The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Kihachi Okamoto, 1967)

“Hey, what’s going on around here?” a sidekick asks directly to camera at the conclusion of Kihachi Okamoto’s characteristically anarchic conspiracy-thriller-cum-spy-spoof The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Satsujinkyo Jidai). Sparked by Bond mania, the late 1960s saw a marked trend in B-movie espionage parody though Okamoto’s take on the genre is darker than the norm even if embracing his trademark taste for absurdist humour leaving us wondering who our hero really is and which side, if any, he’s really on in the confusing geopolitical realities of 1967 Japan. 

As we first meet him, the hero is bumbling professor of criminal psychology Shinji Kikyo (Tatsuya Nakadai) who has extreme myopia and a persistent case of athlete’s foot not to mention a prominent mother complex. Unbeknownst to him, he’s one of three targets picked not quite at random by Rudolf von Bruckmayer (Bruno Lucique), former Gestapo chief, who is interested in hiring some assassins trained by the megalomaniac psychiatrist Mizorogi (Hideyo Amamoto) who’s been turning his mentally distressed patients into hyper-efficient killing machines (sometimes literally) under the rationale that all great men throughout history have been in a certain sense “crazy”. Mizorogi is also in charge of a eugenicist project titled “The Greater Japan Population Control Council” which believes that Japan is already overpopulated but they have to ensure that “the lives of people who might become useful in the future must not be destroyed before they’re born.” Therefore, “the people who will be useless should be asked to bow out”, the assassin calmly explains shortly before Shinji is saved by the divine energy of his late mother as her bust falls from a shelf and knocks the killer out. 

The central conceit plays into a real anxiety about the post-war baby boom expressed in earlier films such as Yuzo Kawashima’s Burden of Love while attacking the capitalistic philosophy that regards some people as more useful than others. By the late 1960s, Nazis had begun to make frequent appearances in these kinds spy spoofs as comedy villains usually crazed to the point of being little real threat. Mizorogi too is eventually exposed as exalting the “mad” interested more in the art of chaos and the impulse to murder than in any greater political goal. Indeed, the central MacGuffin turns out to be less to do with a grand conspiracy to create some kind of super society than the very B-movie-esque missing diamond known as Cleopatra’s Tear.

Okamoto piles each of these subplots one on top of the other as if he were making it up as he goes along suddenly undercutting what we thought we knew with an unexpected reversal. Shedding his glasses and shaving his scraggly beard, Shinji shifts from myopic professor to suave super agent using profiling and psychology to stay one step ahead while encountering plots by spiritualist cults, overly cheerful self defence force officers in the middle of training exercises, and eccentric assassins. From a modern standpoint, it might seem uncomfortable that each of the killers is manifesting disability in order to seem non-threatening, a female operative concealing a deadly weapon behind an eyepatch, while her poetry-obsessed colleague stores his in a fake crutch, but then again they are each pawns of a game being played by the crazed Mizorogi. Aided by female reporter Keiko (Reiko Dan) and car thief sidekick Otomo Bill (Hideo Sunazuka), Shinji seems to bumble from one bizarre episode to another but may actually be far more in charge of the situation than we might have assumed. 

Among the most visually striking of Okamoto’s late ‘60s pictures and once again making great use of animation, Age of Assassins features high concept production design, Mizorogi’s asylum lair a maddening corridor of Omega-shaped passages with ornate cell bars on either side behind which we can see a room full of men often engaged in what seems to be a military exercise regime while the plaster effigies of human form seem to be bursting from the walls. As in all of Okamoto’s films the central message lies in the absurdity of violence suggesting in a sense that the dog-eat-dog ethos of contemporary capitalist consumerism is in itself a kind of internecine madness countered only by Shinji’s rather childish mentality crafting his various gadgets out of household objects while attacking this elitist individualism with nothing more sophisticated than a vegetable peeler. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Toshio Lee, 2021)

Life is a lonely battlefield for the middle-aged hero of Toshio Lee’s Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Watashi wa Ittai Nani to Tatakatteiru no ka). The film’s English-language title and supermarket setting may recall Juzo Itami’s Supermarket Woman, but Lee’s lighthearted dramedy soon takes an unexpected left turn as the hero battles a kind of mid-life crisis of fracturing masculinity as his professional and family lives come under simultaneous threat firstly by his failure to land a long overdue promotion and secondly by his eldest daughter’s impending marriage. 

