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)

Miracle: Devil Claus’ Love and Magic (MIRACLE デビクロくんの恋と魔法, Isshin Inudo, 2014)

Miarcle devil claus posterChristmas is a time for romance, at least in Japan, but thanks to the magic of the season it can also be confusing. For one nerdy aspiring mangaka at the centre of Isshin Inudo’s Miracle: Devil Claus’ Love and Magic (MIRACLE デビクロくんの恋と魔法, Miracle Devil Claus-kun no Koi to Maho) it’s about to become very confusing indeed as he becomes convinced a prophecy he himself made up when he was a child is actually coming true. Cross-cultural love, lifelong longing, frustrated dreams, and misconstrued realities threaten to derail fated romance but never fear – it is Christmas after all, and even evil Santa has his heart in the right in place as long as anyone is prepared to really listen to him.

Hikaru (Masaki Aiba) and Anna (Nana Eikura) have lived across the street from one another all their lives and been friends as long as either of them can remember. These days, Hikaru is chasing dreams of manga success while working in a bookstore, and Anna is an aspiring artist specialising in large scale metal work. 20 years ago, Hikaru made up the figure of Devil Claus who is the embodiment of Santa’s emotional pain on being forgotten and abandoned for 364 days of the year. Seeing as no darkness can be permitted in the heart of Santa, Devil Claus evolved into his own pixie-like creature and now mostly stars in the cute, inspirational posters Hikaru illegally pastes all over town.

Devil Claus is also a big part of a prophecy Hikaru revealed to himself in which he believed Devil Claus would eventually lead him to the “Goddess of Destiny” who will appear dressed in red with the moon at her back, carrying knowledge of the future and accompanied by a leopard! It is quite a list and so when Hikaru bumps into an extraordinarily beautiful woman wearing a red coat, carrying a wooden leopard in one hand, and a collection of books about “the future” in the other, he comes to the obvious conclusion. In a coincidence worthy of the movies, it just so happens that the woman is Seo-yon (Han Hyo-Joo), a Korean artist in charge of organising a large scale Christmas display which is also the project Anna has been working on.

Predictably enough, Anna has long been in love with the completely clueless yet pure hearted Hikaru. Ironically, Hikaru thinks of Anna as a big sister who has always protected him when he is so obviously unable to stand up for himself, but though she berates him for his lack of backbone she is the one too embarrassed to confess her real feelings and has been patiently waiting for him to finally notice her all her life.

Nevertheless, this particular plot strand takes a strange turn when Anna figures out that Hikaru’s “Goddess of Destiny” is almost certainly Seo-yon. Despite her own feelings she does her best to fulfil Hikaru’s dreams but Inudo frames her behaviour strangely – Anna acts coldly towards Hikaru, while gazing somewhat longingly at Seo-yon who seems to literally sparkle as the sun shines ever behind her. It would be easy to come to the seemingly obvious conclusion that Anna has a different reason for being irritated with Hikaru and his current romantic pre-occupation (why exactly does she already have the book Seo-yon has been wanting before she decides to give it Hikaru to give her?), but the dilemma is later reframed as an inner conflict about her lack of traditional femininity. Yes, Anna’s “manly” dungarees and love of welding might easily play into a stereotype supporting the first conclusion but are actually offered as reasons for feeling underconfident in romance. Just as Hikaru thinks he isn’t good enough for someone so glamorous and accomplished, Anna thinks she isn’t good enough for Hikaru because she can’t measure up to a woman like Seo-yon.

All of that aside, the refreshing message behind Devil Claus is less one of conforming to a social ideal than of learning to regain your self confidence in order to open yourself up to the vulnerability of exposing your true feelings. Hikaru’s romantic and professional rival (not that Hikaru would ever really think of anyone else as an enemy), Kitayama (Toma Ikuta), was one a top rated city trader and now apparently successful mangaka but in a depressive slump over a conflict of artistic integrity. Only by remembering the importance of sincerity and emotional connection can he unlock his creative block by remembering what it is that’s really important. Frothy fun and proud of it, Devil Claus mixes infinitely cute if slightly subversive animation with innocent and pure hearted romance in which the main messages are embracing your authentic self and accepting other people’s. In other words, a perfect Christmas story.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ, Isshin Inudo, 2005)

la-maison-de-himikoIn Japan’s rapidly ageing society, there are many older people who find themselves left alone without the safety net traditionally provided by the extended family. This problem is compounded for those who’ve lived their lives outside of the mainstream which is so deeply rooted in the “traditional” familial system. La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ) is the name of an old people’s home with a difference – it caters exclusively to older gay men who have often become estranged from their families because of their sexuality. The proprietoress, Himiko (Min Tanaka), formerly ran an upscale gay bar in Ginza before retiring to open the home but the future of the Maison is threatened now that Himiko has contracted a terminal illness and their long term patron seems set to withdraw his support.

