Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette (映画 賭ケグルイ 絶体絶命ロシアンルーレット, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Closet revolutionary or compulsive gambler, Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe) continues to be a thorn in the side of the Student Council in the sequel to hit movie Kakegurui, itself a sequel to a two-series live action drama adapted from the manga by Homura Kawamoto. Set as the opening expositionary narration explains at school for the elite Hyakkaoh Academy where social hierarchy is determined by skill in gambling, Ultimate Russian Roulette (映画 賭ケグルイ 絶体絶命ロシアンルーレット, Eiga Kakegurui: Zettai Zetsumei Russian Roulette) sees the rattled Student Council making a counterproductive and potentially ruinous decision in bringing back a previously exiled player in the hope of permanently neutralising Yumeko. 

Makuro Shikigami (Ryusei Fujii) was suspended some years ago for his part in the “House Pets’ Curse” which led to most of the school being demoted to its lowest, near untouchable ranks. At Hyakkaoh Academy, students are required to pay a tithe to the Council and those who can’t pay end up as “House Pets”, humiliatingly treated as cats and dogs. Yumeko’s friend Meari (Aoi Morikawa) fears she may have fallen foul of the curse herself having hit a lengthy losing streak, but it’s not until Shikigami begins twisting the situation to his advantage that Yumeko is snared by his manipulative trap. 

Yumeko, meanwhile, is in the middle of a depressive episode largely down to her reluctance to take part in the school’s upcoming sports’ day. Just as in the previous film her long game was better cakes in the cafeteria, her end goal here is trying to get the event cancelled by whatever means possible. In any case, we also witness another dark side to the oppressive rule of the Student Council as a demoted Maeri finds herself in a literal chain gang forced into hard labour building the facilities for the sports festival in what seems to be a minor dig at preparations for the Olympics. Yumeko and Meari are, however, responsible gamblers in that they refuse to bet on other people’s safety or at least refuse to be complicit in games which are designed to inflict harm or cruelty on others. 

As Shikigami explains in his opening monologue, the skills needed for gambling are strategy, ability to read your opponents, and a killer instinct. This is something Yumeko knows well, she plays players not games and sees straight through Shikigami realising that his crazed psychopathy is an act to mask the meticulous quality of his external manipulations. Nevertheless she is also caught out by her unwillingness to put her friends in danger, willingly sacrificing herself instead. The Student Council too are seemingly caught off guard little realising that Shikigami presents just as much of a threat to their authority as Yumeko and is equally uncontrollable with far fewer principles. Still as Student Council President Kirari (Elaiza Ikeda) ominously reflects, “there must be chaos before order”. 

In any case, they find themselves awkward allies in facing off against Shikigami in the promised game of Russian roulette mediated through a card game but played for real. The Student Council leaves itself surprisingly vulnerable in a loophole which allows House Pets to challenge them directly overruling all of the other school regulations, while Shikigami too falls victim to his own arrogance never quite expecting to be challenged having achieved his primary goals of seizing control of the school via the Council. The only way to beat him is to play him at his own game, disrupting his self-serving plotting and tendency to cheat in an insult to the art of gambling while undermining his confidence in his own intellectual superiority. “Only a twisted mind could beat you” he says of Yumeko believing himself to be a twisted mind though as it turns out perhaps not quite twisted enough. 

Temporarily siding with authority in order to put a stop to Shikigami’s authoritarian potential, Yumeko does not so much challenge the system as work around it while protecting herself and her friends from Shikigami’s machinations. What she defends is in a sense gambling itself, rejecting Shikigami’s intention to subvert it to his own advantage. Maintaining the same absurdist, manga-esque aesthetic as the first film complete with cartoonish CGI pupil shrinking, slick onscreen graphics, and even this time a random musical number, Hanabusa significantly ups the ante with bomb threats and unexpected Satanism while leaving the door open for the next instalment with Yumeko’s final instruction to “Bring on the Madness”. 


Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

International trailer (English subtitles)

No Smoking (Taketoshi Sado, 2019)

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of his musical debut in 2019, Haruomi Hosono has undoubtedly had a long and varied career shifting from countercultural folk rock to avant-garde electronica and bubble-era pop music. In later years, he’s become known internationally primarily for his film scores and particularly that of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters. Capturing footage from Hosono’s 2019 anniversary world tour, Taketoshi Sado’s documentary is equally meandering struggling perhaps to find a clear through line in regards to Hosono’s works. 

As such, it rockets through his early days with interesting family trivia such as his grandfather having been the sole Japanese Titanic survivor, his father’s secret dancing dreams, and his mother’s love of music. Picking up with his time at university, Sado more or less charts Hosono’s musical evolutions in chronological order though with little cultural context outside of a brief evocation of post-war devastation at the time of the musician’s birth. Accordingly he begins with Hosono’s uni folk rock band Apryl Fool which broke up after one album onto the hugely influential Happy End, various side projects, the avant-garde Yellow Magic Orchestra days, writing bubble era pop songs for idol stars such as Seiko Matsuda’s Tengoku no Kiss, and finally music for film composing the title track “Kaze no Tani no Naushika” for Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä. 

