Yurigokoro (ユリゴコロ, Naoto Kumazawa, 2017)

Yurigokoro posterThose who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, as they say, but is it better to acknowledge the dark parts of yourself as part of an inherited legacy or ignore a nagging sense of incompleteness in favour of a harmonious existence? The hero at the centre of Naoto Kumazawa’s Yurigokoro (ユリゴコロ), adapted from the mystery novel by Mahokaru Numata, is about to discover a side of himself he might not like just as storm clouds seem to gather over his previously idyllic childhood home.

For Ryosuke (Tori Matsuzaka), everything had been looking up. He’d set up his own business – a charming cafe and summer lodge, with the woman he intended to marry, Chie (Nana Seino). However, no sooner has he introduced his fiancée to his father than she disappears, gone without trace. Meanwhile, his father informs him that he has stage four pancreatic cancer. Suddenly everything is falling apart and the braver the face he tries to put on it, the worse he seems to feel. Perhaps that’s why he can’t resist opening up a mysterious old box hidden in a cupboard in his father’s study that almost calls out to him to be opened. Inside the box is an old exercise book with the title “Yurigokoro” pencilled on the front. Ryosuke only reads the first few pages but they’re enough to disturb and fascinate him. The book, written in the first person, recounts the dark history of a murderess (Yuriko Yoshitaka) from silent, disconnected child to vengeful spirit.

“Yurigokoro” as the diary’s protagonist later explains is a made-up word, one she childishly misheard from the mouth of a well meaning doctor (who probably meant “yoridokoro” which means something like grounding). It could, however, almost translate as a shaking heart – something the doctor seems to imply the child does not quite have which is why she feels disconnected from the world around her and unable, or unwilling, to speak. The girl in the book travels through life looking for something that makes her heart beat and originally finds it only in the strange pleasure of watching something die, at first by accident and later by design. She drifts into an intense relationship with a damaged young woman (Aimi Satsukawa) who, like her in a fashion at least, resorts to self harm in order to feel alive. She thinks she finds her home, but it slips away from her or perhaps changes in form as it succumbs to inevitable disappointment.

Yet, in the grownup crimes at least, there is a kind of love in amongst grudging resentment. Ryosuke reads the diary and declares he does not relate to it at all but something about it gets under his skin and he can’t let it rest. He hears from an older woman (Tae Kimura) that Chie may have a past he knew nothing about, largely because he failed to ask, and that she may be in danger. He begins to feel rage surfacing within him like the dark violence of the diary’s protagonist and it both frightens and enthrals him.

The owner of the diary likens her experience of existing in the world to being prickled by hundreds of tiny thorns. She seeks relief through bloodletting and violence, as if she could shake herself free of the tiny stings that remind her of nothing other than her sense of emptiness. Later she discovers that love too can shake the heart, but the old darkness remains and even the most positive of emotions may require an act of violence in order to sustain it. The diarist remains ambivalent, knowing that there is no salvation for her except death and that any attempt to stave off the darkness with light will eventually fail, but determined to cling on to her brief moment of wholeness however inauthentic for as long as it lasts.

Ryosuke, meanwhile, who’d apparently never sensed in himself the kind of gaping emptiness that the diary’s owner describes, is forced to wonder if the diary is legacy and destiny, if he too is destined to commit random acts of inescapable violence as someone unfit for living as a human being among other human beings. Love might not have “cured” the darkness inside the diarist, but it did change it in quite a fundamental way, a way that eventually provided him with the means of his “salvation” perhaps at the cost of her own if only he is willing to accept it. Ryosuke might wish he’d never opened that particular box, but in doing so he discovers not only the path towards a fully integrated self but that his own darkness can be tempered precisely because of the sacrifice that was made on his behalf.


Yurigokoro was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dad’s Lunch Box (パパのお弁当は世界一, Masakazu Fukatsu, 2017)

Dad's Lunchbox posterLunch is serious business in Japan, but perhaps those adorable character bento have a dark side, forcing already frazzled mothers to get up before dawn in order to ensure their child’s lunch box will be sufficiently “cute” or risk being made to feel like a cold and unloving parent. It goes without saying that it’s usually mums who are expected to take care of food preparation, salaryman dads are a rare sight in a kitchen, but then a recent phenomenon known as “papaben” has been taking the internet by storm and somewhat normalising the idea that fathers too can channel their love for their kids into visually appealing, nutritionally balanced meals.

