My Friend “A” (友罪, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

My Friend A posterThe Japanese justice system is founded on the idea of confession and atonement, that if you admit your crime and show remorse you will be forgiven. The truth, however, is much more complex and those whose lives have been tainted by transgression are often rejected by a still unforgiving society. Director Takahisa Zeze describes his adaptation of Gaku Yakumaru’s novel My Friend “A” (友罪, Yuzai) as a picture of the world he longs to see at the end of the Heisei era, one which is less judgemental and more compassionate where the bonds between people can perhaps overcome the traumatic past.

In the present day, two very different men – failed journalist Masuda (Toma Ikuta) and the sullen and mysterious Suzuki (Eita), are inducted as probationary workers at a small factory. Suzuki’s determination to keep himself to himself does not endear him to the other workers who become convinced that he is hiding something from them. Suzuki is indeed hiding something, though his reasons for avoiding human contact are various and complex. When a young child is found murdered nearby in a method which echoes a notorious killing from 17 years previously, Masuda is contacted by an old colleague (Mizuki Yamamoto) investigating the case and begins to wonder if the secret Suzuki seems to be burdened by might have something to do with one crime or both.

In actuality, Masuda does not seem to believe that Suzuki is involved with the recent killing even if he comes to the conclusion that he is almost certainly the teenager convicted of the earlier crime. Nevertheless, he develops an awkward “friendship” with him which is partly exploitative as he ponders writing an exposé on the injustice that allows someone who committed such heinous acts, even in childhood, to start again with a new identity. “Injustice” becomes a persistent theme as seen in the melancholy tale of taxi driver Yamauchi (Koichi Sato) who is carrying the heavy burden of being the father of a son (Hoshi Ishida) who killed three children as a joy riding delinquent. Hounded by one parent, and accidentally harassing the others through his relentless attempts to apologise for his son’s transgression, Yamauchi has ruined his family through his own need for personal atonement. Having divorced his wife and lost touch with his son, he is enraged to learn that he plans to marry and will soon be a father. Even if his wife-to-be knows of his past and accepts it, Yamauchi believes his son has lost the right to live as other people live and finds it extraordinarily offensive that a man who took the lives of children would have a child of his own.

Yamauchi seems to want to put his family back together but only succeeds in tearing it apart. Corrupted families loom large from the mysterious photograph of the smiling boy surrounded by the scratched out faces of his parents and sibling found among Suzuki’s belongings, to the reform school boy taunted with the accusation that he might not have turned to drugs if only his parents had loved him more. Suzuki fixates on his reform school teacher Shiraishi (Yasuko Tomita), but she in turn has neglected her own daughter in her fierce desire to save the souls of these violent young men many of whom have become the way they are because they believe that they are worthless and no one cares about them. Meanwhile, Miyoko (Kaho) – a young woman drawn to Suzuki’s silent solidarity, struggles to escape her own traumatic past partly because she was shamed in front of her family who then were also shamed by her inescapable transgression.

Unlike Suzuki, Miyoko has committed no crime but is haunted just the same. As is Masuda though his guilt is real enough if of a more spiritual kind as he struggles to accept his role in the death of a friend who committed suicide when they were just children. Then again, Masuda’s struggle, like Yamauchi’s, is perhaps a solipsistic one in which what he is really mourning is not his friend but the vision of his idealised self. On visiting his late friend’s mother, Masuda bristles when she talks about his journalistic career and her hope that he is still “strong and just” like the teenage boy she believes stood alongside her lonely son when the truth is that he abandoned his friend when he needed him most because he was too cowardly to risk becoming a target himself. Despite his high ideals, Masuda had been working at a scandal rag and his only real piece of ethical journalism was a confessional about the destructive effects of high school bullying. He remains conflicted in his friendship with Suzuki not quite because he fears his dark past but because he fears his own moral cowardice – something he is reminded of when a housemate points out that no-one likes Suzuki and that if Masuda sides with him, no one will like him either. 

The question that is asked is whether discovering someone’s dark secret necessarily changes who they are now and if it is ever really possible for those who have in some way transgressed to return to society. As Suzuki puts it to Masuda in reflecting on their unavoidable commonality, they’re each men who rarely unpack their suitcases, always on the run from an unforgiving present. Yet there is perhaps hope despite Masuda’s ongoing diffidence in his eventual (self) confession and belated solidarity with a man he later recognises as a “friend” in acknowledgement of the unconditional bonds of genuine friendship.

My Friend “A” was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Shonen Merikensack (少年メリケンサック, Kankuro Kudo, 2009)

The Shonen Merikensack posterWhen you spent your youth screaming phrases like “no future” and “fumigate the human race”, how are you supposed to go about being 50-something? A&R girl Kanna is about to find out in Kankuro Kudo’s generation gap comedy The Shonen Merikensack (少年メリケンサック) as she accidentally finds herself needing to sign a gang of ageing never were rockers. A nostalgia trip in more ways than one, Kudo is on a journey to find the true spirit of punk in a still conservative world.