Meanwhile, Sado shuttles between direct to camera monologues from Hosoda himself intercut with concert footage from the 2019 tour, legendary gigs, and rather a lot of Hosoda doing his famous silly walks. Sado does not include direct interviews with Hosoda’s collaborators or fellow artists, mainly allowing him to speak for himself, but does include footage of him with some who have been influenced by his music such as singer-song writer and actor Gen Hoshino who is apparently such a fan that he first met the artist while cosplaying his Harry Hosoda outfit from his famous Yokohama China gig, and LA musician Mac DeMarco who also appears onstage singing in Japanese at Hosoda’s LA concert. Actress Kiko Mizuhara and sister Yuka meanwhile also spend some time travelling with Hosoda in the UK appearing on stage in Brighton, while London’s Barbican Hall concert was also notable for the unexpected onstage appearance of Ryuichi Sakamoto briefly reuniting the Yellow Music Orchestra. 

The brief backstage footage from the event is among the more interesting in the slightly awkward interactions of the three band members despite Hosono’s claim that musicians can pick up where they left off with each other even after many years through the universal language of music. The 2019 tour however leaned heavily into Hosono’s boogie boogie covers rather than original tracks, while Sado seems content to mix and match between various concerts and adding vox pop comments from excited fans waiting to get in long after the first footage of the evening appears. Despite building towards the brief YMO reunion, he offers little commentary on relations between the former band members or why such an event is so viewed as so momentous. Rather he suggests that Hosono’s various musical projects existed more or less concurrently serving particular purposes in reflecting his specific creative desires. 

“The keyword is free, when when I touch what’s free my heart dances” Hosoda explains in one of his monologues, hinting at this process of continual meandering between musical genres that culminates perhaps paradoxically with revisiting the music of his childhood in American boogiewoogie. The film’s ironic title is apparently inspired by Hosono’s love of smoking, as he explains he needs cigarettes to create and there is music in a puff of smoke. Hosoda does indeed nip off for a puff rather a lot, often seen with a tobacco or electronic cigarette in his hand or else doing some of his silly walks. Footage from Hosoda’s diaries and early illustrations fill in the blanks of Sado’s rough chronology, though he does begin to rely on footage from other interviews particularly towards the documentary’s end. Despite offering a comprehensive if whistle-stop tour of Hosono’s varied discography, there’s no denying that No Smoking remains somewhat superficial offering, only an unannotated overview, but does undoubtedly offer insight in following the man himself as he celebrates such a significant career milestone. 


No Smoking streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Seiko Matsuda – Tengoku no Kiss

The Phantom Goblin (まぼろし天狗, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1962)

“Everything is money these days” as a pirate king cheerfully proclaims in Nobuo Nakagawa’s tale of Edo-era corruption, Phantom Goblin (まぼろし天狗, Maboroshi Tengu). Perhaps named to capitalise on Nakagawa’s reputation for spookiness, Phantom Goblin features no real ghosts and only metaphorical goblins in the bright red tengu masks sported by the hero’s mysterious clan while otherwise conforming to the Toei programmer house style and starring jidaigeki superstar Hashizo Okawa in a double role as brothers separated at birth and reunited by their resistance towards the inherently corrupt authority of Edo society. 

Drawing parallels with the present day, the film opens at a bawdy banquet at which corrupt councillor Tanuma (Isao Yamagata) is being entertained by a pair of local social climbers with a floor show of dancing girls. Shortly after the performance begins, however, one of the women collapses writhing in agony and loudly crying out for drugs. Embarrassed, the lords would rather this not get out deciding to finish the woman off and dump her body in a nearby well. Unfortunately for them, the plan is interrupted by local policeman Shuma Moriya (Hashizo Okawa) who arrives in time to hear the woman exclaim the words “drugs” and “mastermind” before she passes away. Determined to figure out the truth, Moriya heads to the not so secret hideout of a local gang but is shot in the arm and has to take refuge in an inn where he encounters a man who looks just like himself, Kyonosuke Asakawa (also Hashizo Okawa) of the Goblin clan, who eventually sends him to his estate to recover and assumes his position as policeman in order to root out the truth. 

A former hatamoto who apparently resigned his position after finding himself unable to support corrupt lords, Kyonosuke declares himself “frustrated with how things are run”, realising that the system is rotten beyond repair on hearing that Moriya has been fired by a corrupt magistrate apparently in league with the conspirators. While comparatively rare in Edo-era dramas, drugs are a controversial subject in any age but in keeping with the sensibilities of the early ‘60s Phantom Goblin eventually slips into the Sinophobia then rampant in contemporary crime dramas as it becomes clear the drugs trade in the feudal economy is being driven by Chinese pirates trafficking it in from overseas while weak willed lords enable their rise to power. 