Dad’s Lunch Box (パパのお弁当は世界一, Papa no Obento wa Sekai Ichi), the debut feature from Masakazu Fukatsu, is inspired by a viral Tweet posted by a high school girl on her graduation which thanked her father for taking the trouble of making a handmade bento for her every day of her high school life. The Tweet also included a photo of his risible first effort and his final high school lunch box crafted after three years of trial and error. Fukatsu’s film version follows a recently single salaryman known only as “Father” (Toshimi Watanabe) who decides to make the creation of bento his primary method of demonstrating that he is perfectly fine bringing up his teenage daughter Midori (Rena Takeda) all alone.

The film does not dwell on the circumstances which led to Father’s wife leaving and there does not appear to be any animosity between himself and his daughter on account of it, nor does Midori suffer any particular stigma at school because of having a single dad save for the unfortunate quality of her daily bento. Father, having lived a regular salaryman life, is not exactly a great cook and has an uphill journey ahead of him when it comes to mastering the basics let alone creating the Instagrammable lunches of his daughter’s dreams. Taking a few tips from a friendly lady at work, Father eventually realises that for a teenage girl bento are an important social signifier and must, in all cases, be cute. Nevertheless, he struggles with fundamental hygiene concerns that leave him unaware of why you shouldn’t put sashimi in a lunch box which is going to be sitting around at room temperature all day.

The most important component in a bento is, however, love which is why Father started making them in the first place. It’s not so much that he eventually masters the art of cooking, nor that of learning how to make his dishes aesthetically pleasing, but that he is able to connect with his increasingly distant teenage daughter as he does so. Midori, having grown to like her dad’s previously embarrassing lunchtime fare, tricks him into making two bento lunches passing one off as her own work in order to give to a boy she likes and sort of (though incorrectly) assumes is her boyfriend. The boyfriend is, it has to be said, quite cheeky and extremely ungrateful when one considers he’s getting a 100% free lunch every day, but in any case his decision to rudely criticise Father’s by now beautiful bento is the one which finally sets alarm bells ringing in the mind of the romantically naive Midori and her supportive friends. Father remains oblivious until the lady at work helps him out again by keying him in to Midori’s likely source of teenage angst. When giving her a gentle opportunity to open up doesn’t yield results, Father realises he needs to give his daughter space to figure things out, leaving tiny notes of encouragement along with the food to make sure she knows he’s there if she needs him.

In a strange turn of events, actor Toshimi Watanabe who plays the father (previously known as a ‘90s hip hop star) himself made quite a splash in the papaben world when he released a book of his own bento recipes in 2014 crafted for his teenage son through his high school years. Dad’s Lunchbox may be low on plot detail, but it’s high on heart in its earnest tale of a doting dad just so happy to be making headway in conquering the most of domestic of tasks while finding the way to his daughter’s heart through her stomach.


Dad’s Lunchbox was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

People Still Call It Love -The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2019

her love boils bathwater still 2The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme is back for 2019 with another handpicked selection of recent (and not so recent) Japanese cinema. This year’s theme is “love” and there is certainly an array on offer from the familial to the romantic and everything in between.

My Friend ‘A’

My Friend A still 1Toma Ikuta stars as a failed journalist working in a small factory who befriends an introverted co-worker (Eita) only to begin to suspect that he may be connected to a series of child murders 17 years previously. One of two films released by Takahisa Zeze (The 8-Year Engagement) in 2018.

Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura

Destiny Kamakura horizontalCharming fantasy adventure from Takashi Yamazaki adapting the popular 80s manga by Ryohei Saigan in which a newlywed eccentric author finds himself travelling to the underworld to retrieve his wife who has been taken there as a result of a bizarre clerical error (and a little yokai interference). Review.