After 25 years working at the same small-town supermarket, Haruo Izawa (Ken Yasuda) is well respected by his colleagues and often depended on by his boss Mr. Ueda (Hikaru Ijuin) yet harbours an internalised inferiority complex that he has not yet made manager. When Mr. Ueda passes away suddenly, everyone, including Haruo himself, just assumes he’ll finally be getting promoted but head office soon parachute in an extremely strange man from accounts, Nishiguchi (Kentaro Tamura), who knows nothing at all about how to run a supermarket. Haruo ends up with an awkward horizontal promotion to deputy manager while Nishiguchi basically leaves everything up to him. 

Haruo is always being told that he’s too nice but as he later tells another employee, he too is really just thinking of himself as revealed by his ever running interior monologue in which he often imagines himself in situations which will show him in a good light only for things not to pan out as he’d hoped. It’s clear that what he’s experiencing is partly a middle-aged man’s masculinity crisis often comparing himself to others and embarrassed on a personal level in not having achieved his career goals while directly threatened by the presence of his daughter’s new boyfriend fearing that he will lose his patriarchal authority within his own household in which he is already somewhat mocked by an otherwise genuinely loving and supportive family. His anxiety is compounded by the fact that he is a stepfather to the two daughters while he and his perspicacious wife Ritsuko (Eiko Koike) have a son together. The discovery of plane tickets sent by the girls’ estranged birth father in Okinawa with the hope that they will visit unbalances him in his increasing fear of displacement.  

As in the Japanese title of the film, Haruo is always asking himself what it is he seems to be fighting with the obvious answers being an internalised inferiority complex and toxic masculinity while constantly told that he doesn’t help himself with his Mr. Nice Guy approach to life. When he discovers an employee may be defrauding the business, he stops his assistant from reporting it and after discovering the truth decides to help cover it up so they won’t lose their job but later loses out himself when his simple act of kindness and compassion is viewed in bad faith by a potential employer. He tries to make things work with Nishiguchi, but Nishiguchi is a defiantly strange person and so all of Haruo’s attempts to help him integrate into supermarket life backfire. As it turns out, he’s in a constant battle with himself against his better nature but always resolving to be kind and put others first while privately annoyed that the universe often seems to be unkind to him. 

Then again as an old lady running a curry house puts it, happiness is having a full belly and so long as Haruo has a healthy appetite things can’t really be that bad. His life is quite nice, which is something he comes to appreciate more fully while reclaiming his image of himself as a father and along with it a sense of security brokered by a truly selfless act of kindness informed by paternal empathy. Professional validation may be a little harder to win, but lies more in the gentle camaraderie with fellow employees than in ruthless workplace politics or rabid ambition. Life need not be a lonely battle as Haruo begins to learn setting aside his manly stoicism and trusting in his ace detective wife who has been engaging in a similar and apparently victorious battle herself reaffirming her love for the kind of sweets so unexciting no one remembers they’re there which may seem a little plain on the outside but have their own kind of wholesome sweetness. 


Struggling Man streams in the US Sept. 17 – 23 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート, Michael Arias, 2006)

A pair of orphaned street kids attempt to defend backstreet life from the ravages of progress in Michael Arias’ adaptation of the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート). Though the manga was first published in the early ‘90s which is to say at the beginning of the post-Bubble era, the film looks back to a scrappy post-war Japan embodied by the moribund Treasure Town, once a lively city filled with the promise its name implies but now according to some a lawless slum ruled over by the “Cats” and contested by yakuza determined to turn it into another “Kids Kastle” theme park. 

