Samurai Kids (水の旅人-侍KIDS-, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1993)

“I’ve always believed that dreams and fantasies have infinite power” an eccentric teacher explains though it might as well be a mission statement for the films of Nobuhiko Obayashi. 1993’s family adventure movie Samurai Kids (水の旅人-侍KIDS-, Mizu no Tabibito: Samurai Kids) draws inspiration from the classic Japanese folktale Issun Boshi about a pint sized warrior who floats off to the city in a bowl, but is at heart a gentle coming-of-age tale as little boy grows in self-confidence and vows to protect Japan’s beautiful natural environment from human mismanagement. 

As his mother (Jun Fubuki) describes him, Satoru (Ryou Yoshida) is a little different and slow to make friends. The confusion he feels is reflected in the persistent fast cutting that adds a note of tension to the otherwise pleasant family home. Like many small boys he is obsessed with collecting mini treasures for his collection along with frogs and insects which is how he comes across a mysterious creature knocked off a log floating in the river by a flying baseball from the game his sister Chizuko (Ayumi Ito) is playing across the way. To his surprise, the bundle of rags Satoru picks up turns out to be a tiny old man in samurai clothes complete with sword who gives his name as Suminoe no Sukunahiko. Sukunahiko (Tsutomu Yamazaki) as he explains had been on his way to the sea where he plans to “evaporate”. The river only flows in one direction after all and you can’t turn back time, everyone dies eventually. 

Having lost his grandfather a couple of years previously (a photo cameo from Ishiro Honda of Godzilla fame), loss is something Satoru hasn’t quite processed though he understands that Sukunahiko has his own path to follow even if he’ll miss him when he’s gone. Nevertheless, he feels a responsibility to look after him so he can recover sufficiently to make his journey to the sea. Through his strange friendship with the tiny old man, Satoru begins to learn more of and draw closer to the natural world. When Sukunahiko’s kimono is pinched by a cheeky crow for some reason continually hanging round Satoru’s home, Sukunahiko is forced to fight him and ends up cutting off his beak but later carves the bird a new prosthetic replacement because no to do so would have been “impolite”. 

Meanwhile a visit to his father’s hometown brings home the realities of contemporary Japan in learning that the area is soon to be sunk as a giant reservoir to prevent the flooding of other nearby villages. On a school trip, Satoru is quick to take issue with some of his classmates who throw their rubbish out of the bus windows as they pass a dam, reminding them they’re being disrespectful to the town that once existed beneath the water. The climax occurs when the children are camping further up the mountain near what Satoru assumes must be Sukunahiko’s “hometown” at the source of the river. It just so happens that the trip coincides with a fading local festival dedicated to the river god which might account for why it’s raining so much. “It’s celebratory rain” an old man explains, “but when people try to control the water it causes problems like this” implying that the water is “rebelling” against humanity’s attempts to channel it. When he and his sister’s frenemy Miyuki are trapped by rockfall, Satoru has to learn to trust the healing properties of water so that he can repay her kindness in protecting him before eventually helping Sukunahiko return to source in the company of his eccentric yokai-obsessed teacher (Tomoyo Harada) and newly sympathetic sister. 

Adapted from a story by Masumi Suetani who also penned the screenplay, Samurai Kids is perfectly suited to Obayashi’s key concerns lamenting that the adults often forget the promises to nature they made while young, Satoru calling out that he’ll protect the rivers and waters of Japan with a warrior spirit like Sukunahiko’s while the Jo Hisaishi score is also reminiscent of the similarly themed movies of Studio Ghibli. Chizuko’s parallel dilemma may be less well explored leaving it unclear whether her tomboyishness is born of discontent over her looks or a part of her essential personality struggling for acceptance in a conformist and heavily gendered society but does at least allow her to find common ground with friend/rival Miyuki who is struggling with something similar stressing the importance of friendship and mutual understanding among the children. It may be the case that the special effects have entered the realms of being classic rather than merely dated but hold up surprisingly well almost 30 years later possessed of their own strange charm yet syncing perfectly with the world around them. A quietly magical tale of loyal yet laidback family cats, parental nostalgia for simpler times, and unexpected friendships between solitary boys and ancient water gods, Samurai Kids is a surprisingly poignant children’s adventure with an important message in its fierce love of a disappearing natural beauty. 


Short clip (no dialogue)

Happy Flight (ハッピーフライト, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2008)

“We’re part of a whole system” the chief mechanic insists with exasperation, irritated with an employee being too thorough, “what if this delays departure?”. Best known for ensemble comedies, of which Happy Flight (ハッピーフライト) is one, Shinobu Yaguchi had originally envisaged a disaster movie only to change tack realising that aircraft accidents really are (thankfully) extremely rare and the backstage workings of an airport might well lead themselves to comedy. Even so, it’s perhaps surprising that sponsor airline ANA who were apparently heavily involved in the project allowed themselves to be seen in a less than perfect light even if their pilots and ground staff do indeed save the day when potential disaster strikes. 