There is however a touch of conservatism in Kyonosuke’s desire to see justice served in that he fears a world in which “if you can buy power and position with money, then one day we will have a chief counsellor who is a pirate”. While he’s undoubtedly got a point, it’s also true that he is in a sense protecting his own privilege conveyed by birth rather than worth in addition to rejecting the influence of the “foreign” as he raises his sword against a Chinese pirate in order to target the corrupt lords who’ve been collaborating with him in order to bolster their own power and position. Kyonosuke wanted to “clean out evil in Edo”, but eventually succeeds rather ironically in simply becoming a part of the system himself after having supposedly cleaned it out by getting rid of the “obviously” corrupt elites. 

Recovering from his shoulder injury and flirting with the adopted sister of Kyonosuke, Moriya is largely relegated to a secondary role though the secret brotherhood of the two never develops into much of a plot point even as they bond as men too honest for the world in which they live. Nor do the respective romantic dilemmas ever materialise even as the conflicted figure of a female bandit in love with the noble policeman is forced to pay for her crimes with her life, unable to progress into the purified world the brothers are about to create. Working in the Toei house style, Nakagawa abandons his taste for the strange or otherworldly contenting himself only with a few ironic tengu masks and the literal shadows surrounding the shady mastermind while indulging in genre staples such as the comic relief provided by Kyonosuke’s bumbling retainers and the double casting of Hashizo Okawa as two brothers alike in both appearance and sensibility who find themselves unable to accept the increasing corruption of their society and determine to oppose it. 


Hiruko the Goblin (ヒルコ/妖怪ハンター, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1991)

Shinya Tsukamoto burst onto the scene with indie cyberpunk classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man, an avant-garde body horror exploration of dehumanising industrialisation. After performing as a virtual one man band, however, Tsukamoto’s second film, Hiruko the Goblin (ヒルコ/妖怪ハンター, Hiruko / Yokai Hunter), was his studio first accepting the opportunity to direct a feature adaptation of Daijiro Morohoshi’s Yokai Hunter manga. Some have seen this as a huge stylistic departure, shifting from the punk aesthetics of Tetsuo towards warmly nostalgic summer adventure, but it is in fact perfectly in keeping with Tsukamoto’s earlier 8mm work such as Adventures of Electric Rodboy while also reminiscent of the kind of wistful teen adventures Nobuhiko Obayashi among others had been making throughout the Bubble era. 

Nevertheless, Hiruko’s main lessons seem to relate to the dangers of buried history and its corrupted parental legacy. The franchise protagonist, Reijiro Hieda (Kenji Sawada), is a once promising archeologist ostracised by his peers for his determination to prove the existence of yokai or “goblins”. Still grieving the death of his wife Akane (Chika Asamoto), Reijiro is summoned to her hometown by his brother-in-law, high school teacher Mr. Yabe (Naoto Takenaka), who informs him that he’s found something in a burial mound which he believes was built “by the ancients to appease evil spirts”. Yabe insists that he doesn’t believe in yokai, but thinks it might be a good opportunity for Reijiro to further investigate his theory. By the time Reijiro arrives, however, Yabe has already disappeared along with high school girl Tsukishima (Megumi Ueno) after exploring the tomb alone. 

Though set in the present day, Tsukamoto plays with horror serial gothic motifs such as the creepy tombs, suspicious janitor, and the continually befuddled Reijiro dressed in his old-fashioned white suit while armed with an arsenal of yokai fighting gadgets all contained in the Mary Poppins-like suitcase he continually carries around though at one point he seems to try catching escaped yokai with fly paper and is generally found wielding bug spray. Despite constantly working with dirt, an early joke sees him undone by spotting a creepy crawly in his room. This does not bode well for him, because Hiruko’s end game is convincing its victims to decapitate themselves before attaching their severed heads to weird, spider-like bodies. 

It does this seemingly by locating a pleasant, poignant memory and promising to prolong it forever. Reijiro’s nephew Masao (Masaki Kudou) is almost seduced on seeing an idyllic scene of missing high school girl Tsukishima dressed in white and enjoying a picnic on a summer’s day only to be suddenly brought back by his uncle. The inheritor of a curse, Masao is often struck by fits of furious burning in which his clothes seem to steam while he later displays strange scars on his back which take on the appearance of human faces. His predicament is largely his grandfather’s fault in having kept from his father the truth about the mound, leading him towards an over curious investigation during which it appears he accidentally released a bunch of demons from their eternal imprisonment. Now all Hiruko wants is to find the spell to open the door so they can all escape for good. 

Having been in a sense betrayed by a corrupted parental legacy, Masao nevertheless finds salvation in his history by way of his uncle who has of course memorised the entirety of the “Kojiki”, an ancient chronicle of myth and folklore, and recognises the two passages necessary for opening and closing the stone enclosure one found on a broken stele and the other hidden inside an ancient helmet appropriated by Yabe. Masao can only save himself and lift the curse by learning the truth which had been hidden from him, ironically putting on the helmet while others lose their heads. 

