Samurai Shifters (引っ越し大名!, Isshin Inudo, 2019)

Samurai Shifters poster 1Forced transfers have been in the news of late. Japanese companies, keen to attract and keep younger workers in the midst of a growing labour shortage, have been offering more modern working rights such as paid parental leave but also using them as increased leverage to force employees to take jobs in far flung places after returning to work – after all, you aren’t going to up and quit with a new baby to support.

As Isshin Inudo’s Samurai Shifters (引っ越し大名!, Hikkoshi Daimyo!) proves, contemporary corporate culture is not so different from the samurai ways of old. Back in the 17th century, the Shogun kept a tight grip on his power by shifting his lords round every so often in order to keep them on their toes. Seeing as they had to pay all the expenses and handle logistics themselves, relocating left a clan weakened and dangerously exposed which of course means they were unlikely to challenge the Shogun’s power and would be keen to keep his favour in order to avoid being asked to make regular moves to unprofitable places.

When the Echizen Matsudaira clan is ordered to move a considerable distance, crossing the sea to a new residence in Kyushu which isn’t even really a “castle”, they have a big problem because their previous relocation officer has passed away since their last move. Predictably, no one wants this totally thankless job which warrants seppuku if you mess it up so it falls to introverted librarian Harunosuke (Gen Hoshino) who is too shy refuse (even if he had much of a choice, which he doesn’t). Unfortunately for some, however, Harunosuke is both smart and kind which means he’s good at figuring out solutions to complicated problems and reluctant to exercise his samurai privilege to do so.

In fact Harunosuke is something of an odd samurai. As others later put it, he doesn’t care about status or seniority and has a natural tendency to treat everybody equally. When the head of accounts advises him to take loans from merchants with no intention to pay them back, he objects not only to the dishonesty but to the unfairness of stealing hard-earned money from ordinary people solely under the rationale that they are entitled to do so because they are samurai and therefore superior. Likewise, when he finds out that his predecessor was of a lower rank and that all his achievements were credited to his superiors he makes a point of going to his grave to apologise which earns him some brownie points with the man’s pretty daughter, Oran (Mitsuki Takahata), who was not previously minded to help him because of the way her father had been treated.

Harunosuke’s natural goodness begins to endear him to the jaded samurai now in his care. Though they might be suspicious of some of his methods including his “decluttering” program, they quickly come on board when they realise he is not intending to exclude himself from his ordinances and even consents to burn his own books in order to make it plain that everyone is in the same boat. He hesitates in his growing attraction to Oran (who in turn is also taken with him because of his atypical tendency to compassion) not only because of his natural diffidence but because he feels it might be selfish to pursue a romance while urging everyone else towards austerity.

Meanwhile, “romance” is why all this started in the first place. The lord, Naonori Matsudaira (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), is in a relationship with his steward (something which seems to be known to most and not particularly an issue). While he was in Edo, he rudely rebuffed the attentions of another lord, Yoshiyasu Yanagisawa (Osamu Mukai), who seems to have taken rejection badly and has it in for the clan as a whole. In an interesting role reversal, his advisor laments that perhaps it would have been better for everyone if he’d just submitted himself, but nevertheless a few thousand people are now affected by the petty romantic squabbles of elite samurai in far off Edo.

Bookish and reticent as he is, Harunosuke sees his chance to “go to war against the unjust Shogunate” by engineering a plan which allows them to reduce the burden of moving, reluctantly having to demote some samurai and leave them behind as ordinary farmers with the promise that they will be reinstated as soon as the clan resumes its former status. Asking the samurai to drop their superiority and carry their own bags for a change has profound implications for their society, but Harunosuke’s practical goodness eventually wins out as the clan comes together as one rather than obsessing over their petty internal divisions. A cheerful tale of homecoming, friendship, and warmhearted egalitarianism, Samurai Shifters is an oddly topical period comedy which satirises the vagaries of modern corporate culture through the prism of samurai-era mores but does so with a wry smile as Harunosuke finds a way to live within the system without compromising his principles and eventually wins all with little more than a compassionate heart and a finely tuned mind.


Samurai Shifters screens in New York on July 21 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー, Ken Ninomiya, 2017)

the limit of sleeping beauty posterCan you escape the past by evading it? The heroine of Ken Ninomiya’s The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー) does her best to find out as she approaches the point at which she can no longer bear the weight of all her sorrows. A rising star of the Japanese indie scene, Ken Ninomiya had some minor festival exposure with his first film, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk drama Slum-polis, back in 2015 before making a complete about turn in releasing a terse mockumentary about a resilient actor hammering on the door of Japanese show business. Sleeping Beauty was, apparently, originally conceived as a mid-length picture before producers suggested expanding it into a full length feature and in many ways marries the twin concerns of Ninomiya’s earlier films in its high concept examination of a fracturing psyche unable to let the past go and move on from trauma and disappointment.

At 19, Aki (Yuki Sakurai) ran away from a bad family situation and ended up in Tokyo with the hope of becoming an actress. With nowhere else to go she wandered into a random bar which is where she met the love of her life, Kaito (Issey Takahashi) – a melancholy photographer and owner of cabaret club Aurora. Kaito takes her in and she begins working at Aurora as a magician’s assistant but ten years pass and, as a TV presenter later put it, it’s unheard of for a Japanese actress to make it in her 30s.

Her mind fracturing, Aki is often accompanied by “Butch” (Nino Furuhata), a strange clown with a scary white face who appears alternately supportive and enabling. Complaining that she feels unstuck in time, Butch reminds her that the idea of time as linear flow is a misconception and that all moments are indeed one moment which is one reason Aki never quite knows “when” she is. Accepting this fact she asks to be taken to the time at which she was happiest, only to be told that emotional time is not necessarily in sync with one’s perception of temporality. Nevertheless, her mind flies back to her first meeting with Kaito who we later surmise is no longer in her life but continues to define it all the same.