Like any good farce, Yaguchi throws just about every potential problem into one basket beginning with the fact that this flight to Honolulu is the final exam for co-pilot Suzuki (Seiichi Tanabe) who is hoping to earn a promotion to captain though a disastrous performance in the simulator may have dimmed his expectations. It’s also the first flight for chirpy air hostess Etsuko (Haruka Ayase) still harbouring some delusions about the glamour of the flight attendant life while the plane itself is late in and technically speaking needs a couple of repairs though the airline is already a little jumpy about the number of delays impacting their services recently and the chief mechanic thinks some of them can wait. A junior engineer takes it on himself to change a part and incurs the wrath of his boss for taking to long, but is perhaps privately worried he didn’t do it properly and later alarmed when the plane runs into trouble worried that his missing wrench might be the cause. Aside from the pressing typhoon, the other problem is a flock of annoying seagulls normally taken care of by an old man nicknamed “bird guy” who warns them off with a shotgun only today he’s been accosted by the “bird lovers alliance”, while the airport is also surrounded by a bunch of obsessive aviation enthusiasts recording every detail and uploading them online. 

If something can go wrong then it will, as it does when the backup sensors stop working leaving the pilots flying blind, but even before that consumer aviation is first and foremost a customer facing business with the airline concentrating on ensuring that passengers have a good experience so they don’t lose their business to a rival. That’s one reason they’re so paranoid about avoiding delays, but also find themselves dealing with aggressive passengers each intent on receiving individual attention forgetting for a moment that the plane is full of other people who also have needs and demands. Still learning the ropes, Etsuko struggles to understand her place in the machine only to redeem herself later through a little lateral thinking following a culinary disaster while becoming quietly disillusioned with the unexpectedly stressful side of her otherwise glamorous profession. Meanwhile stern purser Reiko (Shinobu Terajima) gives them all a masterclass in deescalating an entitled customer’s rage by stroking his ego with some well-placed psychology. 

This being a comedy it all turns out alright in the end even if Suzuki has undergone something of a baptism of fire and Etsuko has had her eyes opened to the reality of the flight attendant life. Despite everything going wrong at the same time, it goes right when it needs to thanks to the teamwork and dedication of the disparate team from the guys in the air control weather department to the scrambling ground staff arranging meals and accommodation for passengers unable to reach their destination. There’s even the hint of a happy ending for check in supervisor Natsumi (Tomoko Tabata) who was dead set on quitting her job because it doesn’t afford her any opportunities to meet nice guys, while what it does seem to largely contain is fending off the three teenage aeroplane enthusiasts who hang out in arrivals and dealing with various passenger crises. They are indeed all part of whole system, and that’s good and bad in that they all feel under pressure to get planes in the air on time which perhaps encourages them to overvalue efficiency at the cost of safety, but also makes it easier to spring into action in order to fend off a crisis should one occur so that everyone can have a “happy flight” blissfully ignorant of the minor panic under the bonnet of this not so well oiled machine. 


Happy Flight streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

International trailer (English subtitles)

I Never Shot Anyone (一度も撃ってません, Junji Sakamoto, 2020)

“You don’t know the pain of being forgotten” laments an ageing actress attempting to move the heart of a heartless conman in Junji Sakamoto’s comedy noir I Never Shot Anyone (一度も撃ってません, Ichido mo Uttemasen), more as it turns out a melancholy meditation on age and disappointment than hardboiled farce. Sakamoto’s elderly heroes live in a world of night in which their dreams of youth never died, but are confronted with the realities of their lonely existences when the sun rises and exposes the shallowness of their escapist fantasy.

74-year-old Susumu Ichikawa (Renji Ishibashi) was once a promising novelist but veered away from the realms of literary fiction towards the allure of hardboiled noir, no longer permitting his wife Yayoi (Michiyo Okusu) to read his drafts claiming that she would find them too distressing. His publisher (Koichi Sato) meanwhile is more distressed by the quality of the prose than the content, partly because his novels are simply dull but also because they are far too detailed to be mere imagination and as each one seems to be based on a recent ripped from the headlines case he’s staring to worry that Susumu is the real life legendary hitman said to be responsible for a series of unsolved suspicious deaths. 

On the surface, it might be hard to believe. At home, Susumu is a regular old gent who reads the paper after breakfast and locks himself away in his study to write for the rest of the day but his wife complains that he stays out too late at night little knowing that he leads something like a double life, dressing like a shady character from a post-war noir and even at one point likening himself to Yves Montand in Police Python 357. He speaks with an affected huskiness and is fond of offering pithy epithets such as “women come alive at night” while reuniting with two similarly aged friends in a bar run by a former hitman nicknamed “Popeye” (pro wrestler Jinsei Shinzaki) who seems to have some kind of nerve damage in his hands he’s trying to stave off through obsessive knitting. 