There is something particularly ironic in the desire to turn Treasure Town, a literal playground for orphans Black (Kazunari Ninomiya) and White (Yu Aoi) collectively known as the Cats, into a walled city taking something that should be free and charging for it while displacing the street kids who live there so that those whose parents can pay can be given a temporary illusion of freedom. To Black, this is his city and he will defend it along with protecting White who has an otherworldly simplicity and makes radio calls to the universe reporting that he has preserved peace on Earth for another day. In a way he has because it becomes clear that the two boys are a two halves of one whole maintaining balance and keeping each other in check. Innocent and naive beyond his years White cannot survive alone, but without White, Black would have nothing to live for. His inner darkness would become all consuming and present a threat to all those who cross his path. 

In a piece of poignant symbolism, White attempts to grow an apple tree by planting a seed in the junk yard where they live but is disappointed that it does not seem to sprout little realising that it cannot grow where it is planted because the conditions are adverse to its development. The same might be said of he and Black who have been abandoned by their society and are cared for only by a wise old man who gives them occasional advice. Their only desire to is protect their town in a bid to avoid yet another displacement this time at the hands of corporatised yakuza who see Treasure Town only as a relic of a previous era sitting on valuable land which must be seized and monetised. Only old school gangster Rat ironically enough agrees with the Cats, confused by the desire to erase community and history riding roughshod over the feelings of all those who have ever called Treasure Town home. 

Rat’s battleground is located in the soul of his protege, Kimura (Yusuke Iseya), who first says that he doesn’t believe in anything only for Rat to tell him that he should at least believe in love. Seduced by the consumerist promises of the duplicitous Snake (Masahiro Motoki) and his giant alien minions, Kimura nevertheless comes around to Rat’s way of thinking on learning that he will soon be a father. Like Black and White, he dreams of escaping Treasure Town for a house by the sea where he could live a peaceful life with his child but is trapped by contrary codes of gangsterdom if even if eventually realising that the two things he believes in are truth and love neither of which are very important to Mr. Snake. Black meanwhile is torn between his inner darkness and his belief in White, caught between nihilistic violence and the desire to plant a seed and watch it grow even on shaky ground. 

Designed by Shinji Kimura, the backstreets of Treasure Town are a Showa-era paradise perhaps stuck in the past in the view from early Heisei but embodying a scrappy sense of possibility. It has an uncanny reality as an organic space built and lived in by human hands that is at an odds with the slick uniformity of the gangster developers who want to turn it into a children’s theme park, the very embodiment of a constructed paradise that will halt the natural growth that Rat describes in reminding Black that Treasure Town will never be what it was but will continue on with or without them. Bringing this place fully to life, Arias’ surprising, inventive direction gives full vent to the anarchy of the source material but is in the end about the heart of a place along with the bond between its two protectors keeping the peace through complementary balance.


Tekkonkinkreet screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 16 as part of the Monthly Anime series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Alivehoon (アライブフーン, Ten Shimoyama, 2022)

How far can skills learned in simulation be transferred to the “real” world? Ten Shimoyama’s Alivehoon (アライブフーン) sees a top gamer take to the track for real to compete for drift racing glory while battling both his own lack of confidence and that of those around him. What he discovers is that there may not be so much difference as might be assumed, but offline racing is not a solo sport and succeeding means learning to trust in others as well as oneself. 

Koichi’s (Shuhei Nomura) immediate problem is that he doesn’t fit in at his job as a mechanic and is resented by the other employees for failing to pull his weight. All he wants to do is play games and after a lifetime of practice he’s become a champion in the world of e-sports drift racing but secretly harbours the desire to become a “real” race driver. He finally gets the chance to prove himself when his exasperated boss gets him an opportunity to try out for a real team in need of a rookie driver to ensure its survival. Diffident as he is, Koichi agrees and after brief moment of confusion on the track, proves he has what it takes to take his virtual skills to the real world as an aspiring drift racer. 