Thicker Than Water

Ken-en bannerComedy drama from Hime-anole‘s Keisuke Yoshida in which two pairs of mismatched siblings go head to head. Masataka Kubota stars as a hard working salesman whose conventional existence is threatened by the return of his rowdy ex-con brother (Hirofumi Arai). Meanwhile, Yuria (Keiko Enoue) runs the family business and takes care of her bedridden grandfather while her younger, prettier sister (Miwako Kakei) is an out of work actress with a tendency to flirt with just about everyone she meets.

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise still 1Tsuchida (Asami Usuda) has decided to financially support her singer-songwriter boyfriend Seiichi (Taiga) but he doesn’t know she’s supplementing her income with a part-time job at hostess bar to make ends meet. Meanwhile, her head is turned by an old flame (Joe Odagiri) in Masanori Tominaga’s adaptation of the popular manga by Kiriko Nananan. Review.

Tremble All You Want

tremble all you want still 1Intensely shy and socially awkward, 24-year-old Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka) lives in a fantasy world and spends her free time engaging in her favourite hobby of looking up extinct animals on the internet. Harbouring a long standing crush on a middle-school classmate she nicknames “Ichi” (no. 1), her existence is shaken by the unexpected attention of a colleague she refers to as “Ni” (no. 2). An ultimately uplifting yet sometimes heartbreaking tale of learning to forget about anxiety and just live anyway from genre veteran Akiko Ohku. Review.

Dear Etranger

Dear Etranger still 2Tadanobu Asano stars as a man who’s taken the unusual decision to prioritise family life over career but finds himself conflicted when his second wife reveals she is pregnant with their first child in Yukiko Mishima’s empathic family drama. Review.

Yurigokoro

Yurigokoro bannerRyosuke’s life is pretty great. He’s about to open his own restaurant and marry his beautiful fiancée Misako, but his happiness is soon ended when his father is diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer. Going through his belongings, Ryosuke finds a worrying entry in his father’s diary which implies he may have committed a murder. To make matters worse, Misako suddenly disappears without trace. Naoto Kumazawa adapts the bestselling novel by Mahokaru Numata.

Dad’s Lunch Box

Dad's Bento bannerInspired by a viral news story, Masakazu Fukatsu’s cheerful drama stars former hip hop idol Toshimi Watanabe in a role somewhat echoing his own life seeing as he too published a best selling book filled with pictures of the bento he lovingly crafted for his teenage son. Here he plays a divorced dad doing his best to master the traditionally female art of homemade lunch boxes.

Her Love Boils Bathwater

her love boils bathwater stillCapturing Dad’s Ryota Nakano turns his attention mum! Rie Miyazawa stars as a struggling recently single mother whose husband has run off with another woman that he supposedly got pregnant during a drunken one night stand. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, she sets herself to repairing her fractured family while also resurrecting the family bathhouse in the process. Review.

Blindly In Love

Blindly in loveKentaro, 30-something and single, lives a solitary and isolated life, showing little sign of finding a wife and settling down while his career continues to stagnate. Fearing he will be alone all his life, his parents decide to go to a support group for the similarly afflicted hoping to find a candidate for an arranged marriage. They find only one – Naoko, the daughter of a high ranking salaryman. Naoko’s parents do not disclose the fact that their daughter is blind and also disapprove of Kentaro whom they regard as socially inferior. Nevertheless the pair meet and fall in love but can they overcome the various obstacles to their romance?

The Scythian Lamb

scythian Lamb still 1A small town decides to join a scheme to rehome ex-cons in order to combat rural depopulation but fearing that the local community might not accept the new arrivals if they knew where they came from, the authorities decide to keep it a secret. Prejudice and pragmatism go head to head in Daihachi Yoshida’s adaptation of the manga by Yamagami Tatsuhiko and Igarashi Mikio. Review.

Born Bone Born

Born Bone Born still 1Unmarried pregnant daughter Yuko scandalises her community when she returns home to participate in the bone washing ritual in the second feature from Okinawan comedian Toshiyuki Teruya.