What Susumu seems to be afraid of, however, is the sense of eclipse in his impending obsolescence. The guy who ran the local gun shop whom he’d known for 30 years recently passed away, while the guy from the Chinese herbalist apparently went home to die. His publisher’s retiring, and Popeye’s going to close the bar because his mother’s ill so he’s going back to his hometown. Susumu and his wife didn’t have any children and he perhaps feels a little untethered in his soon-to-be legally “elderly” existence while the now retired Yayoi is also lonely with her husband always off in another world he won’t let her share. His friend Ishida (Ittoku Kishibe) once a prosecutor and now a disgraced former mob lawyer working as a security consultant/fixer is estranged from his only daughter, while former cabaret star Hikaru (Kaori Momoi) never married and spends her days working in a noodle bar. They are all scared of being forgotten and fear their world is shrinking, living by night in order to forget the day. 

Perhaps you can’t get much more noir than that, but there’s a definite hollowness in Susumu’s constructed hardboiled persona that leaves him looking less like Alain Delon than a sad man in an ally with only a cigarette for a friend. Even his new editor is quick to tell him that no reads noir anymore, Susumu is quite literally living in the past battling a “hopeless struggle” as someone puts it against the futility of life by living in a hardboiled fantasy. We see him looking at target profiles for an investigative reporter proving a thorn in the side of yakuza and big business, and threaten a heartless conman (Yosuke Eguchi) whose investment frauds have caused untold misery, yet he’s not really a part of the story and his life is smaller than it seems or than he would like it to be. Perhaps in the end everyone’s is even if Susumu is as his new editor describes him “one step away from being insane”. Never quite igniting, Sakamoto’s lowkey tale of elderly ennui is less rage against the dying of the light than a tiny elegy for lives unlived as its dejected hero steps back into the shadows unwilling to welcome an unforgiving dawn.


I Never Shot Anyone screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Violent Cop (その男、凶暴につき, Takeshi Kitano, 1989)

By and large, policemen in Japanese cinema are at least nominally a force for good. They may be bumbling and inefficient, occasionally idiotic and easily outclassed by a master detective, but are not generally depicted as actively corrupt or malicious. A notable exception would be within the films of Kinji Fukasaku whose jitsuroku gangster movies were never afraid to suggest that the line between thug and cop can be surprisingly thin. Fukasaku was originally slated to direct Violent Cop (その男、凶暴につき, Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni tsuki), casting top TV variety star “Beat” Takeshi in the title role in an adaptation of a hardboiled parody by Hisashi Nozawa. The project later fell apart due to Kitano’s heavy work schedule which eventually led to him directing the film himself, heavily rewriting the script in order to boil it down to its nihilistic essence while rejecting the broad comedy his TV fans would doubtless have been expecting. 

Kitano’s trademark deadpan is, however, very much in evidence even in this his debut feature in which he struggled to convince a veteran crew to accept his idiosyncratic directorial vision. He opens not with the “hero”, but with a toothless old man, a hobo beset by petty delinquents so bored by the ease of their comfortable upperclass lives that they terrorise the less fortunate for fun. Azuma (Takeshi Kitano), the violent cop, does not approve but neither does he intervene, later explaining to his boss that it would have been foolish to do so without backup. Having observed from the shadows, he tails one of the boys to his well-appointed home, barges past his mother, and asks to have a word, immediately punching the kid in the face as soon as he opens the door. Rather than simply arrest him, he strongly encourages that he and his friends turn themselves in at the police station the next day or, he implies, expect more of the same. The kid complies. 

Azuma embodies a certain kind of justice acting in direct opposition to the corruptions of the Bubble era which are indirectly responsible for the creation of these infinitely bored teens who live only for sadistic thrills. He arrives too late, however, to have any effect on the next generation, cheerfully smiling at a bunch of primary school children running off to play after throwing cans at an old man on a boat. Children always seem to be standing by, witnessing and absorbing violence from the world around them as when a fellow officer is badly assaulted by a suspect following Azuma’s botched attempt to arrest him in serial rather than parallel with his equally thuggish colleagues. But for all that Azuma’s violence is inappropriate for a man of the law, it is never condemned by his fellow officers who regard him only as slightly eccentric and a potential liability. Even his new boss on hearing of his reputation tells him that he doesn’t necessarily disapprove but would appreciate it if Azuma could avoid making the kind of trouble that would cause him inconvenience. 

That’s obviously not going to happen. What we gradually realise is that Azuma may be in some ways the most sane of men or at least the most in tune with the world in which he lives, only losing his cool when a suspect spits back that he’s just as crazy as his sister who has recently been discharged from a psychiatric institution. Azuma has accepted that his world is defined by violence and no longer expects to be spared a violent end. He smirks ironically as he slaps his suspects, connecting with them on more than one level in indulging in the cosmic joke of existential battery. To Kitano, violence is cartoonish, unreal, and absurd. The only time the violence is shocking and seems as if it actually hurts is when it is visited directly on Azuma, the camera suddenly shifting into a quasi-PV shot as a foot strikes just below the frame. The targets are otherwise misdirected, a young woman caught by a stray bullet while waiting outside a cinema or a cop shot in the tussle over a gun, and again the children who only witness but are raised in the normalisation of violence. 

