Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Yukiko Sode, 2021)

“Is that still a thing?” a young boy asks incredulously of his rather severe grandmother as she quite insensitively sets up new marriage meetings for her granddaughter seconds after being told that her fiancé has unilaterally ended their engagement earlier that day. The “aristocracy” might seem like something from a bygone age, yet as those of us living in highly stratified societies can attest it continues to place a near invisible stranglehold over the mechanisms which govern our lives. Even so, the system traps all as Yukiko Sode’s sensitive drama Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Ano Ko wa Kizoku), adapted from the novel by Mariko Yamauchi, makes plain as two women involved with the same man, as dejected and unhappy as either of them, eventually find common ground in attempting to seize their own agency from within a fiercely patriarchal society. 

At 27, Hanako (Mugi Kadowaki) is beginning to feel as if her life is slipping away from her. As we first meet her, she’s on her way to a posh New Year meal at a fancy Tokyo hotel. The taxi driver envies her, lamenting that he drives people here all the time but has never set foot inside. The reason she’s running late, however, is a mild sense of embarrassment as evidenced by the empty chair at her side intended for the fiancé who won’t be coming. Explaining that he broke off the engagement because the timing was bad, Hanako attempts to put a brave face on the apparent shame she seems to be feeling while her sisters and mother suggest it might be for the best, he was a little too “flamboyant” and in any case they’re ideally looking for someone suitable to take over the family medical practice. While everyone is busy proposing alternative matches, only Hanako’s brother-in-law (Takashi Yamanaka) bothers to ask her what it is she really wants but all she can muster is that she’d be fine with someone “normal”. 

After a few miserable omiai meetings with dreadful men from an awkward doctor with a photo fetish to a sleazy playboy salaryman who thinks women only say they like jazz because at some point a guy liked it, Hanako begins to lose the will to live thinking perhaps that looking for the “right guy” might be aiming too high and she should just take the best offer on the table. When she meets Koichiro (Kengo Kora), however, it’s love at first sight. Showing up like Prince Charming he’s handsome, poised, softly spoken, and even posher than she is. Hanako is the perfect choice to be his wife essentially because of her innate blandness. She’s everything the society wife is supposed to be, quiet, reserved, and unassuming in her total obedience to the tenets of her “upbringing”.  

Meanwhile, Koichiro has also been in a longterm non-relationship with another woman, Miki (Kiko Mizuhara), a bar hostess from a small town who has had to struggle the whole way to make a life for herself. The pair first met at Keio University, but Miki was forced to drop out before graduating when her father lost his job despite having studied her socks off just to get a place. A member of the “in-crowd”, Koichiro’s acceptance was guaranteed because he attended an affiliated school filled with the children of the rich and powerful. Mirroring Hanako’s lunch date with her society ladies, we see Miki and her friend invited by a couple of upperclass classmates to a fancy afternoon tea only to gorp at the menu and its exorbitant price list at which the “in-crowd” do not even glance. When they meet again 10 years later and Miki explains she didn’t exactly choose her line of work, Koichiro laments it’s exactly the same for him, which it of course isn’t, but he is in a similar way trapped. 

“I just want my family to continue” he later explains to Hanako, “it’s just how I was brought up. The same reason you married me”. In a certain way, Koichiro was no more free than Miki, ironically feminised reduced to his capacity to perpetuate the family line while aware that his whole life has been mapped out for him since the day he was born. He went to Keio, married a suitable woman, and is expected to run for political office. Hanako married him because she was expected to marry someone and it was undoubtedly a good match, yet she’s unhappy because the relationship is devoid of intimacy while her in-laws ironically pressure her about the lack of an heir. She suggests getting a job for something to do, but asking her brother-in-law for advice is reminded she’d need to talk to her husband and family first. 

Hanako’s friend, fellow aristocrat and concert violinist Itsuko (Shizuka Ishibashi), meanwhile has remained quite defiantly single explaining to Miki whom she’d met by chance that she believes a woman should be financially independent partly because her mother had wanted to leave her father who had several affairs and numerous illegitimate children but couldn’t because she had no way to support herself, upperclass women largely being brought up to be the wives of important men. As she tells Miki, she hates society’s tendency to pit women against each other and isn’t here to judge her about her relationship with Koichiro but merely to talk. Rather than a bitter love triangle what arises between the women is a sense of solidarity, each finding common ground in being victims of a patriarchal society even if their “upbringings” and social status are currently very different. While Miki perhaps admires from afar but does not particularly resent the “in-crowd”, Hanako begins to see the various ways her “upbringing” has trapped her, attracted by Miki’s sense of confidence and independence remarking that her life seems “lived in”, struck by the warmth of the photos she has on her wall of various trips with friends. 

