Distance (ディスタンス, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2001)

Distance DVDHirokazu Koreeda has become known predominantly for his nation’s representative genre – the family drama. He has, however, maintained a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the idea of family and more specifically what it means in the contemporary society. Koreeda’s later work might have found more faith in the healing power of familial bonds, but his third film, Distance (ディスタンス), is among his bleakest and finds little cause for hope when relations between people remain necessarily oblique. Another of the post-Aum films from the 2000s, Distance does not concern itself primarily with the immediacy of terrorist cult violence but its wider causes and implications.

As the opening news report informs us, three years previously the Ark of Truth cult released a genetically engineered virus into the Tokyo water system leading to the deaths of 128 people with thousands poisoned. In quick succession we meet four ordinary Tokyoites variously affected by the disaster but trying to go about their everyday lives. Schoolteacher Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), salaryman Kai (Susumu Terajima), punkish student Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), and sensitive florist, Atsushi (Arata). Eventually each of them, somewhat reluctantly, prepares for a trip. Ending up in a small rural town, they’ve gathered to commemorate the attack but, crucially, they are not relatives of those who were poisoned but of the cultists who committed the atrocity.

The relatives are, in a sense, secondary victims – they have all lost loved ones and are forced to bear the vicarious stigma the conformist society heaps on them simply for being related to someone who has committed a crime. When the group’s car is randomly stolen in the middle of nowhere, they are “rescued” by the mysterious Sakata (Tadanobu Asano) who is the only surviving member of the cult cell which carried out the terrorist attack and was subsequently wiped out by fellow cultists presumably horrified by what they had done to discredit the movement. Holing up in the remote mountain lodge where the cult had lived, the relatives are forced to confront their complicated emotions towards their late loved ones and the various ways their lives continue to be influenced by their loss.

The “distance” to which the title refers, is that between the relatives and the cultists to whose eventual slide into fanaticism they were largely blind. There are secrets, things left unsaid, a growing gap between a perception of a person and the “reality”. Most joined a cult because they were frustrated with the modern world and bought into its dubious messages from spiritual healing to saving the environment, but they were also each lonely and looking for a replacement for the traditional family which they had failed to find in their ordinary lives. Now remarried with a small daughter, Kai thinks back on the disastrous dinner during which his then wife told him she was leaving with another man to join a cult because Kai was never willing to fully face her. Only in the cult where there is full and total trust, did she finally find a reason for living – something which did not exist within her (presumably unhappy) marriage.

Yet even these flashbacks cannot be taken at face value. Our former cultist, Sakata, appears meek and apologetic among the relatives, once again describing the cult as “family” (perhaps insensitively) with fathers, sisters, and brothers who all loved him “unconditionally” though he eventually betrayed them. His description to a policeman immediately after the event is somewhat different, as is his attitude towards “quiet” sister Yuko (Ryo) who follows her brother’s lead in describing herself as an inhabitant of “Silent Blue” and subsequently views herself as part of a revolution – an engineer of the systemic crash which will reset the world.

With varying degrees of truth and self-deception, the relatives interrogate themselves and their place within the actions taken by the cultists while attempting to process the future with greater clarity. The divisions, however remain – in the strained relationship between in Kai and his wife, and that between Masaru and his suspicious girlfriend. Lonely souls look for forgiveness through reparation, but ultimately decide that perhaps the only solution really is to burn the whole thing down. A formal experiment for the increasingly formalist director, Distance is an unusually bleak negation of the concept of family which refuses the possibility of genuine connection in a world so often built on guile and subterfuge.


Distance screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sekigahara (関ヶ原, Masato Harada, 2017)

Sekigahara posterWhen considering a before and an after, you’d be hard pressed to find a moment as perfectly situated as the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原). Taking place on 21st October 1600 (by the Western calendar), Sekigahara came at the end of a long and drawn out process of consolidation and finally ended the Sengoku (or “warring states”) era, paving the way for the modern concept of “Japan” as a distinct and unified nation. In actuality there were three unifiers of Japan – the first being Oda Nobunaga who brought much of Japan under his control before being betrayed by one of his own retainers. The second, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued Oda’s work and died a peaceful death leaving a son too young behind him which created a power vacuum and paved the way for our third and final creator of the modern Japanese state – Tokugawa Ieyasu whose dynasty would last 260 years encompassing the lengthy period of isolation that was finally ended by the tall black ships and some gunboat diplomacy.

Loosely, we begin our tale towards the end of the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kenichi Takito) though, in a nod to the novel, director Masato Harada includes a temporal framing sequence in which our author depicts himself as a boy during another war sitting in these same halls and hearing stories of heroes past. As well he might given where he was sitting, the narrator reframes his tale – our hero is not the eventual victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but a noble hearted retainer of the Toyotomi, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada).