Meanwhile, organised crime has attempted to subvert its violent image by adopting the trappings of the age, swapping post-war scrappiness for Bubble-era sophistication. Nito (Ittoku Kishibe), the big bad, has an entire floor as an office containing just his oversize desk and that of his secretary. These days, even gangsters have admin staff. Minimalist in the extreme with its plain white walls and spacious sense of emptiness, the office ought to be a peaceful space but the effect of its deliberately unstimulating decor is quite the reverse, intimidating and filled with anxiety. Behind Nito the ordinary office blinds look almost like prison bars. Meanwhile, the police locker room in much the same colours has a similarly claustrophobic quality, almost embodying a sense of violence as if the walls themselves are intensifying the pressure on all within them. 

Azuma is indeed constrained, even while also the most “free” in having decided to live by his own codes in rejection of those offered by his increasingly corrupt society. He walks a dark and nihilistic path fuelled by the futility of violence, ending in a Hamlet-esque tableaux with only a dubious Fortinbras on hand to offer the ironic commentary that “they’re all mad”, before stepping neatly into another vacated space in willing collaboration with the systemic madness of the world in which he lives. With its incongruously whimsical score and deadpan humour Violent Cop never shies away from life’s absurdity, but has only a lyrical sadness for those seeking to numb the pain in a world of constant anxiety. 


Violent Cop is the first of three films included in the BFI’s Takeshi Kitano Collection blu-ray box set and is accompanied by an audio commentary by Chris D recorded in 2008, plus a featurette recorded in 2016. The first pressing includes a 44-page booklet featuring an essay on Violent Cop by Tom Mes, as well as an introduction to Kitano’s career & writing on Sonatine by Jasper Sharp, a piece on Boiling Point from Mark Schilling, an archival review by Geoff Andrew, and an appreciation of Beat Takeshi by James-Masaki Ryan.

The Takeshi Kitano Collection is released 29th June while Violent Cop, Boiling Point, and Sonatine will also be available to stream via BFI Player from 27th July as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sakura Guardian in the North (北の桜守, Yojiro Takita, 2018)

Sakura Guardian in the North posterStill a major marquee star and one of the few golden age actresses regularly playing leading roles in box office hits, Sayuri Yoshinaga has for one reason or another become somewhat synonymous with a brand of quietly patriotic tales of wartime endurance and maternal suffering. Sakura Guardian in the North (北の桜守, Kita no Sakuramori), apparently the conclusion of a loose trilogy of “Northern” films which began with Year One in the North in 2005 and led on to Junji Sakamoto’s A Chorus of Angels in 2012, sees her once again engage with post-war trauma as a mother eventually driven out of her mind by the inability to come to terms with the weight of tragedy.

The tale begins on Sakhalin in spring 1945. Despite the intense cold of the frozen North, Tetsu (Sayuri Yoshinaga) – mother to two young sons, Seitaro and Shujiro, has carefully nurtured cherry trees grown from seeds brought from the mainland ensuring that they blossom even here. The family’s happiness will however be short lived. Dad Tokujiro (Hiroshi Abe) is sent off to the war while Tetsu and the children are eventually forced to evacuate to escape the Russian invasion, planning to wait for Tokujiro in Abashiri on the north coast of Hokkaido.

Flashing forward to 1971, we find ourselves in Tokyo with Shujiro (Masato Sakai), now a grown man married to the Japanese-American daughter of an LA hot dog entrepreneur, Mari (Ryoko Shinohara). Having made something of himself in the New World, Shujiro has returned to Japan to open the first branch of his father-in-law’s convenience stores. His plans are disrupted when he gets an unexpected call from Abashiri about his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since she told him to leave her behind and seek his fortune 15 years previously. The public housing shanty town where Tetsu ran her restaurant is being torn down but she’s showing no signs of leaving, and not only that, she’s begun to act strangely.

This Shujiro finds out for himself by visiting her and witnessing Tetsu talk to her own reflection as if it were a long lost friend. His sudden decision to bring his mother back with him to Tokyo without talking to his wife, who has never even met her mother-in-law, places a strain on his marriage on top of the already heavy burden of the store but Shujiro is determined to make it work. Tetsu, however, finds its hard to adjust. Used to living in small country towns where everyone knows everyone, she doesn’t realise you can’t just walk off from stores shouting “put it on my tab”, and annoys the neighbours by starting a smoky fire outside trying to cook rice the old fashioned way. With Shujiro busy with work, the burden falls disproportionately on the patient but exasperated Mari who is forced to apologise when Tetsu walks off in someone else’s shoes after trying on city-style outfits at a department store, and looks on in horror as her new mother-in-law starts an intense conversation with a cherry blossom tree.

Tetsu’s down home charm does, however, begin to give Shujiro some business inspiration as he ponders why his top American hotdogs aren’t selling now the novelty’s worn off. As his staff tell him, maybe they need to think a little more “Japanese” – more fresh veggies and innovative toppings, less ketchup and mustard. Shujiro has another idea – the original Japanese “convenience” food, onigiri, made with rice cooked in a pot and roughly shaped by a loving mother’s hands.