25 year old Kanna (Aoi Miyazaki) is an unsuccessful scout at a major Japanese label which mainly deals with commercial bands and folk guitar outfits. As she’s about to quit any way, Kanna makes a last minute pitch for a punk band she’s found on YouTube, fully expecting to be shown the door for the last time. However, what she didn’t know is that her boss, Tokita (Yusuke Santamaria), is a former punk rocker still dreaming of his glory days of youthful rebellion. With her leaving do mere hours away, Kanna’s contract is extended so that she can bring in these new internet stars whose retro punk style looks set to capture the charts.

Unfortunately, the reason Tokita was so impressed with the band’s authentically ‘80s style is because the video was shot in 1983. The Brass Knuckle Boys hit their heyday 25 years ago and are now middle aged men who’ve done different kinds of inconsequential things with their lives since their musical careers ended. Kanna needs to get the band back together, but she may end up wishing she’d never bothered.

Mixing documentary-style talking heads footage with the contemporary narrative, Kudo points towards an examination of tempestuous youth and rueful middle age as he slips back and fore between the early days of the Brass Knuckle Boys and their attempts to patch up old differences and make an improbable comeback. Kanna, only 25, can’t quite understand all of this shared history but becomes responsible for trying to help them all put it behind them. Her job is complicated by the fact that estranged brothers Akio (Koichi Sato) and Haruo (Yuichi Kimura) made their on stage fighting a part of the act until a stupid accident left the band’s vocalist, Jimmy (Tomorowo Taguchi), in wheelchair.

The spirit of punk burns within them, even if their contemporaries are apt to point and laugh. The Brass Knuckle Boys, when it comes down to it, were successful bandwagon jumpers on the punk gravy train. Craving fame, the guys started out marketing themselves as a very early kind of boy band complete with silly outfits and cute personal branding full of jumpsuits, rainbows, and coordinated dance routines. Yet if the punk movement attracted them merely as the next cool thing, it also caught on to some of their youthful anger and teenage resentment. In the end unrestrained passion destroyed what they had as the ongoing war between the brothers escalated from petty sibling bickering to something less kind.

Twenty-five years later the wounds have not yet healed. Akio is a lousy drunk with a bad attitude, Haruo is an angry cow farmer, drummer Young has a range of health problems, and Jimmy’s barely present. Tokita has become a corporate suit, a symbol of everything he once fought against and his former bandmate is his biggest selling artist – eccentric, glam, and very high concept.

The men are looking back (even those of them who aren’t even really that old), whereas Kanna can only look forwards. Before the Brass Knuckle Boys, she was about to be kicked out of her A&R job and planned to go home with her tail between her legs to help her confused father with his very unsuccessful conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Apparently in a solid relationship with a coffee shop guitarist who keeps urging her to put in a good word for him at the record label with his sappy demo tapes, Kanna’s life is the definition of middle of the road. Neither she not her boyfriend could be any less “punk” if they tried but if they truly want to follow their dreams they will have to find it somewhere within themselves.

At over two hours The Shonen Merikensack is pushing the limit for a comedy and does not quite manage to maintain momentum even as its ending is, appropriately enough, an unexpected anticlimax. Kudo’s generally absurd sense of humour occasionally takes a backseat to a more juvenile kind which is much less satisfying than the madcap action of his previous films but still provides enough off beat laughs to compensate for an otherwise inconsequential narrative.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with Hoshi Ishida

vlcsnap-2014-10-04-22h46m14s119Totally forgot to post this at the time but here’s an interview I conducted with rising star Hoshi Ishida at Raindance 2014 on behalf of UK Anime Network.

Hoshi Ishida has had quite a long and varied career despite still being relatively young. As his latest short film, Touching the Skin of Eeriness, makes its UK premiere at Raindance (playing back to back with the upcoming Third Window Films release Lust of Angels) we sat down with him for a chat about the film as well as his career to date.

Is this your first time in London, how do you like it?

Hoshi Ishida: Yes – it’s great. Though at the moment I’m studying near Bristol for the next six months or so.

You started acting at quite a young age, and one of your first roles was in the 2002 movie Returner, directed by Takashi Yamazaki who recently directed your Touching the Skin of Eeriness co-star Shota Sometani in the upcoming Parasyte movies and The Eternal Zero. So I just wondered if you could talk a bit about your early experiences and how you got into the entertainment industry?

Hoshi Ishida: I didn’t really like acting in the beginning but then I met a director who I really liked and that gave me more of a desire to go on being an actor.

Which director was that?

Hoshi Ishida: Akihiko Shioda (Canary).

Was that why you left your original management company in 2006 and decided to study overseas? What were you doing during the two years between leaving your original company and joining the new one?

Hoshi Ishida: There were some extremely complicated circumstances. The reason I left the company was that it was up for renewal anyway – I decided to go to Australia because I wanted to learn some English not just for work but to make friends with English speaking people.

You said that when you met the director of Canary it rekindled your interest in acting and you’ve built up quite an interesting career so far with quite a few somewhat controversial or indie films. Is that something you’ve done deliberately or is it just by accident?

