March Comes in Like a Lion (3月のライオン, Keishi Ohtomo, 2017)

march comes in like a lion posterShogi seems to have entered the spotlight of late. Not only is there a new teenage challenger hitting the headlines in Japan, but 2017 has even seen two tentpole Japanese pictures dedicated to the cerebral sport. Following the real life biopic Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow, March Comes in Like a Lion (3月のライオン, Sangatsu no Lion) adapts the popular manga by Chica Umino in which an orphaned boy attempts to block out his emotional pain through the taxing strategising becoming a top player entails. Shogi, however, turns out to be a dangerous addiction, ruining lives and hearts left, right and centre but, then again, it’s not so much “shogi” which causes problems but the emotional volatility its intense rigidity is often masking.

Rei Kiriyama (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lost his family at a young age when both parents and his little sister were tragically killed in a car accident. Taken in by a family friend, Rei takes up shogi (a game also apparently beloved by his late father) in the hope of being accepted in his new home. A few year’s later, Rei’s plan has worked too well. Better than either of his foster-siblings, Kyoko (Kasumi Arimura) and Ayumu, Rei has become his foster-father’s favourite child causing resentment and disconnection in the family home. Believing himself to be a disruptive influence among those he loves (even if he suspects they still do not love him), Rei removes himself by deciding to live independently, shunning all personal relationships and dedicating his life to the art of shogi.

Everything changes when Rei is taken for a night out by some senior colleagues and is encouraged to drink alcohol for the first time despite being underage. A kindly young woman who lives nearby finds Rei collapsed in the street and takes him home to sleep things off. The oldest of three sisters, Akari (Kana Kurashina) has a habit of picking up strays and determines to welcome the lonely high schooler into her happy home. Suddenly experiencing a positive familial environment, Rei’s views on interpersonal connection begin to shift but people are not like shogi and you can’t you can’t expect them to just fall into place like a well played tile. 

Like Satoshi, the real life subject of which is also echoed in March through the performance of an unrecognisable Shota Sometani who piles on the pounds to play the sickly yet intense shogi enthusiast and Rei supporter Harunobu Nikaido, March dares to suggest that shogi is not an altogether healthy obsession. Koda (Etsushi Toyokawa), Rei’s foster-father, is a shogi master who trained both his children to follow in his footsteps only to pull the rug from under them by ordering the pair to give up the game because they’ll never be as good as Rei. Thinking only of shogi, he thinks nothing of the effect this complete rejection will have on his family, seeming surprised when neither of his children want much more to do with him and have been unable to move forward with their own lives because of the crushing blow to their self confidence and emotional well being that he has dealt them.

Kyoko, Rei’s big sister figure, remains resentful and hurt, embarking on an unwise affair with a married shogi master (Hideaki Ito) who is also emotionally closed off to her because he too is using shogi as a kind of drug to numb the pain of having a wife in a longterm coma. Believing himself to be a disruptive influence who brings ruin to everything he touches, Rei has decided that shogi is his safe place in which he can do no harm to others whilst protecting himself through intense forethought. He is, however, very affected by the results of his victories and failures, feeling guilty about the negative effects of defeat on losing challengers whilst knowing that loss is a part of the game.

Drawing closer to the three Kawamoto sisters, Rei rediscovers the joy of connection but he’s slow to follow that thread to its natural conclusion. His shogi game struggles to progress precisely because of his rigid tunnel vision. Time and again he either fails to see or misreads his opponents, only belatedly coming to realise that strategy and psychology are inextricably linked. Yet in his quest to become more open, he eventually overplays his hand in failing to realise that his viewpoint is essentially self-centred – he learned shogi to fit in with the Kodas, now he’s learning warmth to be a Kawamoto but applying the rules of shogi to interpersonal relationships provokes only more hurt and shame sending Rei right back into the self imposed black hole he’d created for himself immersed in the superficial safety of the shogi world.

As Koda explains to Kyoko (somewhat insensitively) it’s not shogi which ruins lives, but the lack of confidence in oneself that it often exposes. Rei’s problem is less one of intellectual self belief than a continuing refusal to deal with the emotional trauma of losing his birth family followed by the lingering suspicion that he is a toxic presence to everyone he loves. Only in his final battle does the realisation that his relationships with his new found friends are a strength and not a weakness finally allow him to move forward, both personally and in terms of his game. Rei may have come in like a lion, all superficial roar and bluster, but he’s going out like a lamb – softer and happier but also stronger and more secure. Only now is he ready to face his greatest rival, with his various families waiting in his corner silently cheering him on as finally learns to accept that even in shogi one is never truly alone.