Rice, however, despite its ubiquity in the comparatively comfortable world of 1971 brings with it traumatic memories. Starving after the war, white rice was something Shujiro and Tetsu could only dream of, getting their first taste of it in many moons only when cooked to place on a funeral altar. Meanwhile, rice was also the only reason they survived after running into a slightly dodgy young man who gave them “jobs” helping him to smuggle it for sale on the black market. Shinji (Koichi Sato) helped them in other ways too, eventually putting up the money for Tetsu’s homely eatery, and would have married her if she were not on the one hand loyal to the memory of her absent husband, and so troubled by survivor’s guilt as to believe that she is “a person who does not deserve happiness”.

To punish herself for perceived failures, Tetsu has lived a life of austerity – working hard in the restaurant, dressing in simple ragged clothes, and eating only enough not to starve. She forced Shujiro away to make something of himself, but never spent any of the money he sent home to her nor answered any of his letters. Shujiro, by contrast, has swung the opposite way – determined to live a life of luxury and becoming unforgiving with it. Mari sees an ugly side to him when he’s visited by one of the boys who used to bully him (Ken Yasuda) for being a refugee and a black-marketeer back in Abashiri now fallen on hard times. Superficially polite, Shujiro humiliates him with undignified zeal while wilfully planning to exploit his workforce, quickly silencing an employee who tries to point out violations to the labour code.

Yet like Tetsu, who is somewhat unstuck in time, he begins to find a softer side of himself as the pair of them journey back into the past and revisit the sites of their shared traumas. Yojiro Takita stages Tetsu’s internal confusion somewhat incongruously as an avant-garde stage play offering occasional background info on the exodus from Sakhalin, an experience Shujiro is seemingly shut out from as he tries to reconnect with his mother only to lose her again but rediscovering a better version of himself before he was hardened by the burden of his memories and the hardships of the post-war era. Tetsu keeps the cherry blossoms in bloom in the North, cultivating beauty as a means to connect with her loss, and eventually finding a kind of resolution in the returned ghosts of her past given life once again by the strength of her devotion.


Singapore trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Lying to Mom (鈴木家の嘘, Katsumi Nojiri, 2018)

Lying to Mom posterLearning to live with loss is difficult for any family, but when the loss was caused by suicide the pain is even more acute as those left behind try to understand why it is their loved one had to die and if there was anything else they could have done to prevent it. The family at the centre of Lying to Mom (鈴木家の嘘, Suzukike no Uso) choose, initially at least, to avoid dealing with it at all. Each taking their individual paths through grief, they keep the past painfully alive by pretending that oldest son Koichi (Ryo Kase) is only temporarily absent and will eventually return.

Koichi, who has been a hikikomori for many years, takes one last look at the peaceful suburban scene outside his window and hangs himself from a storage closet in his room. His mother Yuko (Hideko Hara), out at the time, only discovers the body when trying to get him to come down to lunch. Panicked, she injures herself and ends up in a coma in hospital while nothing could be done for Koichi. When she wakes up some time later, she’s lost all her memories of the incident and the family don’t have the heart to tell her that her son is gone so they pretend he went to work for his uncle in Argentina.

This is of course very comforting to Yuko who now believes that as a result of her illness Koichi has finally been able to leave his room for a more productive life, but it places a strain on the other family members – father Yukio (Ittoku Kishibe) and daughter Fumi (Mai Kiryu), who remain conflicted about keeping up the pretence while dealing with their own grief in secret. Fumi, whose idea it was to lie in the first place, types out beautiful letters supposedly from Koichi to be handwritten in his handwriting by an associate in Argentina which detail his new life full of freedom and promise overseas.

Meanwhile, Yukio ponders on his relationship with his son with whom he admits he never quite bonded. He sets about trying to find a mysterious woman named on Koichi’s life insurance policy less for practical reasons than to ascertain some sort of evidence that his son lived, even if he lived the last years of his life alone in a room. The reasons for Koichi’s isolation are never exactly explained with Yuko blaming high school bullying and the stagnant economy, but it is clear that he never managed to find himself in Japan and perhaps if he really had gone to Argentina things might have been different.

Wracked with guilt, Fumi finds herself trying out a support group for relatives of those who died by suicide but struggles to put her own thoughts in order. Though people try their best, insensitivity reigns when they try to offer words of condolence. Only love can save people, Fumi’s colleague smugly tells her with a random story about coaxing a shy high school student out their room, little realising he’s tacitly accusing her of not trying hard enough to save her brother. People can’t be saved, Fumi retorts, and she might well have a point. Even the leader of the support group shows himself up when he considers banning a grief-stricken woman with a loud personality because her problems are “smaller” seeing as she’s wealthy. As another attendee tells him, people grieve in different ways and having money or not is unlikely to affect the degree of your emotional pain even if it might in some sense reduce the burden. Besides, his assumptions about her are mostly wrong because he’s not been paying attention to the things that really matter only to his own surface level prejudices.

Despite the prevalence of suicide, the Suzukis still find themselves embarrassed by Koichi’s passing. They tell people it was an illness or avoid mentioning it all. Meanwhile they keep the secret from Yuko and avoid talking about it amongst themselves until finally forced to deal with all of their anger, guilt, pain and confusion. A comforting lie may serve its purpose, but only an emotional reckoning can clear the air. There may be no real answer to why Koichi did what he did, but the Suzukis will have to make their peace with it, finding fresh hope in the process as they begin to repair their emotional wounds together as a family.