The main opposition Koichi faces is from those who dismiss him on the grounds that in-game experience is useless in the real world, which in some cases it may be but luckily Koichi does at least know how to drive and after a moment to play things through knows how to translate his skills from the online world to a real life track which of course has much more proximity to mortal danger than he has ever experienced before. That might be one reason that veteran driver Muto (Takanori Jinnai) who retired after a catastrophic crash in the opening sequence does not take him very seriously on witnessing him being physically sick after being driven round the course by a champion racer while his daughter Natsumi (Ai Yoshikawa) is very invested in the idea that it might be possible to turn an e-sports champ into a top rank driver and save the team in the process. 

Team Alive is positioned as the nice guy underdog, trying to win through hard work and fairness in contrast to arrogant hotshot Shibasaki (Shodai Fukuyama) who turns down the chance to join Alive to go with a more lucrative offer from a haughty middle-aged woman (Anna Tsuchiya) who plays only to win. Shibasaki drives dirty with the racing equivalent of kicking dust in Koichi’s eyes but eventually pays a heavy price for his lack of sportsmanship only to be humbled and come to see the merit in the honest and down to earth approach of team Alive. Koichi meanwhile fights an internal battle trying to rediscover a sense of confidence while beginning to find it in the mutual support of his teammates acknowledging that he may be in the driving seat but he’s not alone and the victory does not belong entirely to him. 

The film’s race scenes are supervised by “drift king” Keiichi Tsuchiya and feature real life drivers such as Naoki Nakamura, Daigo Saito and Masato Kawabata driving real courses for added authenticity all shot in camera without the use of CGI or special effects. The neon blue/red lighting and synth score contribute to the retro aesthetic but it has to be said that Koichi seems to take to real life drift racing a little too easily and experiences surprisingly few setbacks before making a fairly perplexing decision in the film’s final moments despite having discovered the value of teamwork along with a new family in team Alive who each value him for who he is as he brings the best in virtual racing to the real world game. Natsumi too earns the respect of her father as he comes to trust and believe in Koichi but is never quite given the chance to prove herself in her own right. In any case there is something heartwarming in the film’s conviction that there are no pointless skills and that working hard to become good at something is its own reward whether you become a champion or not.


Alivehoon screens in Chicago on Sept. 17 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Hot Little Girl (しびれくらげ, Yasuzo Masumura, 1970)

“Using women to make money is the same as a yakuza” a repentant gangster insists on confronting the real big bad of exploitative corporate power in Yasuzo Masumura’s ironic exploration of corruptions of a consumerist society. Ironically given the rather salacious title The Hot Little Girl (しびれくらげ, Shibure Kurage), the Japanese a more suggestive Numbing Jellyfish, Masumura’s spicy drama finds an exploited woman fighting back to reclaim her own image and agency by seizing the tools used against her in the company of a sensitive yakuza himself tiring of the amoral world of contemporary gangsterdom. 

Once an ordinary coffeeshop waitress, Midori (Mari Atsumi) is now a successful model thanks to the efforts of her salaryman boyfriend Hiroshi (Yusuke Kawazu). Completely in love with him, Midori is convinced they will one day be married while Hiroshi is obsessed with corporate success and ultimately intends to buy his own advancement with her body by acquiescing to an indecent proposal from an American department store owner to strike a massive trade deal none of his colleagues had been able to broker. Shocked and disgusted Midori refuses but is later won over by Hiroshi’s rather dubious arguments that she must sleep with the American for the good of Japan along with their personal happiness, insisting that nothing will change between them while her sacrifice will buy a more secure footing for their mutual future. 

After the deed is done she seeks additional reassurance, heading straight to Hiroshi’s apartment where they again make love he insisting she is “clean” as the day she was born. In this instance he sells her body directly, though as others point out he was already doing something similar in selling her image for his own gain. Yet he is not the only person to do so, Midori’s feckless father who ruined himself embezzling money to spend on a bar hostess and thereafter going to jail, goes out on the town claiming to be a movie star and showing off Midori’s magazine spread to a woman at a bar who turns out to be there with a petty yakuza. They decide to run a scam on him, demanding compensation for messing with a yakuza’s girl while setting the amount so high they know he’ll never pay intending to press the pretty daughter, should he have one, into sex work in a fairly common gangster manoeuvre. 

