle Cry before deciding on the very contemporary satire At This Late Date, the Charleston (近頃なぜかチャールストン, Chikagoro Nazeka Charleston) in 1981.

Shot in 4:3 and a stately looking black and white, At This Late Date, the Charleston begins when Jiro – a slightly strange younger son of a wealthy family, punches out a girl’s boyfriend whilst the pair are sitting on a bench and subsequently chases her through the park util he eventually gets himself arrested on a charge of “attempted rape”. He then gets thrown into a cell with a gang of crazy old guys who took the decision sometime ago to secede from the state of Japan and create their own independent nation known as the land of Yamatai. Consequently, they all refer to each other by their “cabinet titles” such as Foreign Minister and Army Minister etc each inspired by their former lives which is why they have a minister for mail (he used to be a postman). They’re in jail because they tried to make a “state visit” to the Diet building and whilst there enjoyed some of the canteen food but as this was an official event they didn’t see why they should pay for any of it (and their Finance Minister was busy at the races).

Soon enough everyone gets released – the old guys when the Finance Minister turns up to pay their bill and Jiro when he’s bailed out by his older brother and the family housemaid (who quickly realises the “victims” aren’t quite what they seem). However, in a fantastically weird coincidence it turns out that the government of Yamatai have commandeered a house on the estate of Jiro’s father for their sovereign territory. Jiro’s brother is desperate to evict them but there’s also the problem that their multimillionaire dad has been missing for months and no one’s quite sure what might have happened to him…

Crazy old guys (and gal) who’ve become so disillusioned with their nation that they’ve started a new one on their own, missing industrialists, a Lupin III-like policeman who’s so obsessed with looking cool that the suspects always run away while he’s left striking a pose – Okamoto really knows how to pile on the strangeness, but somehow it all seems to make perfect sense. Madcap doesn’t even begin to do justice to crazy cartoon world Okamoto has created but it’s all so effortlessly funny that it hardly matters what you’d call it.

After initially being captured and branded a spy when he marches on over to Yamatai to ask them about his father, Jiro finds himself defecting to become “Minister of Labour” (this seems to involve doing all of the old guys’ menial tasks). As the youngest member of the group, he becomes the repository for their stories which mostly date back to the days of their youth from the fun loving Charleston era to the rise of militarism and eventually the war itself. This comes to the fore even more as the events take place in August, meaning that there’s both the anniversary of the atomic bomb and of the end of the war raising painful memories for this group of older folks, even if not quite so relevant to the younger contingent. The gang are planning a special trip to a hot spring on the 15th, but first they have to defend their micro-country against the onslaught of gangsters and bailiffs who are trying to “invade” their sovereign territory.

The old folks are pacifists, more or less (they didn’t really want an “Army Minister” but it was argued that no one would take them seriously without means of defence) but are still determined to protect their ideal state of Yamatai all the while clamouring for a silent kind of diplomatic immunity. They have some very unusual ideas but they know what’s what and having made an unlikely ally in the form of an unhappily married and soon to be retired policeman, have even managed to expose a little corruption and evil corporate shenanigans in the process of defending their own freedom. A vote for dancing cheerfully over a military march, At This Late Date, The Charleston is a warm and funny tale of eccentric oldsters who’ve seen it all before and finally decided it’s all kind of ridiculous anyway which can’t help but get your own toes tapping, whatever age you are.


Several unsubtitled trailers for the price of one:

Poppoya (鉄道員, Yasuo Furuhata, 1999)

img_0The late Ken Takakura is best remembered as cinema’s original hard man but when the occasion arose he could provoke the odd tear or two just the same. 1999’s Poppoya (鉄道員) directed by frequent collaborator Yasuo Furuhata sees him once again playing the tough guy with a battered heart only this time he’s an ageing station master of a small town in deepest snow country which was once a prosperous mining village but is now a rural backwater.

Otomatsu Sato has spent his life in service to the railway. Like his father before him who believed the key to the modernisation of Japan after its defeat in the second world war was in its transportation network, Sato started as an engineer before being promoted to station master. Morning and evening in the freezing cold he bid in and sent out each passenger and freight train travelling through his one track station. However, though he clearly loves his job Sato has experienced a great deal of personal tragedy in pursuit of his career. He wasn’t there when his baby daughter died, nor was he there when his wife lay dying in hospital. He was where he always is, on the platform until the last train goes out. Now, however, the mine has closed, the town is full of old people and there are no passengers on the train so the line will be closing. Having given his life to something which will be so unceremoniously erased, what is a man like Sato to do now?

In true Takakura fashion, Sato appears tough and fairly unapproachable on the outside but actually he’s quite well respected in the town and even if some of the other residents bemoan his rigid ways, they grudgingly respect him for being the way he is. He takes his duties seriously and would never countenance breaching them for something as trivial as personal concerns, even when those concerns are something as understandable as the death of a family member. The way he sees things, this is his duty and must be fulfilled, properly each day no matter what. This may seem a little obsequious in Western eyes, though many of the other (particularly female) characters also agree Sato takes things much further than he needs to, but dedication to one’s duty is, after all, an admirable trait.

However, now it’s all been for nowt. The railway line is to be closed, the land will engulf it once again erasing the years of Sato’s work just as if he were never there. He’s sacrificed final moments with his wife and child – not even that, just sacrificed moments. He’s given all to the railway and now there’s no place left there for him. His best friend, the father of a son also in the railway business, is to take another job at a hotel complex but Sato is a railwayman through and through – he’ll work on the tracks or not at all.

Around this time Sato also starts seeing some strange new children around. He assumes they’ve come to stay with grandparents in the village, this being the time of the New Year holiday. The little one has a strangely old fashioned looking doll that reminds Sato of one he bought for his infant daughter only she never really had the chance to enjoy it. Then he meets an older sister who’s kind of a live wire before meeting the oldest – a high school student dressed in an old fashioned looking uniform who really reminds him of someone he used to know. All these strange encounters force Sato to further re-examine his past, reliving old regrets and assessing a life lived in service to an ideal at the expense of the joy he might have felt as a happy family man.

Beautifully photographed with picturesque shots of trains against the deep snows of Northern Japan, Poppoya was Japan’s submission for the 1999 Oscars and does have all the trappings of a prestige melodrama. It unabashedly pulls at the hearts strings and even if the rather sentimental score takes things too far, Poppoya does nevertheless manage to draw the odd tear for Sato’s lonely, regretful old age. Sentimental yet genuinely affecting, Poppoya is an effectively crafted weepy which serves as a timely reminder to embrace the things which are most important to you while there’s still time.


The Hong Kong blu-ray release of Poppoya includes English subtitles (though they are a little “imperfect”).

Only trailer I can find has Korean subs: