Mr. Suzuki: A Man In God’s Country (鈴木さん, Omoi Sasaki, 2020)

God is dead, or maybe not in Omoi Sasaki’s deadpan satire of the ills of contemporary Japan, Mr. Suzuki : A Man in God’s Country (鈴木さん, Suzuki-san). Set in a seemingly isolated fascist state, the film lays bear the intergenerational conflict of the ageing society along with the lonely resentment of those in middle-age caught between two stools in a society which seems only to cater for the young and the old while the powers that be, determined to build a “wholly beautiful city”, go to great lengths to cure the falling birthrate. 

It’s this that 44-year-old unmarried care home attendant Yoshiko (Asako Ito) fears especially when randomly informed one day that if she remains without a husband her citizenship will be cancelled and she’ll have to leave the city unless she elects to become a member of the military which is currently exempt. Her friend Ayako chooses to do just this, no longer able to bear the pressure of being unattached, but Yoshiko is unwilling to surrender her way of life on the whim of some government official. She is constantly bombarded with invitations to the “Beautiful Matchmaking” event but is later rejected because it is only for the “young” only to be reprieved by the mayor who tells her to come back in more suitable attire while declaring that God will not abandon those who make the effort. 

This almost forced insistence on national service as mediated through childbirth and the creation of “beautiful families” as an expression of one’s loyalty to “God”, the nation’s mysterious leader who has not been seen in 20 years, is of course disturbing even as other voices echo the words of real life politicians suggesting that those who have not born children are “defective adults” who must serve their country in other ways such as in the military. With God apparently in poor health the government reads out all his statements on his behalf, issuing commands in his name while distributing his image throughout the land as the locals continue to believe blindly in his existence. 

A crunch point comes for Yoshiko when she discovers a dishevelled middle-aged man taking shelter in the “Utopia” care home where she works. Rather than turn him in she decides to let him stay and later abruptly proposes a paper marriage so that she’ll avoid losing her citizenship. Though “Suzuki-sensei” (Norihiko Tsukuda) proves a hit with the ladies once they discover his musical talents, his outsider status later becomes a problem when the government use the pretext of a soldier’s death to claim they’ve started a war and are on the look out for “enemy spies” though they are also as it turns out looking for the absent God whose identity we can guess. Sights of the old ladies running defence drills with broom handles uncomfortably recall those of peasants training with bamboo spears during the war as does one old lady’s reluctance to take part having been led to blame herself for her brother’s wartime death while gossip that spies loot and poison wells is reminiscent of the pogrom against Koreans in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. A gang of thuggish youths with a penchant for happy slapping the homeless insisting that they “do not deserve to live in God’s beautiful country” instantly become spy hunting vigilantes, while rewards are offered for informants reporting anyone whose face they do not recognise. 

The offer presents Yoshiko with a dilemma. Rather than marry him, she could decide to turn Suzuki in and get guaranteed citizenship along with a pension but would it really be worth the price of living with his betrayal? Mr. Suzuki’s true identity will come as no surprise, though his sojourn among the believers exposes the shakiness of the regime when he is mobbed by a militia of angry townspeople out for blood hellbent on rooting out a “spy”, ironically arranged in the form of a cross as they occupy a T-section surrounded by fields. Shuffling between the disturbing and the merely strange, Omoi Sasaki’s deadpan, absurdist drama has its share of poignancy in the frustrated connection between outcasts Yoshiko and Suzuki while satirising the surreal authoritarianism of the world all around them with its mandated hair cuts and bizarre portrait of its absent leader which must be bowed to on all occasions but perhaps does not stray so far from the contemporary realities in all of its discomforting talk of beautifying the nation through the sacred act of childbirth. 


Mr. Suzuki: A Man In God’s Country streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gohatto (御法度, Nagisa Oshima, 1999)

Nagisa Oshima once said that his hatred of Japanese cinema extended to absolutely all of it, decrying the hackneyed nativism of “foggy beauty and stupid gardens”, yet his final film is filled with Mizoguchian mist and almost a paen to Japanese aesthetics which ends with a cherry blossom tree in full bloom cut down in its prime. Burdened by the slightly more salacious title “Taboo”, Gohatto is less about love between men in an intensely homosocial world even as it asks what it might mean by “forbidden” or “against the law” than it is about idealism and aesthetics as its band of contradictory conservatives unknowingly approach the end of their world in a coming modernity ushered in by dangerous beauty. 