Her mother had told her to “close her eyes to some things and try to get along” hearing the sad tale of a woman who managed to escape the golden prison of the aristocracy but only at the cost of her child, a cruelty Hanako had been too naive to consider. As Itsuko had told her, Tokyo is a compartmentalised city where you only meet members of your own social class, yet through her accidental contact with Miki she begins to realise another life is possible even if not quite shaking off her privilege as she rejects the tenets of her upbringing to seize her own agency while Koichiro remains trapped within the feudal legacy unable to free himself of the outdated notions of filial responsibility. A tale of cross-class, female solidarity, Aristocrats takes aim at the ironic equality of a system which damages all, even if some remain wilfully complicit, while affording the ability to its protagonists to sidestep the forces which constrain them to claim their own freedom brokered by mutual support and the aspiration towards a freer society. 


Aristocrats streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン, SABU, 2005)

hold-up-downReteaming with popular boy band V6, SABU returns with another madcap caper in the form of surreal farce Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン). Holding up is, as usual, not on SABU’s roadmap as he proceeds at a necessarily brisk pace, weaving these disparate plot strands into their inevitable climax. Perhaps a little shallower than the director’s other similarly themed offerings, Hold Up Down mixes everything from reverse Father Christmasing gone wrong, to gun obsessed policemen, train obsessed policewomen, clumsy defrocked priests carrying the cross of frozen Jesus, and a Shining-esque hotel filled with creepy ghosts. Quite a lot to be going on with but if SABU has proved anything it’s that he’s very adept at juggling.

Christmas Eve – two guys hold up a bank whilst cunningly disguised as Santas, but emerging with the money they find their getaway car getting away from them on the back of a tow truck. Still dressed as Father Christmases, the guys head for the subway and decide to stash the cash in a coin locker only neither of them has any change. After robbing a busker at gunpoint for 800 yen, the duo get rid of the loot but the guy chases after them at which point they lose the key which the busker swallows after being hit by a speeding police car. Trying to cover up the crime the two policeman bundle him into the car but crash a short time later at which time the busker gets thrown in a lake and then retrieved by a defrocked priest under the misapprehension that he is Japanese Jesus!

Following SABU’s usual spiralling chase formula, events quickly escalate as one random incident eventually leads to another. Christmas is a time of romance in Japan, though encountering the love of your life during a bank robbery is less than ideal. After a love at first sight moment heralded by a musical cue, the thieves head back on the run with the girl in tow but the course of true love never did run smooth. If romance is one motivator – death is another. On this holiest of days, our defrocked priest is caught in a moment of despair, contemplating the ultimate religious taboo in taking his own life and ending the torment he feels in having failed God so badly. Therefore, when our scruffy hippy busker washes up right nearby he draws the obvious conclusion – Jesus has returned to save him! Attempting to make up for his numerous mistakes, the priest is determined to save and preserve his Lord, but, again, his clumsiness results in more catastrophes.

The situation resolves itself as each of the players winds up at the same abandoned hot springs resort which turns out to be not quite so closed down as everyone thought. Filled with ghostly charm, the gloomy haunted house atmosphere sends everyone over the edge as they thrash out their various issues as if possessed by madness. Culminating in a sequence of extreme slapstick in which everyone fights with everyone else and frozen Jesus plays an unexpectedly active part, Hold Up Down brings all of its surreal goings on to a suitably absurd conclusion in which it seems perfectly reasonable that those wishing to leave limbo land could take a 2.5hr bus trip back to the afterlife.

Pure farce and lacking the heavier themes of other SABU outings, Hold Up Down, can’t help but feel something of a lightweight exercise but that’s not to belittle the extreme intricacy of the plotting or elegance of its resolution. An innovativeIy integrated early fantasy sequence begins the voyage into the surreal which is completed in the strangely spiritual haunted house set piece as the disillusioned priest spends some time with congenial demons before attempting to make his peace with God only for it all to go wrong again. If there is a god here, it’s the Lord of Misrule but thankfully they prove a benevolent one as somehow everything seems to shake itself out with each of our troubled protagonists discovering some kind of inner calm as a result of their strange adventure, as improbable as it seems (in one way or another). Christmas is a time for ghost stories, after all, but you’ll rarely find one as joyful as Hold Up Down.