Lying to Mom was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened at the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival on 30th May at 7.30pm.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Murder of the Inugami Clan (犬神家の一族, Kon Ichikawa, 2006)

the inugami family 2006 posterBeginning his career in the late 1940s, Kon Ichikawa was a contemporary of the leading lights of Japanese cinema during the golden age though has never quite achieved the level of international acclaim awarded to studio mate Akira Kurosawa. Unlike Kurosawa however, whose career floundered the wake of the studio system’s collapse, Ichikawa was able to go on making films through the difficult years of the 70s and 80s precisely because he was willing to take on projects that were purely commercial in nature. His biggest box office hit was an adaptation of the Seishi Yokomizo novel The Inugami Family which led to a further four films starring the author’s eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi. 30 years later, in what would turn out to be his final film, Ichikawa took the unusual step of remaking his biggest commercial success and even more unusually decided to recast several of the same actors in their original roles.

The script remains almost identical to the 1976 version though slightly slimmer. In 1947, pharmaceuticals magnate Sahei Inugami (Tatsuya Nakadai) dies leaving a confusing will which upsets absolutely everyone – not least his three daughters whom he fathered with three different women none of whom he was legally married to. Sahei has elected to leave the bulk of his estate to a young lady, Tamayo (Nanako Matsushima), who is not part of the family, on the condition that she marry one of his grandsons though he stresses that she is free to choose. If she chooses to marry someone else, the estate will be split between the three grandsons and another illegitimate son fathered with a maid whose whereabouts are apparently unknown. With such a vast fortune at stake, it is not long before the first murder occurs.

The most major difference between the 1976 and 2006 versions is, perhaps counterintuitively, the budget. Whereas the 1976 version had been one of the “taisaku” prestige pictures which dominated the mainstream cinema of the era and had the marketing genius of a young Haruki Kadokawa behind it, the 2006 version is a much more modest affair with minimal production values and a noticeably unfussy approach. The 1976 version, like the other instalments in the ‘70s series, also boasted a starry cast including golden age star Mieko Takamine, even employing Kyoko Kishida in a tiny two scene role as a blind koto teacher. Perhaps the strangest and most experimental choice made by Ichikawa in terms of his “remake”, is the one to cast original star Koji Ishizaka as the eccentric detective, reprising his role from the earlier film 30 years later. In fact, many of the other characters whose ages are not important are also played by the original actors including the bumbling policeman (Takeshi Kato) and his sidekick who appear throughout the series (comedy director Koki Mitani makes a noted cameo in the spot occupied by Seishi Yokomizo in the original adaptation).

The recasting adds to the level of uncanniness created by the dissonance between the opulence of the 76 version, and the austerity of that from 2006. This time around, Ichikawa shoots in 16:9 rather than (the then) TV friendly 4:3, but in the scaled back hyperrealist style common to lower budget dramas from the 2000s. The flat digital cinematography only serves to add to the general lifelessness of the drama which features only the main players, the sole crowd scene occurring during a flashback to the repatriation shot to match the accompanying stock footage just as in the 1976 version. Whereas Ishizaka and the other veterans are mainly acting within the broader yet largely naturalistic style of 70s cinema, the younger members have adopted the decidedly theatrical tones common in contemporary indie drama which somewhat undercuts the strange mix of camp fun and serious drama which had defined the Kindaichi series.

In contrast to the ‘70s movies, Ichikawa plays it uncharacteristically safe – opting for many of the same techniques but reining them in, using plain black and white instead of negative, easing back on the gore, and lowering the level of violence. The results are decidedly mixed and though the central mystery has not changed, the 2006 edition proves a much less satisfactory experience that does not so much attempt to recapture the strange magic of the original as throw it into contrast through its absence. The story of the Inugami murders is, like many a Kindaichi mystery, one less of greed and selfishness than the lasting effects of repression, frustrated desires, and difficult loves and as such it is timeless, yet lightning doesn’t strike twice and Ichikawa’s second attempt at bottling it only goes to show that there’s little to gain in slavishly aping the past.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Kon Ichikawa, 1991)

noh mask murders posterFor one reason or another, Japanese mystery novels have yet to achieve the impact recently afforded to their Scandinavian brethren. Japan does however have a long and distinguished history of detective fiction and a number of distinctive, eccentric sleuths echoing the European classics. Mitsuhiko Asami is just one among many of Japan’s not quite normal investigators, and though Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Tenkawa Densetsu Satsujin Jiken) is technically the 23rd in the Asami series, Kon Ichikawa’s adaptation sets itself up as the very first Asami case file and as something close to an origin story.

Ichikawa, though he may be best remembered for his ‘60s arthouse masterpieces, was able to go on filmmaking where others perhaps were not precisely because of his forays into the populist with a series of mystery thrillers including several featuring top Japanese detective Kindaichi (who receives brief name check in Noh Mask Murders). Published by Kadokawa, Noh Mask Murders is produced by Haruki Kadokawa towards the end of his populist heyday and features many of the hallmarks of a “Kadokawa” film but Ichikawa also takes the opportunity for a little formal experimentation to supplement what is perhaps a weaker locked room mystery.