The picture we get of Aki is of a woman attempting to bury herself and her disappointments by revelling in a pleasant memory and then using it as raw material to read herself into an idealised version of her current life only one which is still marred by the tragedy of losing Kaito. Ninomiya opens with an orgy in dingy sex club where everyone is wearing creepy carnival masks and the older Aki is sporting a nasty bruise on her chin. The bruise, we later discover, was earned in a nasty encounter with a lascivious producer engineered by a soulless manager who promised her a career but in effect sold her to a man who assaulted and humiliated her. This final humiliation is only one of many acts of degradation that Aki suffers in her quest to make it as an actress – one of only two things Kaito urged her to do before disappearing from her life forever.

Unable to cope with the weight of lost love, defeated dreams, and a wasted youth Aki’s mind splinters into fragments, creating the strange entity known as Butch whom she seems to want to get rid of but cannot bear to be without. Aki’s quest is one of reintegration in which she must find the strength to put herself back together again and finally set light to the past, waking up from her self imposed slumber.

Kaito wants her to know the world is still wonderful, but his message seems curiously perverse considering his final course of action and Aki’s continuing descent into a spiral of depression, exploitation, and mental instability. Fantasy and reality remain hopelessly blurred, only gradually separating and becoming distinct as Aki begins to put herself back together. Ninomiya improves on Slum-Polis with similarly detailed production design and world building but occasionally allows his taste for music video aesthetics to slide into the indulgent with the success of such sequences depending on the viewer’s taste for the overused main titles song, Hummingbird by Kyla La Grange. Nevertheless there’s no disputing Ninomiya’s ambition and originality even if there is something unsettling in his urgency to inhabit the world he seems to be critiquing.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Lies She Loved (嘘を愛する女, Kazuhito Nakae, 2018)

lies she loved posterHow well do you really know the people with whom you share your life? Or, perhaps, how honest have you really been with those closest you? Inspired by a notorious newspaper article, The Lies She Loved (嘘を愛する女, Uso wo Aisuru Onna) has a few hard questions to ask about the nature of modern relationships and the secrets which often lie at their hearts. Yet the message is perhaps that there are different kinds of truths and the literal may be among the least important of them. The salient message is that consideration for the feelings of others and a willingness to share the burden of being alive are the only real paths towards a fulfilling existence.

30-something Yukari (Masami Nagasawa) is a workaholic career woman currently at the top of her corporate game. Unmarried, she’s been living with impoverished medical researcher Kippei (Issey Takahashi) for the last five years and is happy enough with him (save the occasional one night stand) but also feels as if there’s something missing. She’s angry when he doesn’t show up to a pre-arranged dinner where he’s supposed to meet her mum, leaving her to deal with her mother’s disapproving scorn all alone, but chastened when it’s revealed he was found collapsed in a local park and is currently in the hospital after suffering a brain haemorrhage. If that weren’t enough chaos for the hyper organised Yukari, the police tell her Kippei’s ID is fake. He doesn’t work where he said he said worked and no one seems to have heard of him. Remembering a conversation about cheating spouses, Yukari turns to the detective uncle (Daigo) of one of her work friends for help but starts to wonder what sort of answers it is that she’s really looking for.

An intriguing mystery, The Lies She Loved begins in worrying fashion as if it wants to punish Yukari for her obsessive workaholic lifestyle and avoidance of the traditionally feminine roles of wife and mother. The couple aren’t married, but Kippei is for all intents and purposes a kept man and house husband. He doesn’t earn enough to contribute to the household economy, but makes up for it by handling the domestic tasks usually the domain of a “wife”, i.e. cooking and cleaning. Meanwhile, Yukari works insane hours and often stays out drinking with colleagues, claiming this valuable out of hours time as part of the job but sometimes spending it with other men. We see her “lie” to Kippei, telling him a large bouquet of snacks won from an amusement stand was a gift from a female friend when it came from a “date”, while he reproves her with coldness for her excessive drinking and the tendency it provokes in her for unsolicited cruelty.

Yet moving on we see that a woman’s career, or man’s lack of one, is not the issue at all. The issue is neglect, a taking for granted of other people’s feelings and their willingness to provide support and affection while getting nothing in return. Rather than going to work, Kippei had been spending time in a coffeeshop writing something that’s somewhere between novel and therapy about a happy family living on an idyllic island. We discover that he too once took something for granted, became wrapped up in his career, and overburdened someone else by allowing them to take on the entirety of their mutual responsibility with tragic consequences. Filled with remorse, he ran away from his crime and tried to forget.

The crime is not a woman working, but people in general working too much and knowing each other too little. Humiliated, Yukari wants answers about her immediate past, wanting to know if she was tricked by a conman in order to avoid facing the fact that she never really bothered to ask many questions about the man she invited into her home. Indeed, her decision to “invite” him in the first place is not altogether altruistic and cannot help giving off the scent of mild desperation as she tries to make the arrangement seem convenient while ensuring she retains the upper-hand in the power dynamics without giving too much away. What she really wants to know, without really wanting to admit it, is if her lover really loved her despite his “lies”, but to know that she’ll have to deal with her own longstanding intimacy issues and accept that a loving home is a balanced one in which both partners are equal and agree to share their burdens with openness and generosity. A progressive, nuanced look at modern romance The Lies She Loved is a surprisingly effective defence of love and a mild rebuke of the society which does its best to undermine it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)