Riding into battle, Mitsunari reminds his men that this is a war of “justice and injustice” – they cannot lose. Yet lose they do. The narrator recounts Mitsunari’s improbable rise as an orphan taken in by Hideyoshi on a whim who nevertheless became one of the most powerful men in late 16th century Japan. Despite his loyalty to his master, Mitsunari cannot abide the cruelty of the samurai world or its various modes of oppression both in terms of social class and even in terms of gender. He resents the subversion of samurai ethics to facilitate “politics” and longs to restore honour, justice, and fairness to a world ruled by chaos. Rather than the bloody uncertainty and self-centred politicking that define his era, Mitsunari hopes to enshrine these values as the guiding principles of his nation.

On the other hand, his opponent, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho) is famed for his intelligence and particularly for his political skill. Hoping to swoop into the spot vacated by Hideyoshi which his young son Hideyori is too weak to occupy, Ieyasu has been playing a long game of winning alliances and disrupting those other candidates had assumed they had secured. Unlike Mitsunari, Ieyasu is ruthless and prepared to sacrifice all to win his hand, caring little for honour or justice or true human feeling.

The framing sequence now seems a little more pointed. Sekigahara becomes a turning point not just of political but ideological consolidation in which Mitsunari’s ideas of just rule and compassionate fair mindedness creating order from chaos are relegated to the romantic past while self interest triumphs in the rule of soulless politickers which, it seems, travels on through the ages to find its zenith in the age of militarism. Mitsunari is the last good man, prepared to die for his ideals but equally prepared to live for them. His tragedy is romantic in the grander sense but also in the more obvious one in that his innate honour code will not let him act on the love he feels for a poor girl displaced from Iga whose ninja service becomes invaluable to his plan. With a wife and children to consider, he would not commit the “injustice” of creating a concubine but dreams of one day, after all this is over, resigning his name and position and travelling to foreign lands with the woman he loves at his side.

Working on a scale unseen since the age of Kurosawa, Harada patiently lays the groundwork before condensing the six hours of battle to forty minutes of fury. The contrast between the purity of the past and the muddied future is once again thrown into stark relief in the vastly different strategies of Ieyasu and Mitsunari with Ieyasu’s troops armed to the teeth with modernity – they fire muskets and shout cannon commands in Portuguese while Mitsunari’s veteran warriors attempt to face them with only their pikes and wooden shields. Unable to adapt to “modern” warfare and trusting too deeply in the loyalty of his comrades, Mitsunari’s final blow comes not by will but by chance as a young and inexperienced vassal vacillates until his men make his decision for him, betraying an alliance he may have wished (in his heart) to maintain. Goodness dies a bloody death, but there is peace at last even if it comes at a price. That price, for some at least, may have been too great.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Scoop! (Hitoshi One, 2016)

scoop!Hitoshi One has a history of trying to find the humour in an old fashioned sleazy guy but the hero of his latest film, Scoop!, is an appropriately ‘80s throwback complete with loud shirt, leather jacket, and a mop of curly hair. Inspired by a 1985 TV movie written and directed by Masato Harada, Scoop! is equal parts satire, exposé and tragic character study as it attempts to capture the image of a photographer desperately trying to pretend he cares about nothing whilst caring too much about everything.

Shizuka (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a man out of time. Once the best photojournalist on his paper, he’s ridden the waves of a changing industry and become a high earning freelance paparazzo. Shizuka’s nights are spent in all of the fashionable if occasionally squalid drinking holes of the city in which the elites of the entertainment world attempt to disappear. Sadako (Yo Yoshida), the editor of Scoop! – a once proud publication now a seedy scandal rag, worries about her old friend, his debts, and his legacy. Offering to pay him well above the going rate for anything useable, she saddles him with the latest new recruit – Nobi (Fumi Nikaido), a naive young woman dressing in the bold childhood nostalgia inspired fashion trends of Harajuku. As might be assumed the pair do not hit it off but gradually a kind of closeness develops as Nobi gets into the thrill of the paparazzo chase.

In keeping with his inspiration, One shoots with a very ‘80s aesthetic of a city bathed in neon and moving to the beat of electropop and synth strings. Grainy and grungy, the images are seedy as is the world they capture though this is the Tokyo of the present day, not the bubble era underground. Shizuka claims his major inspiration came from the famous war photographer Robert Capa though now he can’t even remember if he really meant to become a photographer at all. Chasing cheating celebrities and exposing the odd politician for the kind of scandal that sells newspapers is all Shizuka thinks he’s good for, any pretence of journalistic integrity or the “people have a right to know” justification was dropped long ago.