Released in two parts – 3月のライオン 前編 (Sangatsu no Lion Zenpen, March Comes in Like a Lion) / 3月のライオン 後編 (Sangatsu no Lion Kouhen, March Goes Out Like a Lamb).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Patisserie Coin de rue (洋菓子店コアンドル, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2011)

coin de rue posterYou know how it is, when you’re from a small town perhaps you feel like a big fish but when you swim up to the great lake that is the city, you suddenly feel very small. Natsume has come to Tokyo from her rural backwater town in Kagoshima to look for her boyfriend, Umi, who’s not been in contact (even with his parents). When she arrives at the patisserie he’d been working at she discovers that he suddenly quit a while ago without telling anyone where he was going. Natsume is distressed and heartbroken but notices that the cafe is currently hiring and so asks if she may take Umi’s place – after all she grew up helping out at her family’s cake shop!

However, as you might expect, even if her cakes are perfectly nice in a “homecooking” sort of way, they won’t cut it at a top cafe like Patisserie Coin de rue. Natsume is not someone who takes criticism well and is hurt that her skills aren’t appreciated but vows to stay and become the best kind of pastry chef she can be.

At heart, Patisserie Coin de rue (洋菓子店コアンドル, Yougashiten Koandoru) is a fairly generic apprentice story as Natsume starts off as a slightly arrogant country girl with an over inflated opinion of her abilities but gradually develops the humility to help her learn from others around her. Natsume, played by the very talented Yu Aoi, is not an easy woman herself and often rides a rollercoaster of emotions in just a single sentence. She’s loud but passionate and she does work hard even if her over confidence and slapdash approach sometimes cause problems for her fellow workers.

Patisserie Coin de Rue is also refreshing in that it’s one of the few films of this nature that do not attempt to pack in a romantic element. Natsume may have come to Tokyo to look for her boyfriend but no attention is paid to the possibility of winning him back or finding someone else, after calling time on her quest Natsume simply buckles down to learning her craft.

This is doubly true of the film’s secondary plot strand which centres on former international pastry star Tomura (Yosuke Eguchi) who mysteriously abandoned his cooking career eight years ago and now mostly works as a critic with some teaching on the side. He cuts a fairly sad figure as a regular visitor to Patisserie Coin de rue where he’s also an old friend of the owner and Natsume’s mentor, Yuriko. Natsume finally manages to coax him out of his self imposed isolation but the relationship is more paternal than anything else and, thankfully, never attempts to go down any kind of romantic route.

It’s a story that’s familiar enough on its own to have become something of a cliché and Patisserie Coin de rue doesn’t even try to put much of a new spin on it but it does at least carry it off with a decent amount of sophistication. Occasionally the film falls into the televisual but its production values are strong with the tone neatly flitting between mainstream aesthetics and a slightly alienated indie perspective. Of course, being a cake based film there are plenty of enticing shots of the baked goods on offer which do at least create a feast for the eyes.

The saving grace of the film is its leading actors who each turn in naturalistic, nuanced performances even given the lacklustre nature of the script. Yu Aoi carries the film as her surprisingly feisty Natsume dominates each scene she’s in while support is offered by the silent, brooding Yosuke Eguchi and the wise and patient shop owner Yuriko played by Keiko Toda. The film really owes a lot to the talent and commitment of its leading players who help to elevate its rather ordinary nature into something that’s a little less disposable.

That said Patisserie Coin de Rue is a little like a pleasant cafe you find in an unfamiliar area – the coffee’s good and the pastries are pleasant enough, you might drop in again if you’re in this part of town but you probably won’t make a special journey. A little bit formulaic and ultimately too sweet, Patisserie Coin de Rue is a shop bought cake in a boutique box which though enjoyable enough at the time is unlikely to linger long in the memory.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Patisserie Coin de rue includes English subtitles.