Tonight, at the Movies

Tonight at the movie bannerHaruka Ayase and Kentaro Sakaguchi star in a glitzy tribute to the world of golden age cinema! Sakaguchi plays a struggling assistant director failing to make it in the rapidly declining ’60s film industry while dreaming black and white dreams of a more glamorous era. Then, to his surprise, his favourite leading lady steps out of the silver screen and into his technicolor world…

Where Chimneys Are Seen

vlcsnap-2016-07-07-01h01m06s792Classic from Heinosuke Gosho centring on a collection of people living in a shared house and attempting to survive in the complicated post-war landscape. Ogata (Ken Uehara) is happily married to Hiroko (Kinuyo Tanaka) but begins to doubt her when he learns that she has secretly taken a job at the bicycle races to supplement the family income while the unexpected arrival of an abandoned baby raises another series of questions. Review.

Good Stripes

Good stripes still 1Midori and Masao are 28 years old and they’ve been a couple for four years. With the fire going out of their relationship they consider breaking up but then Midori discovers she is pregnant. Shotgun wedding in the offing, impending parenthood begins to bring them closer together as they finally take the time to get to know each other in the second feature from Yukiko Sode.

Three Stories of Love

Three stories of love bannerThe most recent film from Ryosuke Hashiguchi (Hush!, All Around Us), Three Stories of Love presents a triptych of modern alienation in the stories of a neglected wife, a grief-stricken widower struggling to come to terms with his wife’s murder, and a gay lawyer whose arrogance eventually leads to his downfall and a reunion with a schoolfriend he once loved. 

Penguin Highway

Penguin highway bannerA hyperrational 10-year-old is puzzled by the sudden appearance of a bunch of random penguins in the middle of a hot Japanese summer and tries to solve the mystery all while nursing an adolescent crush on a pretty dental receptionist in Hiroyasu Ishida’s adaptation of the Tomihiko Morimi novel. Review.

Of Love & Law

Of love and law still 1Love Hotel’s Hikaru Toda reunites with Fumi and Kazu who run a law firm in Japan specialising in minority issues and particularly those of the LGBT community. Review.

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2019 runs at London’s ICA from 2nd to 10th February before touring to:

Full details for all the films are available on the official Touring Film Programme website. You can also keep up to date with all the year round events organised by Japan Foundation London via their main site, Facebook page, and Twitter account.

The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Takashi Miike, 2013)

mole song under cover agent reiji poserYakuza aren’t supposed to be funny, are they? According to one particular lover of Lepidoptera, that’s all they ever need to be. Scripted by Kankuro Kudo and adapted from the manga by Noboru Takahashi, Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Mogura no Uta: Sennyu Sosakan Reiji) is the classic bad spy comedy in which a hapless beat cop is dragged out of his police box and into the field as a yakuza mole in the (rather ambitious) hope of ridding Japan of drugs. As might be assumed, Reiji’s quest does not quite go to plan but then in another sense it goes better than anyone might have hoped.

Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta) is, to put it bluntly, not the finest recruit the Japanese police force has ever received. He does, however, have a strong sense of justice even if it doesn’t quite tally with that laid down in law though his methods of application are sometimes questionable. A self-confessed “pervert” (but not a “twisted” one) Reiji is currently in trouble for pulling his gun on a store owner who was extracting sexual favours from high school girls he caught shop lifting (the accused is a city counsellor who has pulled a few strings to ask for Reiji’s badge). Seizing this opportunity, Reiji’s boss (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) has decided that he’s a perfect fit for a spell undercover in a local gang they suspect of colluding with Russian mafia to smuggle large amounts of MDMA into Japan.

Reiji hates drugs, but not as much as his new best buddy “Crazy Papillon” (Shinichi Tsutsumi) who is obsessed with butterflies and insists everything that happens around him be “funny”. Reiji, an idiot, is very funny indeed and so he instantly gets himself a leg up in the yakuza world whilst forming an unexpectedly genuine bond with his new buddy who also really hates drugs and only agreed to join this gang because they promised him they didn’t have anything to with them.

Sliding into his regular manga mode, Miike adopts his Crows Zero aesthetic but re-ups the camp as Reiji gets fired up on justice and takes down rooms full of punks powered only by righteousness and his giant yakuza hairdo. Like most yakuza movies, the emphasis is on the bonds between men and it is indeed the strange connection between Reiji and Papillon which takes centerstage as Miike milks the melodrama for all it’s worth.