Yet Hiruko itself is also perhaps a manifestation of grief, something which cannot be eliminated but must in a sense be contained. Reijiro is almost tricked by Hiruko on being shown a vision of his late wife, unwittingly revealing the opening spell in return for being able to remain within the memory. Masao is similarly seduced by his vision of Tsukishima, but must then deal with the loss of his father who sacrificed himself trying to save others having realised his mistake in unearthing truths intended to stay buried. The fault lies however with Yabe’s own father whose attempt to keep him safe only endangered him. 

In keeping with much of Tsukamoto’s work, Hiruko’s threat lies in the loss of bodily autonomy and corporeal destruction forcing the victim into an act of mortal self-harm and thereafter repurposing and remaking the physical form in its own image. Tsukamoto’s characteristically elaborate practical effects and use of creepy stop motion add to the sense of the uncanny, horror lurking in dark corners everywhere waiting for the opportunity to strike. Even so, Hiruko is not without its sense of silliness, Tsukamoto playing gleefully with genre archetypes while conforming fully to the summer adventure movie necessarily filled with a sense of wistful nostalgia. Having contained their demons, Masao and Reijiro emerge at summer’s end, but are greeted with another hazy goodbye if each a little more secure in having learned to accommodate their corrupted legacies. 


Hiruko the Goblin streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Hiroshi Kurosaki, 2020)

“What can we do? It’s for the victory of our country” one woman stoically laments as her family home is demolished in an attempt to mitigate the damage from potential aerial bombing in Hiroshi Kurosaki’s wartime drama, Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Taiyo no Ko). A co-production between Japanese broadcaster NHK and American distributor Eleven Arts, Kurosaki’s ambivalent interrogation of the price of progress asks some difficult questions about scientific ethics while simultaneously suggesting we may have been stoking a fire we cannot fully control in a bid for a technological evolution which has become unavoidably politicised. 

The hero, Shu (Yuya Yagira), is an idealistic young man who excels at running experiments. He has been spared the draft because his work has been deemed essential for the war effort as he is part of the research team at Kyoto University working on the development of an atomic bomb. A theoretical thinker, Shu has not fully considered the implications of the project and largely views it as a problem they are trying to solve in the name of science rather than a concerted attempt to create a super weapon with the potential to bring death and destruction to the entire world. 

Others meanwhile are beginning to question the ethical dimensions of their work. The team is equipped with a shortwave radio receiving the American broadcasts and is fully aware that Japan is losing the war. There are frequent power outages which interfere with their research, while food shortages are also becoming a problem. The potter Shu has been visiting in order to acquire Uranium usually used for a yellow glaze tells him that he rarely needs to use colour anymore because the vast majority of his output is plain white funerary urns for boys who come back as bones. Some of the scientists feel guilty that they are living in relative safety while other young men their age are fighting and dying on the front line, while others wonder if working on the bomb, which will almost certainly not be finished in time, is the best way to help them. They also wonder if scientists should be involved in the creation of weapons at all, but their mentor Arakatsu (Jun Kunimura) justifies the project under the rationale that they aren’t just trying to make a bomb but to unlock the power of the atom and harness its intrinsic energy to take humanity into a brave new world. 

As it turns out, Arakatsu may not have expected the project to succeed but was in a sense using it in order to protect his students by ensuring they would be exempt from the draft. Another senior researcher meanwhile points out the Americans are also working on a bomb, and if they don’t finish it first the Russians will. Arakatsu claims this war, like most, is about energy but nuclear energy may be infinite and therefore its discovery has the potential to end human conflict forevermore. Still, it’s difficult for Shu reconcile himself to the reality of what he was working on seeing the devastation inflicted on Hiroshima. The scientists are plunged into a deep sense of guilt and despair that they failed to prevent this tragedy, but also perhaps relief in knowing they were not responsible for inflicting it on the city of San Francisco as had been the plan. 

Arakatsu claims he wants to change the world through science, a sense of purpose that appeals to Shu even while he remains firmly in the present moment. His childhood friend, Setsu (Kasumi Arimura), however is looking far ahead already thinking about what to do when the war is over. Seeing through the wartime propaganda disturbed by the answers the high school girls co-opted to fill-in at her factory give when asked about their dreams that all they want is to marry as soon as possible and raise children to serve the nation, she aims to educate. Shu’s brother Hiroyuki (Haruma Miura), meanwhile, is a conflicted soldier filled with guilt for having survived so long crying out that he can’t be the only one not to die. The theory that nothing is ever created or destroyed becomes an odd kind of justification, yet Shu is also forced to admit that destruction can be “beautiful” while claiming that scientific progress is a body already in motion which cannot be stopped. “The nature of science transcends humanity” Shu is told by an accented voice speaking in English, insisting that the bomb is merely another stop on the inevitable march of progress in the great chain reaction of history. Kurosaki’s melancholy drama preserves both the beauty and wonder of scientific discovery as well as its terrible ferocity but offers few answers as to the extent of its responsibilities. 