(Unsubtitled trailer)

 

The Letter (手紙, Jiro Shono, 2006)

The Letter PosterWhen it comes to cinematic adaptations of popular novelists, Keigo Higashino seems to have received more attention than most. Perhaps this is because he works in so many different genres from detective fiction (including his all powerful Galileo franchise) to family melodrama but it has to be said that his work manages to home in on the kind of films which have the potential to become a box office smash. The Letter (手紙, Tegami) finds him in the familiar territory of sentimental drama as its put upon protagonist battles unfairness and discrimination based on a set of rigid social codes.

Nao (Takayuki Yamada) is a bright young man who had the chance to go to university and progress into a normal middle class life but is now slumming it as a blue collar worker at a factory. It transpires that his dismal circumstances began when he and his brother were orphaned meaning that his older brother Takashi (Tetsuji Tamayama) left school to get the money for Nao’s education. Working himself to the bone, Takashi was injured in a workplace accident and subsequently laid off. Desperate to provide for his brother, he turned to crime and unfortunately ended up killing an elderly woman during a burglary gone wrong and will spend the rest of his life in prison. The once close brothers now communicate through letters alone. With his university dreams shattered, Nao moves from place to place, forced out of employment and friendship groups each time someone finds out about his brother. Increasingly he comes to resent Takashi for the shadow his foolish actions continue cast over his life.

It is sadly true that this kind of social stigma towards the relatives of criminals is more prevalent in a society like Japan’s which prizes the overall harmony of the group (though I wouldn’t say it’s entirely absent here either). Every time Nao thinks he’s about to get somewhere, a background check throws up his imprisoned brother and it’s all over. Especially considering that his brother’s crime is a violent one perpetrated against an elderly lady, nobody is prepared to extend an understanding hand to Nao even though the crime itself has nothing to do with him (save being committed in his name) and its price should not be hanging on his shoulders.

It’s unsurprising then that Nao tries to conceal his brother’s existence, often claiming to be an only child with no living family. Though originally communicating warmly with Takashi in the letters, his growing resentment leads to a decline in their frequency and he rarely visits in person. The desire to hide his problematic past becomes a trigger in itself which leads to his having to give up on a dream of becoming a TV comedian just when it looked like his career was about to take off, and failure to tell a fiancée that he lied about being an only child also presents a serious crack in the couple’s relationship. Had he been more upfront and faced out the resulting reaction, he might have been able to work through it but once you’ve tried to lie sympathy dissipates entirely.

At the end of the day Nao is a young man with no one to guide him. He’s angry and he’s ambitious so he’s filled with resentment that he can’t have everything he thinks he deserves simply because of a series of things which happened to him none of which were his fault. Because of this, he makes a series of poor choices failing to see the things that are right in front of him. The dowdy girl next-door type from the factory is clearly in love with Nao but he isn’t interested – she doesn’t fit his slightly arrogant view of himself with her plainness and straightforward goodness. On the other hand, he’s immediately captivated by a beautiful and wealthy socialite who’s way out of his league. Of course, this is likely to end in tears – even if Nao didn’t already have skeletons in the closet the girl’s father has other plans for her which don’t include a marriage to a jumped up poor boy comedian.

The Letter suffers slightly in its focus on Nao and his troubles rather than being evenly split between the brothers. Takashi has paid a heavy price for his crime – he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life and the bright future he tried to buy for his brother has been ruined forever precisely because of the actions he was taking to ensure it. His only lifeline is the letters and the news he gets of Nao’s prospering in the outside world. Nao’s final decision to stop writing and not even tell his brother his new address so that the letters will no longer reach him is therefore a doubly cruel and selfish one. However, Takashi is only presented in relationship to his brother and his own pain and struggle becomes an undeveloped facet of the film.

As in all of Keigo Higashino’s work, secrets are the great enemy. The film only partially addresses the extreme unfairness of Nao’s plight as he’s continually persecuted for something that’s nothing to do with him. Guilty by association only, he is also in prison with no parole board to consider his case. The film even states that this kind of stigma is a perfectly natural thing which just has to be accepted – accept the truth, it says, and the world will open up to you. On balance this is a good message, but the idea that prejudice and social discrimination are things which just have to be endured is an uncomfortable one which sits at odds with the film’s otherwise positive messages of personal redemption and the importance of familial bonds. Uneven and occasionally tipping over into sentimentality, The Letter is something of a missed opportunity but nevertheless offers a thought provoking and emotionally satisfying melodrama in the best traditions of the genre.


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