Scene from the end of the film:

Summer Holiday Everyday (毎日が夏休み, Shusuke Kaneko, 1994)

Summer Holiday EverydaySummer Holiday Everyday – It’s certainly an upbeat way to describe unemployment but then everything is improbably upbeat and cheerful in the always sunny world of Shusuke Kaneko’s adaptation of Yumiko Oshima’s shoujo manga. Published in the mid-bubble era of 1988, Oshima’s world is one in which anything is possible but by the time of the live action movie release in 1994 perhaps this was not so much the case. Nevertheless, Kaneko’s film retains the happy-go-lucky tone and offers note of celebration for the unconventional as a path to success and individual happiness.

Told from the point of view of 14 year old Sugina (Hinako Saeki) who offers us a voiceover guide to her everyday life, Summer Holiday Everyday (毎日が夏休み, Mainichi ga Natsuyasumi) follows the adventures of the slightly unusual Rinkaiji family. Sugina’s mother is divorced from her father and has remarried a successful salary man, himself a divorcee, ten years ago. The family lives in fairly peaceful domesticity and Sugina’s mother, Yoshiko (Jun Fubuki), even remarks how glad she is that her daughter gets on so well with her step-father, Nariyuki (Shiro Sano), though Sugina claims this is largely because she can’t remember actually speaking to him very much over the last ten years.

The pair are about become closer though it risks tearing their perfectly normal family apart. Sugina has been skipping school due to bullying and spends her days in the local park where, unbeknownst to her, her step-father has also been wasting his days after quitting a job he could no longer stand. After getting over the embarrassment of this accidental encounter, Sugina and Nariyuki confess everything to each other and Nariyuki makes a bold decision. Sugina can quit school (seeing as her grades were terrible anyway) and come work with him in his new enterprise – the Rinakaiji Heart Service, helping the community 24/7 with assistance in those difficult to handle odd jobs everyone needs doing.

Quitting a lucrative and secure job for the risk associated with staring a new business is a difficult decision in any society but is more or less unthinkable in Japan. Yoshiko is beyond stunned by her husband’s decision, not to mention the fact that her daughter has been deceiving her by skipping school and faking her report cards to make it look like her grades were much better than they are. Immediately worrying about what the neighbours will think, Yoshiko finds it hard to deal with the embarrassment of her husband and teenage daughter going door-to-door and doing menial work in the community, especially when she overhears the snickers of gossipy housewives in the local supermarket. For Yoshiko, whose sense of self worth was bound up with having a successful husband employed at a top tier company, Nariyuki’s sudden lurch towards individual freedom has destabilised her entire existence. Her world ceases to make sense.

Yoshiko’s sense of displacement is deepened when the fledgling company’s second job offer comes from Nariyuki’s ex-wife. Beniko (Hitomi Takahashi) left Nariyuki for another man because she failed to appreciate Nariyuki’s gentle charms and he was too mild mannered to fight for his wife even if he loved her deeply. What’s more, Nariyuki’s unconventional approach to life has earned him a spot in the papers and brought the family back to the attention of Sugina’s father, Ejima (Akira Onodera).

Early on Nariyuki states that life’s true radiance is only visible through suffering and later says that pain and suffering are essential parts of human existence. Nariyuki, now making a stand for himself for the first time in his life, remains philosophical in the face of hardship though perhaps has more faith in Yoshiko’s ability to follow him down this untrodden path than was wise. As a son and then a husband, Nariyuki may be a methodical sort but he’s unused to the idea of caring for himself as his comical attempts at doing the housework show. After almost burning the house down several times, Nariyuki does indeed figure out an efficient way of managing the household chores and seeing to Sugina’s education whilst also allowing his wife become the family breadwinner. However, Yoshiko’s new line of work is one she finds both unpleasant and degrading and she probably hoped that Nariyuki would strenuously try to stop her doing it so it’s not quite as much of a progressive approach as might be hoped.