Sadako, however, has more of a business head than her colleagues and is starting to think that Scoop! could be both a serious news outlet and nasty tabloid full of gravure shots and shocking tales of the rich and famous. Getting Shizuka to mentor Nobi is an attempt at killing to two birds with one stone – unite the plucky rookie with the down on his luck veteran for a new kind of reporting, and help Shizuka return to his better days by paying off those massive debts and getting his self esteem back.

Unfortunately Shizuka is his own worst enemy, hanging around with his strange friend Chara-Gen (Lily Franky) who is intermittently helpful but a definite liability. The world of the newspaper is certainly a sexist one – Sadako and Nobi seem to be the only two women around and the banter is distinctly laddish. An ongoing newsroom war leaves Sadako lamenting that the men only think about their careers and promotions rather than the bigger picture while the suggestion that she may win the position of editor has other colleagues bemusedly asking if a woman has ever helmed such a high office. The men ask each other for brothel recommendations and pass sexist comments back and fore amongst themselves with Shizuka trying to out do them all even going so far as to put down the new girl by describing her as “probably a virgin”.

Sadako’s plan begins to work as Shizuka and Nobi become closer, she becoming the kind of reporter who files the story no matter what and he finally agreeing to work on a more serious case. Having spent so long believing everything’s pointless, Shizuka’s reawakening maybe his undoing as a noble desire to help a friend who is so obviously beyond help leads to unexpected tragedy. Nevertheless, the presses keep rolling. A throwback in more ways than one, One’s 80s inspired tale of disillusioned reporters and mass media’s circulation numbers obsessed race to the bottom is all too modern. Unexpectedly melancholy yet often raucously funny, Scoop! is an old fashioned media satire but one with genuine affection for the embattled newsroom as it tries to clean up its act.


Scoop! was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Young Girls in Love (恋する女たち, Kazuki Omori, 1986)

young women in loveThe friends you make in high school are the friends you’ll have the rest of your life, says Takako – the heroine of Kazuki Omori’s Young Girls in Love (恋する女たち, Koisuru Onnatachi). Only she doesn’t quite want hers – they’re weird and cause her nothing but trouble. Also one of them is too pretty so she soaks up all of the attention – where’s the fun in that? Takako is not altogether happy in her adolescence but at least she has her friends there beside her, right?

Takako’s two best friends have both recently fallen in love leaving her feeling a little left out. Midoriko (Mamiko Takai), the most “unusual” girl in her group (but also thought to be the prettiest), had fallen in love with a teacher and even struck up something of a friendship with him as evidenced by her collection of cute photos of them together. However, he’s recently got married leaving her heartbroken so Midoriko is having another one of her trademark “funerals” in which she buries painful memories from her past. Previously she’s had funerals for an unfortunate PE related incident in which she ripped her shorts during gymnastics, and another for when her grades got so bad that the teachers told her she probably wouldn’t graduate from high school.

Teiko has a difficult homelife as her literature professor father has left the family for unspecified reasons and her mother is still mourning the end of the marriage. However, she has found herself and older poet who formerly wrote lyrics for cheesy teen idol pop songs (though he’s a serious poet now so that’s all beneath and behind him). Teiko knows that this relationship is doomed to failure but is pursuing it in any case.

Takako is so wound up by her friend’s series of love stories that she finds herself visiting “raunchy” movies like 9 1/2 weeks. This is where she encounters possible crush and high school baseball star Kutsukake (Toshiro Yanagiba), but does she really like him or is she just lovesick and jealous of her friends? A new complication also arises in the form of fellow student Kanzake (Yusuke Kawazu) who previously had a crush on older sister Hiroko (Kiwako Harada) but seems to have shifted his attentions on to Takako.

Young Girls in Love is a little broader than the average idol drama though it maintains an overall quirky tone with a few swings towards melodrama. Takako continues with her romantic dilemma although in contrast to what she says towards the opening of the film she mostly does so alone. Rather than her similarly romantically troubled friends, Takako confides in a painter friend, Kinuko (Satomi Kobayashi) who has some rather more grown up advice for her than other friends (or sister) are willing or able to offer.

During her troubles Takako also goes to visit another girl who is kind of involved with low level bosozoku motorcycle gangs, and finds out that her morbid friend Midoriko has gone seriously off the rails. Leading some kind of double life, Midoriko is a disco queen in another town, dancing her troubles away and enchanting all the boys in the club (including the other girl’s biker boyfriend). Distressed, yet a little envious of Midoriko’s ability to soak up all the attention for herself, Takako is the only one to try and intervene during a drag race duel though little heed is given to her desperate plea for sanity and she is only one that gets hurt during the proceedings.