Scripted by Kankuro Kudo (who previously worked with the director on the Zebra Man series), Reiji skews towards a slightly different breed of absurdity from Miike’s patented brand but retains the outrageous production design including the big hair, garish outfits, and carefully considered colour scheme. Mixing amusing semi-animated sequences with over the top action and the frequent reoccurrence of the “Mole Song”, Miike is in full-on sugar rush mode, barely pausing before moving on from one ridiculous set piece to the next.

Ridiculous set pieces are however the highlight of the film from Reiji’s early series of initiation tests to his attempts to win the affections of his lady love, Junna (Riisa Naka), and a lengthy sojourn at a mysterious yakuza ceremony which Reiji manages to completely derail through a series of misunderstandings. At 130 minutes however, it’s all wearing a bit thin even with the plot machinations suddenly kicking into gear two thirds of the way through. Nevertheless, there’s enough silly slapstick comedy and impressive design work at play to keep things interesting even if Reiji’s eventual triumph is all but guaranteed.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 21 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 24 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 March 2018
  • Broadway – 20 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 27 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 28 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

After School (アフタースクール, Kenji Uchida, 2008)

after school posterKenji Uchida is well known for intricately constructed farces but he takes intrigue to new heights in After School (アフタースクール), allowing a mid-way twist to completely reverse everything you thought you knew. Yet at heart Uchida’s film is as uncynical as it’s possible to be even when our heroes find themselves embroiled in a large-scale conspiracy of corporate corruption, organised crime, and police machinations. What begins with a confession spirals outwards into a complicated web of deception and counter-deception proving it really is all connected, even if not quite in the way you first thought.

A salaryman, Kimura (Masato Sakai), enters a reverie staring at the pregnant woman (Takako Tokiwa) sitting opposite him over breakfast, flashing back to a breezy middle school day when she (presumably) nervously handed him a letter.  Kimura leaves for work and borrows the fancy Porche belonging to his high school teacher middle school friend, Jinno (Yo Oizumi), to go to a work meeting in Yokohama. While he’s away the woman goes into labour leaving Jinno to take care of everything but alarm bells start ringing when no one can reach Kimura the following morning. Meanwhile, Kimura has been seen with a mysterious woman at a hotel which seems to have right royally spooked his bosses who have hired a shady private detective, Kitazawa (Kuranosuke Sasaki), to track Kimura down. Kitazawa thinks his best bet is to start at Kimura’s old middle school – which is where he runs into Jinno who agrees to help look for his friend.

As might be assumed, all is not quite as it seems. Shady PI Kitazawa is in deep with the yakuza to whom he apparently has massive gambling debts. At a low ebb, he decides to ask his male assistant to run away with him to Sapporo (which he agrees to do) but this case just might be his salvation, especially once he works out that both ends are connected and he could technically double his pay out with a little strategic blackmail. Kitazawa is as cynical as they come. He thinks nothing of invading Kimura’s life and is fully prepared to make use of Jinno’s seeming innocence, claiming that naivety and pureheartedness make him sick. Later he attempts a pathetic act of petty revenge against Jinno for no real reason that could have ruined his entire life but instead ends up another cog in the grand wheel of Uchida’s finely crafted farce.

Kitazawa’s cynicism is eventually what leads to his downfall. His detective brain so wired for motives and gains is unable to process the idea that some actions are merely altruistic and offer no further reward than the pleasure of helping a friend. Jinno, at first a goofy school teacher with an improbably expensive car, soon becomes the film’s MVP and the only still point in a constantly turning world. Taken to task by Kitazawa for his continuing goodness, Jinno offers a perfectly schoolmasterly reply to the effect that there’s a snotty kid like him in every class, sneering away too cool for school and decrying everything as boring when really the problem isn’t school, it’s Kitazawa.