After countless setbacks, humorous adventures, and a major fire Nariyuki’s enterprise begins to catch on. Brought together in shared crisis, the family unit only becomes stronger and more committed to their shared destinies. In fact, the family expands as Sugina rebuilds her relationship with birth father and even gains a new aunt figure in the form of her step-father’s youthful ex-wife. When you love what you do everyday is a holiday, and Sugina’s path, unconventional as it is, is one that leads her into the sunlight guided by Nariyuki’s oddly philosophical wisdom.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Robinson on the Beach (砂の上のロビンソン, Junichi Suzuki, 1989)

Robinson on the Beach“Family Drama” is often said to be the mainstay of Japanese film. From Ozu to Koreeda, drama in the basic social unit has often been exploited to create a wider dialogue about society at large. However, In the wake of Yoshimitsu Morita’s condemnation of modern family values in The Family Game the nature of the conversation shifted. As Japan eased into its bubble era, concerns began to grow about what exactly the rise of consumerism meant for traditional values. Robinson on the Beach (砂の上のロビンソン, Suna no Ue no Robinson, AKA A Sandcastle Model Family Home) takes things one step further than The Family Game in that it repackages the entire idea of “the ideal family” as something that can itself be bought and sold and therefore manipulated as the perfect marketing tool.

At the beginning of the film, the Kidos are a fairly ordinary lower middle class family of five all living a modest apartment. They’re a little cramped – in fact so much so that mum and dad have to sneak into the wardrobe to get some alone time together just watching movies on a tiny TV set and sharing a set of earphones between them. The kids are always at each other’s throats but broadly they’re happy. However, when both husband Shouhei and wife Ryoko spot an advert for a new scheme which promises a “free” house to a “model family” they decide that this is their best chance at a new life. The deal does have a few drawbacks – they all have to play the part of a perfect family for a whole year and let the public into their lives to prove it.

Things were a little more innocent back in 1989. Reality TV hadn’t yet kicked in and the Kido’s don’t quite understand what it is they’re letting themselves in for when they agree to this too good to be true offer. The house they’ve been given is a veritable mansion – a huge, sprawling Western style home with a bedroom each for the children, a dedicated study for Shouhei and as many walk-in closets as anyone could wish for. However, the cars in the garage are only for show and even if the house is in the same general area as their old flat, Shouei still has to cram himself inside the sardine tin of the morning commuter train everyday just like before.

He does at least have the luxury of being allowed to leave the house, unlike Ryoko who becomes a bizarre “first lady” to this new show home empire expected to play a role somewhere between real estate agent and princess as she welcomes prospective buyers and allows them to poke and prod all over her nice new home spreading thinly veiled judgement wherever they go. Suddenly she has people going through her fridge and oggling her washing left hanging up to dry . The liaison lady from the company even has the gaul to criticise Ryoko’s nightwear as “frumpy” and orders her to buy something a little more glamorous which will match the “upmarket” appeal of the house.

After she gives in and does this she just has to listen as two visitors describe the new nightwear as “slutty” and wonder how a “respectable” wife could wear such a thing (it’s just a regular pink negligee nightdress, nothing unusual about it at all save for being a little more career woman than mumsy in appeal). In fact, the family’s new found circumstances only cause resentment in those around them and Ryoko in particular is plagued by nuisance callers who repeatedly accuse her of having prostituted herself to win the house.

In the economic reality of Tokyo at the time, there was just no feasible way a family like the Kidos would ever be able to afford to own their own house. They probably wouldn’t even be able to rent one or get anything bigger than the apartment they occupied at the beginning of the film. Shohei provokes the ire of his boss after moving into the show home because it’s already better than anything his boss could afford and he already owns a small home far out in the suburban commuter belt. Now everyone has it in for Shohei and he does get a kind of demotion as the company send him to demonstrate their “super slicer” kitchen gadget in a local department store. This is doubly worrying as Shohei is a very shy and nervous man who is not well suited to public speaking leaving the company’s excuse of making use of his new found celebrity as an ironic way of taking revenge on his jumping up the social order through unorthodox means.

All of these stresses gradually build up as even the children are subject to attacks from outside (and some of them very cruel and disturbing in nature). Before long this once happy family begins to buckle under the strain of pretending to be what they once really were. One particularly perverse episode sees them sitting down to a pre-scripted dinner while an audience of onlookers silently judge them as if they were engaged in some kind of performance art – which, of course, they are albeit almost unconsciously. Having gained everything they’d ever wanted, they discover that the costs far outweigh the benefits with Shohei hit hardest after he succumbs to a streak of selfish individualism that has dire consequences for everyone.

Eventually the value of the traditional family is reinforced as everyone starts to realise that the fancy house was never as important as the simple happiness they felt being crammed together in their tiny apartment. Though there is a hopeful resolution at the end, whether or not the damage can be repaired may be a matter for debate though the overriding message of caution about the corrupting influences of rampant consumerism including classism, petty jealousy and a growing tendency towards the voyeuristic is one which finds its way into many of the films from this period and is sadly still worth restating even today.