Gift of Fire screens in Chicago on Sept. 16 as part of the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema before opening at cinemas across the US on Nov. 12 courtesy of Eleven Arts.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Spaghetti Code Love (スパゲティコード・ラブ, Takeshi Maruyama, 2021)

“Tokyo is where everyone comes to make their dreams come true, right?” a naive young woman exclaims having just abandoned her life in the country to chase freedom and independence in the capital. “You’re wrong” her reluctant, infinitely jaded host tries to correct her, “Tokyo is where everyone gets killed by their dreams”.  Tokyo is indeed the place dreams come to die in the debut feature from music video director Takeshi Maruyama, Spaghetti Code Love (スパゲティコード・ラブ). As one dejected Tokyoite puts it in her slightly pretentious opening monologue, what they’re chasing isn’t love, or money, or success but “approval” wanting desperately to find acceptance but more often than not encountering only defeat and despair. 

At least, that’s according to intense artist Kurosu (Rikako Yagi) who has become moderately successful but remains somewhat insecure knowing that her success is partially built on that of her famous parents. She insists that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who meekly put up with a disappointing reality and those who defiantly “create their own world”. She of course claims to be the latter, a highly individualist artist who takes no shit from anyone but that doesn’t excuse her tendency to behave like a total diva in an effort to assert he superiority over others, humiliating aspiring photographer Tsubasa (Nino Furuhata) by likening his set up to an ad placed by a rural supermarket. 

Tsubasa meanwhile is himself conflicted having come to Tokyo to further his career as a photographer but desperate for work and afraid of selling out. He came because he thought it was better to regret the things you’ve done rather than those you haven’t and that he’d always wonder if he stayed at home, but now he’s wondering if it’s better not to try, that the possibility of what might have been is easier to bear than knowing you tried and didn’t work out. Painting a slightly rosier version of his Tokyo life on social media he offers a Twitter friend the opportunity to visit him in the capital out of politeness only for her turn up, insist on staying with him in his tiny apartment, and make him feel even worse with her childish idealism which has a kind of poignancy in its unrealistic hopefulness.  

Like Tsubasa, aspiring singer-songwriter Cocoro (Toko Miura) is beginning to wonder if her dreams are worth pursuing as she meditates on the success of prettier rivals in both her work and romantic lives, spotting ex Shingo (Hiroya Shimizu) with his new squeeze and irritated when he smirks at her from across the courtyard. A cold and aloof young man fond of giving overly scientific explanations for philosophical questions, Shingo has decided that unhappiness is the result of broken attachment and so he’s decided to have no attachments at all even going so far as to have no fixed address living by apartment hopping every 10 days. As he discovers to his cost, living life with no connections may be fine on the day to day but you’ll be in a fix if you wind up in trouble and have no one to ask for help. His new girlfriend Natsu (Saya Kagawa), by contrast, has the opposite problem working as a sex worker in part as a means of protecting herself from romantic heartbreak by avoiding emotional intimacy. While Cocoro wonders what her life would be if she were as pretty as Natsu, Natsu meditates on the pretty girl paradox admitting that some things come easy but others slip through her fingers. She claims to love lonely people because lonely people don’t up and leave without warning. 

But loneliness manifests in many forms such as that exhibited by Shizuku (Kaho Tsuchimura), a part-time waitress with extreme low self-esteem who’s staked her existence being on the perfect partner for her boyfriend while terrified he’ll leave her an anxiety later borne out by the fact he’s married to someone else and apparently only using her as a “fun” break from his presumably less patriarchal domestic life. And then there’s Uber Eats driver Amane (Kura Yuki) and his unwise attachment to a low level idol star who’s since retired. Obsessing over her rather banal favourite aphorism about whether a falling tree in the forest makes a sound if no one’s around to hear it he vows to forget her once he’s made 1000 deliveries but realises that a romantic attachment is hard to break even if it’s entirely one sided. 

On the flip side, broken hearts eventually bring two next-door neighbours together as they mutually abandon their unhealthy coping mechanisms of online psychics and compulsive peanut butter eating while bonding in a shared sense of romantic disappointment realising the terrible men who dumped them aren’t worth all this aggro. A pair of emo high school students suddenly realise growing old isn’t so bad after all, and a kid struggling with his life plan survey suddenly realises that “no plan” is also a plan before careering off on a borrowed skateboard. Tokyo can be cruel and unforgiving, but so can everywhere else. Shot with true visual flair, Maruyama’s ethereal, floating camera follows this interconnected yet isolated band of young people all over the city as they search for love, chase their dreams, and yearn for connection allowing them each at least if not fulfilment then possibility as they learn to accentuate the positive in a sometimes hostile environment.


Spaghetti Code Love streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Jigoku-no-Hanazono: Office Royale (地獄の花園, Kazuaki Seki, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

The OL, or “office lady” occupies a peculiar place in Japanese pop culture if not the society itself. The evolution of the typing pool, the OL exists to one side of office life, treated as domestic staff in the corporate environment and in many ways expected to be invisible. As such, an OL performs stereotypically feminine tasks in the office such as keeping the place clean and their male bosses looked after in addition to handling often dull and pointless admin work. It goes without saying that in general being an OL is a young woman’s job with the expectation that most will either find a way to transition onto a more viable career track or simply leave the world of work behind to marry and become a regular housewife. 