What eventually looked like a sordid affair turns into a beautiful romance as the truth is gradually revealed. The title refers not just to the setting of the initial flashback, but also to the entirety of adult life. Jinno’s innocence and goodness are belittled by Kitazawa who accuses him of being stuck in middle school with a childishly naive way of seeing the world. This is in a sense true, Jinno has never lost his childlike sense of justice and fair play, willing to go great lengths to help his friends even if it puts him in danger and forces him into some sticky situations which are not his natural milieu, but Jinno’s faith and loyalty are the qualities which eventually see him through and make possible the poignant, hopeful ending despite all that has gone before. Corrupt politicians preaching “family values” whilst associating themselves with dodgy corporations who are taking back handers from the yakuza, hidden policemen, shady PIs – there’s certainly a lot of darkness here but if anything is going to beat it, it’s sincerity and goodness rather than guile and cunning.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 18 February 2018
  • Filmhouse – 6 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Memoirs of a Murderer (22年目の告白―私が殺人犯です―, Yu Irie, 2017)

Memoirs of a MurdererJung Byung-gil’s Confession of Murder may have been a slightly ridiculous revenge drama, but it had at its heart the necessity of dealing with the traumatic past head on in order to bring an end to a cycle of pain and destruction. Yu Irie retools Jung’s tale of a haunted policeman for a wider examination of the legacy of internalised impotence in the face of unavoidable mass violence – in this case the traumatic year of 1995 marked not only by the devastating Kobe earthquake but also by Japan’s only exposure to an act of large scale terrorism. Persistent feelings of powerlessness and nihilistic despair conspire to push fragile minds towards violence as a misguided kind of revenge against their own sense of insignificance but when a killer, safe in the knowledge that they are immune from prosecution after surviving the statute of limitations for their crimes, attempts to profit from their unusual status, what should a society do?

22 years ago, in early 1995, a spate of mysterious stranglings rocked an already anxious Tokyo. In 2010, Japan removed the statute of limitations on capital crimes such as serial killings, mass killings, child killings, and acts of terror, which had previously stood at 15 years, leaving the perpetrator free of the threat of prosecution by only a matter of seconds. Then, all of a sudden, a book is published claiming to be written by the murderer himself as piece of confessional literature. Sonezaki (Tatsuya Fujiwara), revealing himself as the book’s author at a high profile media event, becomes a pop-culture phenomenon while the victims’ surviving families, and the detective who was in charge of the original case, Makimura (Hideaki Ito), incur only more suffering.

Unlike Jung’s version, Irie avoids action for tense cerebral drama though he maintains the outrageous nature of the original and even adds an additional layer of intrigue to the already loaded narrative. Whereas police in Korean films are universally corrupt, violent, or bumbling, Japanese cops are usually heroes even if occasionally frustrated by the bureaucracy of their organisation or by prevalent social taboos. Makimura falls into hero cop territory as he becomes a defender of the wronged whilst sticking steadfastly to the letter of the law in insisting that the killer be caught and brought to justice by the proper means rather than sinking to his level with a dose of mob justice.

Justice is, however, hard to come by now that, legally speaking, the killer’s crimes are an irrelevance. Sonezaki can literally go on TV and confess and nothing can be done. The media, however, have other ideas. The Japanese press has often been criticised for its toothlessness and tendency towards self-censorship, but maverick newscaster and former war correspondent Sendo (Toru Nakamura) is determined to make trial by media a more positive move than it sounds. He invites Sonezaki on live TV to discuss his book, claiming that it’s the opportunity to get to the truth rather than the viewing figures which has spurred his decision, but many of his colleagues remain skeptical of allowing a self-confessed murderer to peddle his macabre memoirs on what they would like to believe is a respectable news outlet.

The killer forces the loved ones of his victims to watch while he goes about his bloody business, making them feel as powerless as he once did while he remains ascendent and all powerful. It is these feelings of powerlessness and ever present unseen threats born of extensive personal or national traumas which are responsible for producing such heinous crimes and by turns leave behind them only more dark and destructive emotions in the desire for violence returned as revenge. Focussing in more tightly on the despair and survivors guilt which plagues those left behind, Irie opts for a different kind of darkness to his Korean counterpart but refuses to venture so far into it, avowing that the law deserves respect and will ultimately serve the justice all so desperately need. Irie’s artier approach, shifting to grainier 16:9 for the ‘90s sequences, mixing in soundscapes of confusing distortion and TV news stock footage, often works against the outrageous quality of the convoluted narrative and its increasingly over the top revelations, but nevertheless he manages to add something to the Korean original in his instance on violence as sickness spread by fear which can only be cured through the calm and dispassionate application of the law.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Showroom Cinema – 22 March 2018
  • Broadway – 23 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 24 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 24 March 2018
  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 25 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Saiji Yakumo, 2017)