Not quite sure about the signifcance of the title with this one – think it refers to Swiss Family Robinson (rather than Robinson Crusoe) but it’s quite an awkward fit.

Scene from near the beginning of the film (with English subtitles):

 

Dead Run (疾走, SABU, 2005)

Dead run posterSABU might have gained a reputation for his early work which often featured scenes of characters in rapid flight from one thing or another but Dead Run both embraces and rejects this aspect of his filmmaking as it presents the idea of running and its associated freedom as an unattainable dream. Based on the novel by Kiyoshi Shigematsu, Dead Run (疾走, Shisso) is the tragic story of its innocent hero, Shuji, who sees his world crumble before him only to become the sacrifice which redeems it.

The story begins in a voice over narration offered in the second person by Shuji’s older brother, Shuichi. Shuji, it seems was a curious, if shy, little boy full of the usual childish questions and a curiosity about the way his world works. The boys live with their parents in an area they call “the shore” which is next to a settlement created through reclaimed land which the shore people refer to as “offshore” and somewhat look down on. One day, Shuji gets marooned offshore when his bicycle chain snaps and is rescued by the unlikely saviour of “Demon Ken” (Susumu Terajima) – a local petty gangster whom everyone is afraid of, and his girlfriend, Akane (Miki Nakatani), who is some kind of bar hostess. Soon after, Demon Ken is found buried in a shallow grave dead of a gunshot wound to the stomach, but somehow this improbable act of kindness has stuck in Shuji’s mind.

Moving on a few years, a creepy looking priest moves into the offshore area and opens up a church in a small hut complete with shiny silver crosses. Just like with Demon Ken, there’s a rumour about town that the priest, Father Yuichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), is a former criminal and murderer. Shuji becomes intrigued by the strange figure of the priest and a young girl his age, Eri (Hanae Kan), who likes to spend time in the church. However, more gangsters soon turn up wanting to buy up the offshore area to build an entertainment complex and even though most of the other residents have agreed to be resettled elsewhere, Father Yuichi won’t budge. Akane returns to the area as one of the higher ranking gangsters trying to force the church out and is happy to realise that Shuji, at least, has not forgotten Demon Ken. This won’t be the last time the pair meet again as circumstances conspire against the young boy to drag him ever deeper into the darkness of the shady adult world.

As a young boy, Shuji’s life is the ideal pastoral childhood full of bike rides through green fields and under cloudless blue skies, yet his once happy family dissolves and though he tries to run from his destiny he can not escape it. After his over achieving older brother Shuichi is caught cheating at school and is suspended, he begins to lose his mind becoming obsessed with the idea of the priest as a murderer and is fixated on exposing some dark secret about him. Of course, it turns out not to be exactly as he thought it was and Shuichi becomes increasingly disturbed before becoming a suspect in a series of local crimes which see him sent away to reform school. After this string of tragedies, Shuji’s parents start to fall apart too – his father disappearing and his mother mentally absent. Eventually even Eri leaves as the relocation programme finally kicks in.

Around this point our narrative voice shifts to that of Father Yuichi who becomes Shuji’s only responsible adult figure. However, Father Yuichi’s decision to take Shuji on a trip proves to be a disastrous one as it backfires massively forcing him onto the run and, coincidentally, straight into the arms of Akane. Though Akane had originally seemed an austere and difficult woman, she harbours an affection for Shuji as one of the few people to remember Demon Ken and to remember him for his kindness. Though she wants to help Shuji she ends up pulling him into a the darkness of her own world filled with violence and exploitation. Shuji runs again and eventually makes his way to Tokyo and to Eri who is just as broken as he is but there’s no salvation here either. Even when the pair attempt to travel back to their once idyllic childhood town, their problems follow them and destiny catches up with everyone, in the end.

Early on Father Yuichi and Eri are having a discussion about the difference between fate and karma and which might be more frightening. Eri says fate is better because you can’t change karma but perhaps you can change your fate. The film seems to disagree with her. You can try to run but somehow or other something will always stop you so the cold hand of fate can stretch its icy fingers around your heart. Different in both tone and style from SABU’s previous work, Dead Run is a bleak tale filled with loneliness and melancholy which, though it offers a glimmer of hope for those who are left behind, is not afraid to make a sacrificial lamb of its holy fool of a protagonist.


The Hong Kong R3 DVD release of Dead Run contains English subtitles.

Based on the book of the same name by Kiyoshi Shigematsu (as yet unavailable in English).

Unsubbed trailer: