Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Akio Jissoji, 2005)

Summer of the UbumeAkio Jissoji has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director to date. In a career that also encompasses the landmark tokusatsu franchise Ultraman and a large selection of children’s TV, Jissoji made his mark as an avant-garde director through his three Buddhist themed art films for ATG. Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Ubume no Natsu) is a relatively late effort and finds Jissoji adapting a supernatural mystery novel penned by Natsuhiko Kyogoku neatly marrying most of his central concerns into one complex detective story.

Freelance writer Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) and occult expert Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) become intrigued by the bizarre story of a woman who has apparently been pregnant for twenty months. If that weren’t enough weirdness, the woman’s husband also went missing a year ago and now her sister has approached the pair hoping they can investigate and figure out what’s really going on. Unbeknownst to him, Sekiguchi has a longstanding connection with several of the people involved and himself plays a role in the central mystery. Demons foreign and domestic, past trauma, infanticide and multiple personality disorder are just some of the possible solutions but as Kyogokudo is keen to remind us, there is nothing in this world that is truly strange.

The mystery conceit takes the form of a classic European style detective story complete witha drawing room based finale in which each of our potential suspects is assembled for Kyogokudo so that he can deliver his final lecture and tick them all off the list as he goes along. The tale takes place in the summer of 1952 and so the spectre of Japan’s wartime past, as well as its growing future, both have a part to play in solving this extremely complex crime. The original supernatural question concerns two otherworldly entities which have become conflated – the Chinese Kokakucho which abducts children, and the Japanese Ubume which offers its child to passersby. Needless to say, the answer to all of our questions lies firmly within our own world and is in no small part the result of relentless cruelty masked as tradition.

The opening scene includes a lengthy discussion between Kyogokudo an Sekiguchi debating the nature of reality. We only experience the world as we perceive it, seeing and unseeing at will. Everybody, to an extent, sees what they need to see, therefore, memory proves an unreliable narrator when it comes to recalling facts which may run contrary to the already prepared narrative.

Jissoji brings his trademark surrealist approach to the material which largely consists of interconnecting flashbacks often intercut with other dreamlike imagery. Filming with odd angles and unusual camera movements, Jissoji makes the the regular world a destabilising place as the strange mystery takes hold. The canted angles and direct to camera approach also add to a slight hardboiled theme which creeps in around the otherwise European detective drama though this mystery is much more about solving a series of puzzles than navigating the dangerously dark world of the noir. That said this is a very bleak tale which, for all its frog faced children weirdness, has some extremely unpleasant human behaviour at its roots.

Supernatural investigator Kyogokudo quickly dispenses with the demonic in favour of the natural but the solutions to this extremely complicated set of mysteries are anything but simple. Making space for the original novel’s author to show up as a travelling picture storyteller with some Shigeru Mizuki inspired illustrations on his easel, Summer of Ubume is not entirely devoid of whimsy but its deliberately arch tone is one which it manages to make work with its already bizarre set up. The enemy is the unburied past, or more precisely the unacknowledged past which generates its own series of ghosts and phantasms, always lurking in the background and creating havoc wherever they go. Occasionally confusing, Summer of Ubume is a fascinating supernatural mystery which takes its cues much more from European detective stories and gothic adventure than from supernatural horror or fantastical ghost story.


Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s source novel is available in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith (published by Vertical in the US).

Original trailer (no subs):

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:

Otakus in Love (恋の門, Suzuki Matsuo, 2004)

koi no monReview of Suzuki Matsuo’s Otaku’s in Love (恋の門, Koi no Mon) first published on UK Anime Network in February 2014.


The word “otaku” is a difficult one to pin down. In the West, it’s often come to be a badge of pride and respect, a label that many fans of what most people would perceive as a niche subculture actively identify with and eagerly apply to themselves. However, the roots of the term are much darker and in its native Japanese, “otaku” can be far from a nice thing to call another person. Of the central couple in this film perhaps only one can be thought of as a traditional “otaku” the other being more of a “tortured artist” whose eccentric behaviour makes it difficult for him to survive in the real world. Well, to be honest finding a base line for “normal behaviour” in this film is a pretty tall order, we run into bizarre anime conventions, cosplay obsessives, broken hearted ex-mangaka (manga) bar owners and a bizarre cult like office environment where the only rule is you must be “happy!” all the time. Otakus In Love is an endearingly odd film that is jam packed full of in jokes and meta references that knows its audience very well and never fails in the humour stakes as a result.

Mon is a down on his luck, in fact totally broke, manga artist. Well, he calls himself a “manga artist” but his work isn’t exactly what most people would expect. In a touch of the avant garde, Mon makes his manga out of rocks. Mon’s “manga” are, in fact, a collection of rocks painted with a single kanji character and arranged inside a custom made wooden box. Needless to say each of Mon’s works is a one off piece and his sales record is not exactly going to get him on the best seller list. He can’t seem to hold down a part time job either due to his extreme reactions to people not taking his art seriously and his strange appearance which is something like a seventies guru come glam rock god whose ragged clothes have an oddly deliberate look to them. One fateful day he has an interview for Tsugino Happy Inc which turns out to be a cult-like office environment which seems to advocate happiness through total subjugation. He lasts about an hour at this job before punching his new boss in the face for failing to appreciate his artistic qualities.

However, on the way there about to pick up a particularly fine looking rock, he meets Koino who turns out to be a colleague of his at Happy Inc. The two go out for drinks which ends up at Koino’s apartment where upon Mon wakes up the next morning to find out he’s been a victim of forced cosplay! Unwittingly dressed up as Koino’s favourite character from Soul Caliber II, he’s quickly posed by Koino for her cosplay wall and dragged into a world of doujinshi, comiket, cosplay and all things geeky. Koino is an amateur manga artist who claims to have made a small fortune selling her home made manga at conventions and is well and truly an otaku. Can two such different people really find love? There’s only one way to find out!

Otakus in Love is based on Jun Hanyunyuu’s manga Koi no Mon (also the original Japanese title of the film) and as such carries over various extremely clever meta visual references. Directed by well known actor Suzuki Matsuo (Ichi the Killer) the film is often about as close as you could get to being a live action manga as Matsuo manages to make standard manga tropes like reaction shots and surreal action scenes work in a totally believable way. In the course of the film we’re treated to full on musical sections and ridiculous comic motifs that resurface at fairly predictable moments which could all end up just being far too much, but under Matsuo’s steady hand the film comes out on the right side of crazy and is never anything less than totally zany fun.

The film isn’t afraid to wear its otaku badge on its sleeve, either. Jam packed with references from video games, anime, and manga, Otakus in Love gets its audience completely and trusts it to understand all of its allusions and homages without needing to repeatedly bash the viewer over the head with tie-ins. It also takes an affectionate side swipe at fan culture with some bizarre interactions with cosplay, conventions and ani-singers which any anime fan can probably relate to. The film also has a fair few cameos from such well known personages as Hideaki Anno, Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike to name but a few.

At a 114 minutes it does run a little long and occasionally feels like it’s going to run out of steam but for the vast majority of its running time Otakus in Love is a genuinely hilarious, truly bizarre, romantic comedy. Full of warmth and exuberance, it’s difficult to image anyone not being swept away by its surreal humour and though it’s certainly on the broader side of comedy it never feels particularly over the top (or at least not in a bad way). Otakus in Love is a romanic comedy that no self confessed otaku should miss out on seeing.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2014.