Asami (Takaaki Enoki) begins with a voice over as four plot strands occur at the same temporal moment at different spaces across the city. In Shinjuku, a salaryman drops dead on the street, while a young couple enjoy a secret tryst in a secluded forest, a troupe of actors rehearse a noh play, and Asami himself is arrested by an officious policeman who notices him walking around with a dead bird in his hand and accuses him of poaching. As he will later prove, all of these moments are connected either by fate or coincidence but setting in motion a series of events which will eventually claim a few more lives before its sorry conclusion.

To begin with Asami, he is a slightly strange and ethereal man from an elite background who has been content to drift aimlessly through life to the consternation of his conservative family which includes a police chief brother. He harbours no particular desire to become a detective and is originally irritated by a family friend’s attempts to foist a job on him but gives in when he learns he will have the opportunity to visit Tenkawa which is where, he’s been told, the mysterious woman who helped him out with the policeman in the opening sequence keeps an inn. Hoping to learn more about her, he agrees to write a book about the history of Noh and then becomes embroiled in a second murder which links back to the Mizugami Noh Family which is currently facing a succession crisis as the grandfather finds himself torn over choosing his heir – he wants to choose his granddaughter Hidemi (Naomi Zaizen) who is the better performer but the troupe has never had a female leader and there are other reasons which push him towards picking his grandson, Kazutaka (Shota Yamaguchi).

As with almost all Japanese mysteries, the solution depends on a secret and the possibilities of blackmail and/or potential scandal. The mechanics of murders themselves (save perhaps the first one) are not particularly difficult to figure out and the identity of the killer almost certainly obvious to those who count themselves mystery fans though there are a few red herrings thrown in including a very “obvious” suspect presented early on who turns out to be entirely incidental.

Ichikawa attempts to reinforce the everything is connected moral of the story through an innovative and deliberately disorientating cross cutting technique which begins in the prologue as Ichikawa allows the conversations between the grandchildren to bleed into those of Asami and his friend as if they were in direct dialogue with each other. He foregrounds a sad story of persistent female subjugation and undue reliance on superstition and tradition which is indirectly to blame for the events which come to pass. Everyone regrets the past, and after a little murder begins to see things more clearly in acknowledging the wickedness of their own actions as well as their own sense of guilt and complicity. Noh is, apparently, like a marriage, a matter of mutual responsibility, fostering understanding between people and so, apparently is murder, and one way or another Asami seems to have found his calling.


The Projects (団地, AKA Danchi, Junji Sakamoto, 2016)

danchi posterTimes change so quickly. The “danchi” was a symbol of post-war aspiration and rising economic prosperity as it sought to give young professionals an affordable yet modern, convenient way of life. The term itself is a little hard to translate though loosely enough just means a housing estate but unlike “The Projects” (団地, Danchi) of the title, these are generally not areas of social housing or lower class neighbourhoods but a kind of vertical village which one should never need to leave (except to go to work) as they also include all the necessary amenities for everyday life from shops and supermarkets to bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, aspirations change across generations and what was once considered a dreamlike promise of futuristic convenience now seems run down and squalid. Cramped apartments with tiny rooms, washing machines on the balconies, no lifts – young people do not see these things as convenient and so the danchi is mostly home to the older generation, downsizers, or the down on their luck.

The Yamashitas – Hinako (Naomi Fujiyama) and her husband Seiji (Ittoku Kishibe), moved into the danchi just a few months ago after abruptly closing their herbal medicine business. The couple have integrated into the mini community fairly well, but as newcomers their neighbours remain a little suspicious and stand offish while Hinako and Seiji have their own reasons for moving and mostly want to be left alone. To make ends meet, Hinako is working part-time at the local supermarket but Seiji is mostly left alone in his thoughts and likes to wander through the nearby woodland behind the estate, eventually earning a nomination for head of the housing committee thanks to his calm and reliable character.

Despite being the last thing he wanted Seiji warms to the idea and has quite a few suggestions for improvements to the estate if he gets elected. Sadly, he loses out at the last second when the incumbent decides to stand again. Depressed and humiliated, Seiji decides to hide inside the mini storage compartment under the couple’s kitchen floor, only emerging for meals and to use the bathroom. Seeing as no one has seen Seiji in weeks, the danchi is ripe with gossip. What can have happened to him? Has he run away with his tail between his legs? Found another woman? Disappeared? Another new resident whose husband is a TV reporter has different idea – Hinako must have killed him!

The village mentality is very much alive in the danchi where the dwindling population and host of empty apartments mean that everyone is very invested in everyone else’s business. Thus the gaggle of women who make up the chief gossip society are suddenly convinced they have a murderer in their midst! Hinako, disinterested in her neighbours’ petty chitchat, ignores them and tries to go on with her business whilst putting up with Seiji’s odd antics as best she can. The neighbours’ suspicions are further aroused by the couple’s mysterious visitor, Shinjo (Takumi Saito), who speaks extremely strange Japanese with oddly robotic delivery.