The flaw in their plan is that the feisty Midori is less than attached to her dad who continues to ruin her life with his fecklessness, a drunken fool who steals her money and gets himself into trouble. It’s clear that he sees Hiroshi as something of a meal ticket, while Midori sees a marriage to him as a path towards a more stable, conventional life. Nevertheless, she finds herself unable to abandon her father, bravely standing up to the yakuza who threaten her and eventually saved by sensitive gangster Kenji (Ryo Tamura) who instantly sympathises with her situation having grown up with an abusive father he once tried but failed to kill. The gang he’s with are old school yakuza not yet part of the newly corporatising breed, still running petty scams pressing women into sex work through blackmail or parental debt. 

Yet those two worlds are, the film suggests, beginning to merge. The corporation is founded on an image of female exploitation, Hiroshi pimping out his girlfriend while his bosses giggle about it jokingly referring to her as a secret weapon for the company. On being confronted with her father’s problematic past, Hiroshi makes Midori an ultimatum to sever ties with her dad or break up with him because associating with the yakuza will ruin his career despite the fact that he is really no different himself in his desire to exploit her. Kenji’s boss Yamano (Daigo Kusano) instructs him to make Midori his woman and then put her work, but he refuses while Midori eventually opts for an ironic revenge that will quite literally buy her freedom not only from the corporate world but from yakuza threat in allowing Kenji to free himself. Together they determine to “become ordinary people again”, attempting to shake off both parental failure and the corruptions of a rabidly consumerist society to resist the commodification of body and image in world in which everything has a price and nothing any value. 


A Hen in the Wind (風の中の牝鶏, Yasujiro Ozu, 1948)

Sometimes melancholy as he might have been, the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu leans toward the wholesome. His families may experience crises, but they are good people who have generally learned how to be cheerful in the face of adversity. 1948’s A Hen in the Wind (風の中の牝鶏, Kaze no naka no Mendori), however, is unusually dark though perhaps not inappropriately so as it tries to make sense of a painful moment in time by re-envisaging it in terms of a marriage. 

Set very much in the immediacy of the contemporary era, the film opens ominously with an intimidating policeman taking a local census which introduces us to Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) who lodges in the upstairs of a small, run-down building along with her young son Hiroshi while her husband Shuichi (Shuji Sano) has not yet returned from the war. Times are tough for everyone, and Tokiko is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet with her seamstressing job as prices rise everywhere. She’s down to her last kimonos which she asks an old friend, Akiko (Chieko Murata), to help her sell. Akiko turns to broker/madam Orie (Reiko Mizukami) who feigns exasperation to advise that a pretty woman like Tokiko, still comparatively young at 28, could make more money in her line of work. Akiko is offended on her friend’s behalf and the two laugh it off together, but when Hiroshi suddenly develops colitis and needs to be admitted to hospital Tokiko is left with no choice but throw herself on the mercy of Orie. 

Akiko scolds her friend, hurt that she didn’t come to her first and disappointed that she has chosen to degrade herself. Tokiko is sorry too, worried that if she had asked Akiko for the money she’d have found a way to get it even if she had none to spare and Tokiko would rather carry the burden herself. She wonders if she made the right choice. There was still furniture she might have been able to sell, but she wanted to keep it so that her husband would have a home to come home to. What else could a mother with a sick child do? This way at least she got the money quickly and Hiroshi recovered. It was a one time thing already in the past and no one needs to know. The friends agree to put it behind them as just another minor humiliation of life in the immediate post-war period. 

And then less than a month later Shuichi returns. The joyful reunion is disrupted when he idly asks about Hiroshi’s health and then becomes fixated on how Tokiko managed to pay the hospital bills. She doesn’t want to lie and would rather there be no secrets between them so she tells him the truth. Shuichi does not take it well. He tries to readjust to their married life but finds himself consumed with rage and unable to sleep. Intellectually, he knows his wife had no choice given the situation she was in and in one sense does not blame her but in the other he cannot accept it. 