It’s this image of the OL as the embodiment of bland geniality that is at the centre of Kazuaki Seki’s zany comedy Jigoku-no-Hanazono: Office Royale (地獄の花園, Jigoku no Hanazono), a repurposing of “yankee” high school delinquent manga for the world of the office lady scripted by comedian Bakarhythm. A devotee of yankee manga, 26-year-old OL Naoko (Mei Nagano) explains that even office ladies have their warring factions outlining the tripartite fault lines at play in even her small company where the head OLs from Sales, R&D, and Manufacturing constantly vie for hegemony through physical dominance. She however merely observes from the sidelines defiantly living her “ordinary” office lady life. That is until new hire Ran Hojo (Alice Hirose) arrives to upset the precarious workplace power balance. 

Naoko first catches sight of Ran after she challenges some of the OLs from her company as they harass a timid male employee in the street though they don’t become best friends until after Ran spots a salaryman trying to upskirt her at a bus stop and decides to teach him a lesson. Despite being a yankee, it seems that Ran is also trying to live a normal OL life, bonding with Naoko over their shared love of a TV drama, but is not exactly good at the job and regards fighting as her one and only skill. Perhaps speaking to an inner insecurity born of being a woman in a conformist and patriarchal society, each of the women struggle to see themselves as protagonists in their own lives rather than mere supporting players unwittingly both playing the role of the ditzy best friend to the competent hero. 

In one of her many meta quips commenting on the action and how it would play out if she were a character in a yankee manga, Naoko laments her status as the “comic book hero’s boring friend” which is extremely ironic seeing as she is certainly the heroine of this movie given that it’s her voiceover we’re hearing and her POV we generally adopt. Yet Seki sometimes undercuts her by shifting to a rival voiceover offered by Ran herself doubtful of her proper place in the narrative and eventually descending into an existential crisis after an unexpected setback shatters her sense of self. 

Nevertheless, even if as the de facto leader of her company’s OLs Ran advocates for equality insisting there are no bosses and no underlings only women standing together, Office Royale generally embraces rather than attacks societal sexism particularly in its somewhat unexpected conclusion which ends in ironic romance rather than female solidarity. Even so, it’s interesting that the OLs lose interest in delinquency once the hierarchy of fists has been fairly decided, acknowledging the superior skills of a better fighter and thereafter living peacefully rather than continuing the internecine determination to sit at the top of the pyramid which is the hallmark of the high school yankee manga. 

While the final arc strays into some potentially problematic territory with the uncomfortable humour of four male actors playing the top fighters of a rival gang of OLs from another company, Office Royale offers a series of surprisingly well choreographed fight scenes even if eventually descending into manga-esque cartoonish violence while much of the humour stems from Naoko’s adorably nerdy voiceover musing on what would happen next if this were a yankee manga. In the end, however, it’s less a tale of office lady infighting than of a pair of young women coming to a better understanding of themselves even if they do so through the potentially destructive medium of pugilism. 


Jigoku-no-Hanazono: Office Royale streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

To Sleep So as to Dream (夢みるように眠りたい, Kaizo Hayashi, 1986)

“I feel so well, as though I am dreaming” a ghostly old woman exclaims, having dealt with her unfinished business or perhaps merely becoming one with the silver screen. Released in 1986 but set ostensibly sometime in the 1950s and recalling the golden age of the silent movie, Kaizo Hayashi’s postmodern odyssey To Sleep So as to Dream (夢みるように眠りたい, Yumemiru Yoni Nemuritai) sends a pair of detectives on the hunt for a missing reel, voyaging through an ethereal dreamscape of mysterious magicians, kidnap and conspiracy, in search of the solution to the “Eternal Mystery”. 

Opening in total darkness, Hayashi pans across to a gas lamp and then to the figure of a woman watching a silent film projected on a screen in her living room. We see only her gloved hands, one wearing an ostentatious ring, somewhere between Miss Havisham and Norma Desmond, while the movie seems to be part of an early serial revolving around the Black Mask ninja who is trying to rescue the kidnapped Bellflower (Moe Kamura) only the princess always seems to be in another castle, as detectives Uotsuka (Shiro Sano) and his sidekick Kobayashi (Koji Otake) will discover. In any case, the film bursts into flames and dissolves at the moment of climax just as Black Mask confronts the kidnappers and declares the mystery “solved”. The old lady, Madame Cherry-blossom (Fujiko Fukamizu), then telephones the Uotsuka Detective Agency and requests their help with a kidnapping, sending her manservant Matsunosuke (Yoshio Yoshida) to the office with a tape recording of the kidnappers’ message which includes the clues to a scavenger hunt the pair must solve if they are to arrive at the drop off point with the money in order to retrieve Bellflower. 