However much the residents like to tell tales about each other, they are still reluctant to get involved in each other’s affairs. Everyone seems to know that the bossy man from across the way is abusive towards his wife and step-son but no one wants to do anything about it. The boy wanders the same woodland as Seiji, loudly singing the Gatchaman theme song with its cheerful chorus of the world being as one, and trying to keep out of his stepfather’s way. Only Hinako, witnessing the man about to inflict some harsh discipline on his step-son is brave enough to say something but her intervention only provides a momentary reprieve.

Though largely played for laughs there are some darker sides to the world of the danchi – the covert affairs, the gossip, the boredom, and the wilful ignoring of other people’s distress, to name but a few. In true Osakan style there is however a warmth to the comedy coupled with an endearing silliness which contrasts nicely with the more melancholy aspects hanging around the edges. Taking in everything from petty local politics to murder accusations and over zealous TV reporting, not to mention aliens, The Projects’ ambitions are wild and the tone oddly surreal but then again, nothing’s impossible in the danchi!


The Projects was screened as part of the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Masayuki Suo, 2014)

lady-maikoWhen Japan does musicals, even Hollywood style musicals, it tends to go for the backstage variety or a kind of hybrid form in which the idol/singing star protagonist gets a few snazzy numbers which somehow blur into the real world. Masayuki Suo’s previous big hit, Shall We Dance, took its title from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song featured in the King and I but it’s Lerner and Loewe he turns to for an American style song and dance fiesta relocating My Fair Lady to the world of Kyoto geisha, Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Maiko wa Lady) . My Fair Lady was itself inspired by Shaw’s Pygmalion though replaces much of its class conscious, feminist questioning with genial romance. Suo’s take leans the same way but suffers somewhat in the inefficacy of its half hearted love story seeing as its heroine is only 15 years old.

Country bumpkin Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) arrives in the elegant Kyoto geisha quarters with only one hope – to become a maiko! However, despite the scarcity of young girls wanting to train, Haruko’s hopes are dashed by the head geisha who finds it impossible to understand anything she’s saying thanks to her extraordinarily rare accent which is an odd mix of north and south country dialects. Luckily for her, a linguistics professor who has an unhealthy obsession with rare dialectical forms overhears her speech patterns and is instantly fascinated. Striking up a bet with another tea house patron, Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa) takes on the challenge of training Haruko to master the elegant Kyoto geisha accent in just six months.

The teahouses and the culture which goes with them are a part of the old world just barely hanging on in the bright new modern era. Haruko first became infatuated with all things maiko thanks to an online blog kept by the teahouse’s only current star, Momoko (Tomoko Tabata) – the daughter of the proprietor still only a maiko at age thirty precisely because of the lack of candidates to succeed her. Despite this intrusion of the modern, the way of the geisha remains essentially the same as it has for centuries with all of the unfairness and exploitation it entails. Hence, most of the women working in the teahouses are part-timers brought in for big events with only rudimentary training and even those who have spent a significant amount of time learning their craft lament that they don’t get paid a real salary and even their kimono and accessories technically belong to the teahouse.

Despite being on the fringes of the sex trade, as the professor’s assistant takes care to warn Haruko, there’s still something glamorous about the the arcane teahouse world bound up in ancient traditions and complicated rituals of elegance. Haruko faces a steep learning curve as a clumsy country girl who doesn’t even know how to sit “seiza” without her legs going numb. Learning to speak like a Kyoto native may be the least of her worries seeing as she has to learn how to dress in kimono, play a taiko drum and shamisen, and perform the traditional dances to perfection.

This is a musical after all and so the maiko dance routines eventually give way to more conventional choreography and large scale broadway numbers. The title song is particularly catchy and resurfaces at several points though the score as a whole is cheerful and inventive, incorporating a classic broadway sound with modern twist fused with the traditional music of the teahouse. Naoto Takenaka makes a typically creepy appearance displaying a fine voice for a comic number dedicated to the art of being a male maid to a geisha house but the big set piece is reserved for a comic take on the “Rain in Spain” in which the linguistics professor oddly wonders where all the water goes when it’s “pissing it down in Kyoto”. Unfortunately much of this revolves around linguistic jokes which are impossible to translate though the scene as a whole does its job well enough in introducing us to Haruko’s travails in the world of elocution. Other routines featuring the backstories of some of the minor characters also have a pleasantly retro quality inspired by period cinema complete with painted backdrops and old fashioned studio bound cinematography.

Though charming enough, Haruko’s progress is perhaps too conventional to move Lady Maiko far beyond the realms of cheerful fluff. Though Suo wisely keeps the romance to a minimum, Haruko’s growing feelings for the professor as well as a possible connection with his assistant are a little uncomfortable given her youth and the age differences involved even if the professor remains completely unaware. Unlike the source material Haruko’s passage is otherwise presented without complication (save for brief forays into the darkside of the geisha trade) as the country girl makes good, achieving her goals through hard work, perseverance, and the support of the community. In the end it’s all just far too nice, but then that’s not such a bad problem to have and there are enough pretty dance routines and warmhearted comedy to charm even the most jaded of viewers.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)