Set in the Kyoto of 1865, a scant three years prior to the Meiji Restoration, the film opens with an audition of sorts as the Shinsengumi search for promising new recruits among talented swordsmen. Already a mess of contradictions, the Shinsengumi is, loosely, a kind of official police force dedicated to defending the Shogunate against the revolutionary forces set on restoring power to the emperor. Nevertheless, in an odd way and in contrast to the elite Mimawarigumi which was staffed only by direct retainers to the Shogun, the Shinsengumi was noted for its lowkey egalitarianism in that it made a point of admitting those of ordinary birth as well as lower level samurai and ronin. Of course, the notions of equality only went so far and perhaps only fuelled its reputation for merciless savagery, but also make it a strangely progressive force fighting against progress in defence of the feudal status quo. 

Only two of the hopefuls are thought to be any good, one a young ronin, Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), and the other a beautiful boy, Kano Sozaburo (Ryuhei Matsuda), the third son of a wealthy merchant whose line were once samurai but are no longer counted among the noble retainers. A talented swordsman, Sozaburo’s dangerous beauty presents an existential threat to the Shinsengumi order, the steely Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano) looking on conflicted in witnessing the way his commander, Kondo (Yoichi Sai), looks at this vision of androgynous beauty remarking that he had not known him to be “that way inclined”.

Being that way inclined does not seem to be a particular issue within the Shinsengumi, it is not against their draconian rules and in fact appears to be tolerated at least as long as it causes no further problems. Kondo is however mindful of the chaos caused by a similar wave of homoerotic lust which took hold shortly before a climactic battle which would prove to be their last success. What Sozaburo seems to arouse in them is something more dangerous than the accepted patterns of love between military men which is in a sense sublimated as a mentor/student relationship, loyalty more than romance. Tashiro, who is of a similar age to the apparently 18-year-old Sozaburo, lets his desire be known, vowing to sleep with him before he dies ironically acknowledging Sozaburo for what he is, an angel of death. 

For his part, Sozaburo remains curiously passive in each of his encounters, aroused only it seems by the act of killing. Yet Hijikata discerns that he has indeed become Tashiro’s lover on witnessing them fight, Sozaburo losing clumsily despite being the more skilled in a dynamic that mimics their relationship in which Tashiro is the dominant partner. Aware of the danger in Sozaburo’s allure, Kondo suggests having a superior take him to the red light district to show him the delights of woman hoping to guide him back towards a less dangerous path, only the attempt backfires on several levels. Firstly, Sozaburo has no interest in women and continues to decline believing his commander is also hitting on him (like everyone else), thereafter determined to seduce him after all. Another retainer does indeed succeed in seducing Sozaburo, developing a mild obsession, but later ends up dead, Tashiro a main suspect in his murder with the motive of sexual jealousy though all of this additional violence is perhaps only an expression of Sozaburo’s dangerous beauty. 

As so often, sex if not love becomes the force which destabilises the social order only here it’s equated both with death and with an alternative mediation of male violence. Perhaps reflecting the way they look to the 18-year-old Sozaburo who makes a faux pas in accidentally suggesting at least one of them is of pensionable age, the ranking members of the Shinsengumi are played by actors already well into their golden years as if relics of a bygone era though in reality most were in their 30s. As Soji (Shinji Takeda), a filial figure like Sozaburo wearing long hair, puts it, there are no old men in their unit which is in essence an anti-revolutionary force. Nevertheless, the Shinsengumi is on the wrong side of history and already living in its end times, perhaps ushered towards its doom by the figure of the beautiful boy. “You were too beautiful”, Hijikata eventually laments as he finally perhaps understands the nature of the revolution he is witnessing. Perverse to the last, Oshima sets his ethereal finale in a stygian fog and pays an ironic tribute to the Mizoguchian classicism he so railed against in his youth, taking a sword to the cherry blossoms as he like Hijikata severs his own legacy in a moment of destructive beauty. 


Gohatto screens at Genesis Cinema on 25th September as part of this year’s Queer East

International trailer (English subtitles)