Hoshi Ishida: I haven’t made any kind of decision. I don’t really have any preferences about what I’m doing. It’s kind of like a coincidence that I was lucky enough to have some really good movies, but I’m always just given a script and I just go for it.

You also played the young boy Seita, the hero of Grave of the Fireflies, in the live-action film – were you nervous about taking on such a well known and well loved character? 

Hoshi Ishida: There was so much pressure! But if you let the pressure get to you can’t be a good actor so I had to put the pressure to one side just get on with acting as best as I could. The actress who played Secchan, [Setsuko, Seita’s younger sister] Mao Sasaki, really helped me so much and without her I probably couldn’t have done it.

To go back to Canary, it was obviously quite a controversial subject where you played a young boy who’d been raised in a revolutionary cult which later committed a terrorist act, which obviously has parallels with real events in Japan. Were you worried about a potential backlash from tackling such a taboo subject?

Hoshi Ishida: Once I’ve finished the role I don’t hold on to anything within me, it’s sort of irrelevant, but Canary is the reason I’m here now and still working, acting. So there’s something really substantial in me so I can only speak highly of Canary.

To bring things more up to date I believe you worked with the director of Touching the Skin of Eeriness, Ryosuke Hamaguchi, before on his previous film, The Depths? Was that how you became involved in this project? 

Hoshi Ishida: Yes, Hamaguchi saw me in Canary as well so everything really does come from that. He really liked my acting and asked me to be in his new film – The Depths, we took it from there and then he offered me another role in his next film so I just took it.

The Depths could be read as quite controversial as well as it deals with some fairly taboo subjects like homosexuality and yakuza prostitution rings etc. Did you worry about taking on what might be quite a difficult role?

Hoshi Ishida: Well, I’m always looking for something new to do so… it was challenging and I sort of hesitated when they offered me this role, but when Hamaguchi suggested I be in his film I thought if I didn’t do it now when would I? So I had to take the chance – I’m glad I did, I learned a lot from it.

The Depths was also a co-production with South Korea, did that have any effect on the shooting? 

Hoshi Ishida: The shooting ended on the first of April, which is the day before my birthday. In Japan the age of majority is 20, not 21, so I was 19 when we were shooting but I turned 20 right after we finished. So that was a really special moment for me. Apart from that it was the first time I’d worked on a co-production and it was a very new experience so yes – I enjoyed it. Also, the people who are into films, it really doesn’t matter where they come from – I watched them in South Korea being passionate about their filmmaking the same as Japan, which is good to know.

Did you enjoy working with Hamaguchi again on Touching the Skin of Eeriness?

Hoshi Ishida: I am so grateful he’s always asking me! This is really embarrassing but I didn’t know how well-known Hamaguchi is when I started doing his movies. Now I know, but when I first starting acting in his films everybody was saying “you don’t know how big he is” and then I kind of realised slowly but surely the amazing person I was working with, so I’m really grateful but I didn’t know then.

How detailed was the script for Touching the Skin of Eeriness – was it completely scripted? The scene in the cafe where you’re having the conversation about the thing you’re a afraid to touch felt like it might be improvised? 

Hoshi Ishida: The scene in the cafe with Shota Sometani where we’re sitting together and talking about the thing that scares you is 100% improvised, but apart from that everything was scripted. We didn’t really deviate anywhere, it was all on the line.

There’s also quite a lot of dance and physical acting – did you have a choreographer for that? 

Hoshi Ishida: The guy playing our teacher in the film was actually the choreographer. He’s a really famous guy called Osamu Jareo. He’s kind of a well known choreographer, he did everything.

Do you have a dance background or have you studied physical acting? 

Hoshi Ishida: I have done a little dancing but I can’t say ‘yes’ really.

Is that something you’d like to develop further in the future?

Hoshi Ishida: Well, I’m not sure…

Touching the Skin of Eeriness is a prequel to an upcoming film called The Floods – do you know a lot about that, do you expect your character to recur? 

Hoshi Ishida: I know of the concept – what’s going to happen in the new feature but the actual script hasn’t even been started yet.

So you don’t know anytime even when it’s likely to happen? 

Hoshi Ishida: I’m hassling Mr Hamaguchi to shoot it right now but he’s saying no. So I don’t know yet.

I know you had a film released just recently, Marching: Ashita He, but do you have anything else lined up at the moment? What are you working on now?

Hoshi Ishida: The next thing is a TBS drama – Shinya Shokudou and there’s another indie movie called Illuminations which I’ve already filmed and is due for release soon.

Do you prefer doing independent film or TV or do you have any aspirations to do theatre?

Hoshi Ishida: Movies!

Do you have any directors you haven’t worked with before that you’d like to work with in the future?

Hoshi Ishida: Mr Hamaguchi! Sion Sono – his films are really challenging so I’d really love to work with him one day!

Well I think that about wraps it up, Thank you so much for answering my questions and best of luck with the film.

Many thanks to Third Window Films for arranging this interview and to Sayaka Smith for the excellent translation.