Filming in black and white and in academy ratio, Hayashi maintains a silent film aesthetic adding selected sound effects but rendering all dialogue other than recordings as intertitles. We hear the phone ring and the radio playing, but “live” human speech is presented only as text save for that of the Benshi who appears at the film’s conclusion though even he may also be “on tape”. Meanwhile, he adds in random gags at the guys’ expense such as the “hardboiled” detective’s obsession with hard boiled eggs, while his sidekick Kobayashi is forever riding a rocking horse in the corner of their office while wielding a lasso and wearing a cowboy hat. A live chicken completes the home on the range feel while a series of horse shoes decorate the wall. The two men feel as if they emerged from a 20s noir farce, their slapstick antics eventually leading to a confrontation in which Kobayashi proves himself an unexpectedly skilled martial artist.  

Their world is already absurd even as they head into the abstract in order to chase Bellflower while, just like Black Mask, the kidnappers leave them irritating messages at each checkpoint revealing another clue and that the ransom has now doubled. They are plagued by a series of magicians who turn up in different guises from a man performing a kamishibai version of the Black Mask story for children to some guys running a shell game and posing as a trio of “scientists” led by Prof. Jerowski “of the British Empire” showing off their new gyroscope technology. Yet it’s no coincidence that the kidnappers go by the name Pathé & co, having essentially trapped Bellflower inside the celluloid realm and refusing to set her free. 

While Uotsuka falls for the beautiful, elusive image of Bellflower who begs to be released from “this endless story”, fantasy and reality begin to merge as he finds himself cast in the role of Black Mask. The ironically named “Endless Mystery” is a film with no end, the apparently incomplete debut of a faded star not so much ready for her closeup but desperate for closure and the release of her younger self from 50 years of torment in the reassurance that Bellflower will certainly be rescued by Black Mask at the film’s conclusion which is, after all, how such serials are supposed to end. While others slip ghostlike into the darkness, Uotsuka is left behind another prisoner of cinema chasing the romance of the silver screen yet finally saving his princess by extracting her from it. Operating on several levels, Hayashi expertly recreates both the grainy serials of the early silent era and crafts an absurdist, postmodern homage to its more recognisable evolution as his detective becomes wilfully lost in the labyrinths of cinema. 


To Sleep So as to Dream streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Restoration trailer (no subtitles)

The Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Akira Ikeda, 2021)

“Just shoot where you’re told and you’ll be fine” a veteran advises an unusually curious newbie when asked who exactly it is they’re shooting at, beginning to question for the first time everything he’s been told. Continuing in the same vein as his 2017 surrealist drama Ambiguous Places, Akira Ikeda’s Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Kimajime Gakutai no Bonyari Senso) follows a more linear though meandering path in its timely anti-war message as the brainwashed hero comes to contemplate the tenets of his society thanks to a naive young man and the healing power of music. 

The small town of Tsuhiramachi has been at war with Tawaramachi across the river for so long no one can remember why it is that they’re fighting, least of all perpetually absent-minded mayor Natsume (Renji Ishibashi) who can’t even remember his own son’s name. Soldier Tsuyuki (Kou Maehara) is woken every day by a marching band, meeting friend and colleague Fujima (Hiroki Konno) in the street and walking over to the barracks where he changes into his uniform and then spends all day firing a rifle across the river. His identical days are disrupted when former thief Mito (Hiroki Nakajima) is conscripted into their group and Fujima is injured in seemingly the only instance of returned fire. Tsuyuki is then transferred to the marching band and begins practicing his trumpet by the water only to be surprised when he begins hearing someone joining him from the other side. 

Everyone in Tsuhiramachi walks with automaton rigidity and talks with an almost ritualistic austerity in which dialogue is repeated endlessly and conversation loops are common. The townspeople dress as if they were stuck in the 1940s though the uniforms are more European than Japanese while Tsuyuki and Fujima wear identical blue suits when travelling to and from their homes. The thief, Mito, meanwhile dresses in a less formal brown shirt and trousers, apparently engaging in stealing from the local simmered food stand for reasons of poverty while his friend, mayor’s son Heiichi (Naoya Shimizu), does so because he can. When the stall owner’s wife catches them, Heiichi allows his father to think he valiantly chased a thief and is made a police officer for his pains continuing to extort food and generally abuse his authority largely conferred through feudal dynastic privilege. 

There is certainly something in Mito’s tendency to frame each of his statements as a questions, asking “Am I a soldier now?” Or “My name is Mito?” when questioned. The lady who runs the diner where Tsuyuki frequently lunches is extremely proud of her son away fighting up river and resents being questioned by Mito, shovelling extra rice into the men’s bowls when impressed by something they’ve said and then taking it back when disappointed. Mito wants to know why it is they’re fighting and who the people across the river really are. Shiroko (Hairi Katagiri) doesn’t approve of asking such taboo questions and affirms that she doesn’t need to meet the residents of Tawaramachi to know that they’re “barbaric”, “horrible” people. Even the owner of the simmered food stall who insists he knows “everything” insists he’s no interest in knowing about Tawaramachi. 