Haruhiko (Joe Odagiri), Himiko’s much younger lover and the manager of the home, is determined to reunite his boss with his estranged daughter, Saori (Kou Shibasaki), before it’s too late. Saori is a rather sour faced and sullen woman carrying a decades long grudge against the father who abandoned her as a child and consigned her mother to a life of misery and heartbreak, so Haruhiko’s invitations are not warmly received. Haruhiko is not the giving up type and manages to sweet talk Saori’s colleague into revealing her desperate financial situation which has her already working two jobs with a part-time stint in a combini on top of her regular work during which she finds herself looking at lucrative ads for work on sex lines. When Haruhiko offers her a well paying gig helping out at the home, she has no choice but to put her pride aside.

The exclusively male residents of La Maison de Himiko lived their lives during a time when it was almost impossible to be openly gay. Consequently many of them have been married and had children but later left their families to live a more authentic life. Unfortunately, times being what they were, this often meant that they lost contact with their sons or daughters, even if they were able to keep in touch with their ex-wives or other family members for updates. For these reasons, La Maison de Himiko provides an invaluable refuge for older men who have nowhere else to go as they enter the later stages of their lives. The home provides not only a safe space where everybody is free to be themselves but also a sense of community and interdependence.

Though the situation is much improved, it is still imperfect as the home and its residents continue to face prejudice from the outside world. Saori, still carrying the pain of her father’s rejection, views his choice as a selfish one which placed his own desires above the duty he should have felt towards his wife and child. Partly driven by her resentment, Saori has a somewhat negative view of homosexuality on arriving at the home, offering up a selection of homophobic slurs, and is slow to warm to the residents. Gradually getting to know her father again and through her experiences at the home, her attitude slowly changes until she finds herself physically defending her new found friend when he’s set upon by a drunken former colleague who publicly shames him in a nightclub.

The home is also plagued by a gang of bratty kids who often leave homophobic graffiti scrawled across the front wall. One of their early tricks involves throwing a bunch of firecrackers under a parked car to stun Saori so they can hold her captive for a bit because they have really a lot of questions about lesbians and they wondered if she was one, though one wonders what they’d do if someone answered them seriously. Predictably, the leader of the bratty kids may be engaging in these kinds of behaviours because he’s confused himself. Thankfully La Maison de Himiko is an open and forgiving place, welcoming the boy inside to offer support to a young man still trying to figure himself out.

This is not a coming out story, but it is a plea for tolerance and acceptance through which Saori herself begins to blossom, easing her anger and resentment and sending her trademark scowl away with them. One of her closest friends at the home is a shy man who lived most of his life in the closet but makes the most beautiful embroidered clothes and elegant dresses. Sadly, the most lovely of them is reserved for his funeral – he’s too ashamed to wear it alive because he doesn’t like the way he looks in the mirror. Eventually he and Saori end up having an unconventional fancy dress party in which they both break out of their self imposed prisons culminating in a joyous group dance routine in a local nightclub.

Joe Odagiri turns in another nuanced, conflicted performance as the increasingly confused Haruhiko who finds himself oddly drawn to Saori’s sullen charms though the film thankfully avoids “turning” its male lead for an uncomfortable romantic conclusion. A young man among old ones, Haruhiko is somewhat out of place but has his own empty spaces. Revealing to Saori that he lives only for desire he betrays a nagging fear of his own emptiness and journey into a possibly lonely old age. Nevertheless, La Maison de Himiko is generally bright and cheerful despite some of the pain and sadness which also reside there. A warm and friendly tribute to the power of community, La Maison de Himiko is a hymn in praise of tolerance and inclusivity which, as it makes plain, bloom from the inside out.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And the fantastic dance sequence from the film

Plus the original version of the song (Mata Au Hi Made) by Kiyohiko Ozaki