dark maidens posterThe world of teenage girls is often arcane and impenetrable to those outside of its extremely exclusive bubble, but The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Ankoku Joshi), Saiji Yakumo’s adaptation of the Rikako Akiyoshi novel, takes duplicity to new heights. When the school darling dies by falling (oh so beautifully) off a roof, speculation is rife and a rumour quickly spreads through the otherwise repressive educational environment that her very best friends are somehow to blame. Each implicates the others in turn, indulging their petty grudges and jealousies seemingly falling over themselves to express their closeness to the departed “sun”, but all is not quite as it seems and these collective acts of fantasy perhaps expose a little more than they were first intended to.

Itsumi Shiraishi (Marie Iitoyo) is dead. The daughter of the chairman at the elite all girls Catholic high school, Virgin Mary Academy, Itsumi was loved by all as the radiant sun whose innate goodness was the very embodiment of the school’s Christian aims. Immediately before the school holidays, the literature club – the most prestigious and exclusive of school associations of which Itsumi had been founder and president, are to meet one last time presided over by Itsumi’s best friend Sayuri (Fumika Shimizu). The girls will each read a story they have written “inspired” by Itsumi’s death, each of which attempts to tell her story from their perspective but ultimately paints themselves in a favourable light whilst casting doubt on the others. 

The sole clue to the mystery is the lily of the valley Itsumi clutched to her breast, Snow White-like, as she lay pale and wan amid the flowers, elegantly arranged as always despite an apparently violent death. Quickly the girls run through a series of possible motives each with a degree of internal consistency but veering off in their own particular directions. Three of the girls awkwardly hint at their (unrequited?) love for their dead friend, insisting on a kind of ownership of her memory and of their rightful place at her side while the fourth descends into a xenophobic horror story casting the half-Bulgarian girl as a “vampire” come to suck the life out of the previously warm and vivacious Itsumi.

Yakumo delights in sending up the ever present girls school trope of repressed lesbianism and passionate friendships, but it remains true enough that the love card was apparently not one which Itsumi was afraid to play. The stories are all, in part at least, fabrications intended to cover up the various skeletons each of the girls has in their closets, but what they reveal is the series of manipulative machinations which underpins this seemingly sweet and elegant collection of conservative young ladies indulging a love for literature and the Christian virtues. Affairs, blackmail, inappropriate sexual relationships, forced abortions (at a Catholic school!), arson, all of these precede the presumed murder of Itsumi in a vast web of deception and illicit activity.

Teenage girls are often desperate to fit in, to be accepted by the “elite”, at the best of times but especially in an environment as otherwise repressive and exacting as an all girls Catholic high school. Adolescence is a time for trying on different personalities, but there can be something inherently plastic about the identity of a high school girl wanting in to the popular club. Hiding their true feelings, their fears and jealousies, the girls play the parts of they’ve been assigned – supporting cast in the tragic history of Itsumi, a girl betrayed who remained beautiful even in death. Then again, there might be some push back from those growing to resent their peripheral status and beginning to wonder if the spotlight was not theirs for the taking all along. A sun, however, will always need its lesser stars to demonstrate how much brighter it can shine.

Adapted from the novel by Rikako Akiyoshi, The Dark Maidens is a perfect mix of European drawing room mystery and gothic melodrama. Yakumo ups the camp fantastically with the girls sitting round a mysterious pot of stew in a room lit only by candlelight while a storm rages outside and each revelation is accompanied by crashing thunder and flashes of light. The setting is oppressive and sinister, but the only horror in the room is entirely human as each of these young women eagerly submits themselves to someone else’s control in fear of being, in some way, exposed, while those who seek to play the lead have to stoop to underhanded methods just to make “friends” who are really just minions rather than true believers. A sad and sorry state of affairs – who knew teenage cliques could be so, well, dark?


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 February 2018
  • Macrobert Arts Centre – 19 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 1 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)