Yet they’re always being told that the “threat” from across the river is increasing even if the mayor has forgotten what the threat exactly is. Meanwhile, an elite troop will soon be arriving to take part in the trials for a brand new super weapon. A disapproving Shirako asks Tsuyuki how music is useful for the war, but he doesn’t know, he’s merely following orders. Music however, along with Mito’s awkward questions, begins to open his eyes as he contemplates whether the trumpeter from across the water can really be so different from himself. He disapproves of Heiichi’s abuse of his authority, of civil servant Kawajiri’s apparent replacing of his wife with another woman because he believes she cannot bear children, and of the army’s treatment of a friend now struggling to find employment having lost his arm for the good of the town. Shiroko insists that dying in war is better than being injured, but the young universally agree that no, it isn’t. In this strangely Kafka-esque world of crypto-militarism and the feudal mentality, Tsuyuki finds freedom and escape in his trumpet but not even these it seems are enough to call the “meaningless” and internecine violence to a halt. Filled with a strangely poignant poetry, Ikeda’s absurdist drama takes aim at lingering authoritarianism but suggests that music may be panacea for human conflict if only we’d stop a little and listen. 


The Blue Danube streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Town Without Sea (夏、至るころ, Elaiza Ikeda, 2020)

“Happiness is something you don’t notice even if it’s right next to you” the hero of actress Elaiza Ikeda’s directorial debut Town Without Sea (夏、至るころ, Natsu, Itaru Koro) is told by a strangely perceptive small child. The nature of happiness is something that seems to be bothering him while he contends with adolescent anxiety little knowing what to do with the further course of his life while fearful in the knowledge that his relationship with his childhood best friend must necessarily change. 

Approaching the final year of high school, taiko-enthusiast Sho (Yuki Kura) has no dreams or aspirations and has been avoiding thinking about what to do after graduation. Pressed by his teacher, all he can offer is that he’d like to become “air”, which is in its own way slightly alarming though it hints at his sense of emptiness and despair. His childhood best friend, Taiga (Roi Ishiuchi), meanwhile has a clearly defined, extremely sensible life plan which is why he’s abruptly giving up taiko so he can attend cram school and get into uni with the aim of becoming a civil servant. As we discover, Sho has been something of a follower making most of his existing decisions based on whatever Taiga was going to do, but he can’t merely follow him this time and will have to come to some sort of decision about his individual future. 

“I can’t walk alone. I don’t know what to do” he confesses to a surprisingly sympathetic teacher (Kengo Kora), while as it transpires Taiga is having similar thoughts. The two boys are much more co-dependent that they assumed, but that very co-dependency begins to drive them apart when coupled with their adolescent anxiety. Taiga fears that he is simply too “boring”, giving up taiko because his carefully honed technique cannot measure up to Sho’s anarchic power. According to him he took up taiko after spotting Sho playing at a festival thinking he looked so “free and cool”, yet Sho equally thinks he’s not as a good a drummer and cannot match Taiga’s meticulous training. Taiga is shifting away from their friendship because he secretly feels inferior and wants to leave before being around Sho makes him feels miserable, a logic Sho is not fully equipped to understand. 

“Why does everybody quit?” he asks in exasperation, meeting a strange young woman who like them wants to pull away from something before she ends up hating both it and herself. Likened by Taiga to the kind of manic pixie dream girl who frequently turns up during the last summer of high school in manga, Miyako (Nari Saito) does not quite come between the two boys in the expected way but does bring out their contradictory qualities before abruptly disappearing from the narrative, ahead of the pair in suddenly deciding that she’ll figure something out on her own. Having decided all he wants is a future of ordinary happiness, Taiga can’t help resenting his friend feeling that whatever decision he makes, getting a job or going to uni, he’ll wind up happy whereas he presumably will not with his unexciting yet sensible life as a civil servant. 

There is an undeniably homoerotic quality to the boys’ friendship, their brief falling out almost like a lovers’ tiff in its melancholy intensity. Sho necessarily fears the loss of his friend, perhaps instinctively knowing he’s chosen a path he likely cannot follow and feeling rejected because of it. He obsessively meditates on the meaning of “happiness” unable to settle on a means of achieving it while unsure of what exactly it means. He asks his friends and family but discovers that happiness means different things to different people, may change over time or not quite be what you first thought it was, or be as simple as a sunny day in your hometown. He does however begin to accept that even if separated, his relationship with Taiga will not necessarily change they will still be “together” if more in spirit than body. Recalling something Taiga had said about the sea which he has never seen, he makes his choice defiant in its independence. Hailing from Fukuoka herself, Elaiza Ikeda’s remarkably assured directorial debut crafts a warm, empathetic coming-of-age tale centring on the intense friendship between two men but discovering a sense of wonder and contentment in the everyday as its conflicted hero finds a sense of rootedness in the strength of his relationships that grants him the freedom to roam. 


Town Without Sea streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)