It’s all fairly innocent stuff even though biker gangs, older boyfriends, and boyfriend stealing, all fall into the mix. Omori keeps things simple and brings his idols to the fore to do what they do best though he does overly rely on TV style reaction shots for some of his gags. According to the anecdote Takako offers at the end, none of the various love stories have worked out they way the girls hoped (at least for now) but everything carries on more or less as normal. The three girls have another of their traditional extreme tea ceremonies dressed in kimono and sitting on the edge of a cliff, but they’re all still together despite their recent romantic adventures. The real love story is between three childhood friends who may have temporarily drifted apart over teenage drama, but their bonds are strong enough to withstand the storm and, as Takako stated in the beginning of the film, they’ll be together for the rest of their lives.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Masato Harada, 2015)

bbc56b4fff657dfc4fcc0499f8be9741How exactly do you lose a war? It’s not as if you can simply telephone your opponents and say “so sorry, I’m a little busy today so perhaps we could agree not to kill each other for bit? Talk later, tata.” The Emperor in August examines the last few days in the summer of 1945 as Japan attempts to convince itself to end the conflict. Previously recounted by Kihachi Okamoto in 1967 under the title Japan’s Longest Day, The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi) proves that stately events are not always as gracefully carried off as they may appear on the surface.

By the summer of 1945, it’s clear that the situation as deteriorated significantly and Japan can no longer cling to any kind of hope of victory in the wider scale. Tokyo has been firebombed almost out of existence leaving only the Imperial Palace untouched – even the Emperor and his wife have been reduced to eating gruel. Everyone knows it’s time for a solution, but no one is quite ready to say it. In the wake of the atomic bomb, the situation becomes ever more desperate and even if the Emperor himself advocates a surrender, he needs the approval of his advisors. The Prime Minister, Navy and other officials are in favour but the Army, represented by General Anami, is committed to fighting on to the last man. Eventually, Anami comes around to the Emperor’s point of view but some of his men prove much harder to convince…

It might seem like a strange time to make a film about grace in the face of defeat given the recent political troubles stemming back to Japan’s wartime activities, but director Masato Harada is not lamenting the course of the war or trying to advocate for any rightwing agenda so much as trying to make plain the final absurdity of recognising when the battle is over. The civilians and even the Navy might be in favour of accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and ending the war as quickly as possible but a soldier is a soldier and the Army wants to go down fighting. They aren’t alone, of course, there are ordinary people who feel this way too but the writing is well and truly on the wall here.

The bulk of the film takes place within the palace, debating halls or army buildings all of which have escaped major damaged but every time we venture outside we’re shown a scene of utter desolation. A great, gaping hole where once there was a city. Anami’s wife undertakes a four hour walk to try and get in contact with a man who knew their son and can tell them how it was that he fell somewhere in Manchuria. She sees people fleeing, some thinking the enemy are about to descend any minute or that Tokyo will be the next target for an atomic bomb, and walks on through a barren, eerie landscape emerging soot covered and, finally, too late.

Closer to home, the situation among the soldiers is reaching boiling point. Originally committed to rejecting the terms of the treaty, Anami is now in favour of a surrender (with a few caveats) and is desperately working against the threat of an internal coup. Though the top brass have seen enough of warfare to know when it’s time to put down your weapons, the young hotheads have not yet learned the value of pragmatism. Seeing themselves as a second incarnation of the February 26th rebels, a cadre of young officers breaks ranks to try and stop the Emperor’s message of surrender from hitting the airwaves, hoping instead to spread the false message that the Russians have invaded and it’s all hands on deck. Needless to say, they don’t fare any better than the young officers of 1936 and if anything their bullheaded refusal to see sense becomes a microcosmic allegory for the years of militarism as a whole.

In the midst of all this chaos, the real heart of the film is Koji Yakusho’s conflicted general who feels his era passing right in front of him. Grieving for his fallen son yet also clinging to his military duty which dictates no surrender, no retreat he finally sees each of his ideals crumbling and comes to the realisation that the only way to save Japan is to abandon the military. Making a sacrifice of himself, he ensures the safe passage of his nation along a road on which he cannot travel.

The Emperor is a sympathetic figure here, gentle, soft, wanting the suffering to end for everyone but being more or less powerless to effect it despite his title. All he can do is advocate and try to convince his council that surrender is the right course of action as his country burns all around him.

Harada manages to keep the tension high even though a lot of the film comes down to a group of men discussing the proper wording for a treaty. A timely and beautifully photographed exploration of the last days of a war, The Emperor in August is another much needed reminder that decisions which will affect millions of lives are made by handfuls of men in tiny, closed up rooms that most people will never get to see.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD release of The Emperor in August includes English subtitles.

Unsubtitled trailer:

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Masato Harada, 2015)

166028_02The world of the classical “jidaigeki” or period film often paints an idealised portrait of Japan’s historical Edo era with its brave samurai who live for nothing outside of their lord and their code. Even when examining something as traumatic as forbidden love and double suicide, the jidaigeki generally presents them in terms of theatrical tragedy rather than naturalistic drama. Whatever the cinematic case may be, life in Edo era Japan could be harsh – especially if you’re a woman. Enjoying relatively few individual rights, a woman was legally the property of her husband or his clan and could not petition for divorce on her own behalf (though a man could simply divorce his wife with little more than words). The Tokeiji Temple exists for just this reason, as a refuge for women who need to escape a dangerous situation and have nowhere else to go.

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Kakekomi Onna to Kakedashi Otoko) places this important institution at its centre as it focuses on the stories of a number of women who’ve each ended up at the temple after a series of difficult circumstances. Jogo (Erika Toda) is married to a womanising drunkard who forces her to run his iron smelting business from the front lines (hence the painful looking blisters on her face) while he enjoys his life of debauchery. When the staff complains about his attitude and their subsequent fears for their jobs and Jogo raises their concerns with him he simply beats her before returning to his mistress. She then faces a decision – Tokeiji, death, or endurance. During her flight, she runs into O-Gin (Hikari Mitsushima), a mysterious wealthy woman who’s sprained her ankle after fighting off bandits in the woods. The pair bond on their quest to reach Tokeiji where they hope to find refuge from their turbulent home lives.

Before you can enter Tokeiji you’re held at one of the receiving inns where they hear your story, assess the possibility of being able to reconcile with a husband and, if deemed necessary, allowed to travel to the temple where you’ll live as a Buddhist nun for two years at which time your husband must legally sign the divorce papers. The inn adheres to strict Buddhist principles – no men are allowed near the temple (even the outside helpers wear bells so the ladies can hear them coming), you eat only temple cuisine (no meat or stimulants like garlic and onions), and have to abide by the word of the head nun. There are also three different classes of resident starting with the most expensive court lady lifestyle, then one of sewing and making repairs, and finally the lowest class which does all the day to day cooking, cleaning and other menial tasks.

The other pivot around which the film turns is the one time medical student Shinjiro (Yo Oizumi) who has literary dreams but has had to beat a quick retreat from Edo after defiantly breaking its ridiculous “no singing in the streets” law (amongst other things). At this period Edo and the surrounding area is undergoing its own mini cultural revolution as the current authorities advocate a period of austerity which sees things like literature, music and even sushi outlawed. Perceiving threats everywhere, the powers at be are also looking for a way to close down Tokeiji by any underhanded means necessary.

Shinjiro is a fast talking wise guy who can generally talk his way out of anything though he is also a keen student and a promising young doctor. As a relative of the Tokeiji inn owners, he’s seeking refuge too but also hoping to make use of their extensive archives for his writing career. As a doctor he’s immediately fascinated by the burns on Jogo’s face which he believes he can treat though in her frightened state she’s alarmed by his direct manner and refuses. After hearing his more reasoned arguments she finally submits and in turn becomes interested in his medical knowledge assisting him to gather herbs in the forest before starting her own herb garden in the temple.

Of course, the two develop a growing romantic attachment though frustrated by Jogo’s position as a married woman and the temple’s prohibition against male contact. Their romance is never played for melodrama, more as a simple and natural course of events though it’s well played by both Toda and Oizumi. At heart, Kakekomi is an ensemble drama which encompasses the often sad stories of its female cast who are each at the mercy of the cruel and rigid Edo era social system. O-Gin’s reasons for fleeing to Tokeiji turn out to be a little different from everyone else’s though she too is still suffering for love.

A humorous look at this untold story, Kakekomi proves an engaging ensemble drama anchored by the committed performances of its cast. Toda takes Jogo from a frightened and abused woman to a confident and learned scholar who is perfectly capable of taking charge of things on her own and her transformation is the true heart of the film. Apparently, director Masato Harada shot nearly four hours of footage before cutting the film down to the more manageable two and a half which may explain why it sometimes feels a little abrupt but nevertheless Kakekomi proves one of the most enjoyable mainstream Japanese movies of recent times.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD of Kakekomi includes English subtitles.