Tokiko’s transgression undermines his fragile sense of masculinity in every possible way. He feels partly responisble. He wasn’t there to protect her because he was away at the war. If he’d returned a month earlier, she wouldn’t have needed to make such a sacrifice. Unlike many late returning soldiers, Shuichi walks straight back into his old job, easing the family’s financial hardship even as its harmony is strained by his ongoing resentment. Shuichi cannot help making this all about him. His wounded pride, his broken future, his romantic disappointment. He becomes obsessed with the idea of his wife defiled, insisting on tracking down the brothel where Orie brought her to ask if it really was just the one time while exploring the business for himself.

While schoolchildren sing cheerful folksongs in the playground behind, Shuichi talks to a 21-year-old who has only contempt for customers like him who ask too many hypocritical questions. She explains the she didn’t choose this sort of work, it’s the only way she can support her family, once again, ironically, because of a male failure in this case her father being unable to provide for them while her mother has passed away. Shuichi didn’t come for the full service, and so he eventually leaves, discarding money as he goes partly out of pity and partly in atonement. He runs into the girl again later and even shares her lunch during which he talks to her in a more fatherly fashion, encouraging her that she is not ruined and still has the right to strive for a brighter future. To further prove his point, he commits to finding her an “honest” job, asking with his friend at the company who is sympathetic and also wants to help. Only, his friend can’t understand. If Shuichi can sympathise so much with this young girl why can’t he forgive his wife who, to his mind, has done nothing wrong? 

Tokiko is perhaps a symbol of the pure Japan debased by the male violence that is militarism. Shuichi has come home from the war but carrying trauma of his own which he projects onto the loyal self-sacrificing wife who waited patiently for his return. Yet Tokiko blames herself, she begs him to beat her, hate her, only not to leave and not to be unhappy. Shuichi only comes round after accidentally pushing her down the stairs in a rare moment of shocking domestic violence totally unexpected in an Ozu movie (even if not quite unique). Suddenly overcome with post-war humanism, Shuichi forgives his wife essentially giving her the same speech he’d given to the girl only with greater emphasis. Life is long and their path is hard. They need to “be more accepting and love one another”, “conquer hardship through laughter and trust”, so that they might have a “true marriage”. Tokiko’s redemption, and perhaps that of her nation, is dependent on the former soldier Shuichi’s forgiveness, and of her acceptance of it, rather than a recognition of her blamelessness. In any case, a line has been drawn. The future starts now and it’s going to be a better one built on compassion and mutual forgiveness rather than selfishness and resentment.


A Hen in the Wind screens at BFI Southbank on 10th/14th September as part of Kinuyo Tanaka: A Life in Film

Kill! (斬る, Kihachi Okamoto, 1968)

“Samurai aren’t as great as you might think” according to a jaded retainer in Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! (斬る, Kiru) but it’s a message that the ambitious farmer at the film’s centre struggles to take in. Having been a victim of samurai violence he resolves to become a samurai while a former samurai turned yakuza drifter attempts to show him the hypocritical realities of the samurai life as they find themselves swept into local intrigue when a band of young revolutionaries arrive to cut down a corrupt and oppressive lord. 

Corrupt and oppressive is perhaps the defining image of the samurai in post-war cinema, but like the film’s title that cuts both ways. Farmer Tabata (Etsushi Takahashi) sold his lands to buy a sword after witnessing peasants cut down during an uprising but he’s decided the best way out of oppression is to become an oppressor and is dead set on achieving samurai glory through the time-honoured method of distinguishing himself in battle. That may prove a little difficult given that his new boss, Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama), immediately mocks him for swinging his sword as if it were a scythe. Then again as former samurai Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) explains to him, if you don’t know what you’re doing you can always just stab people which at the end of the day does rather undermine the idea of samurai elegance in the art of killing. 

Genta keeps trying to tell Tabata that “samurai are no good” but Tabata still wants to be one anyway even after learning that Ayuzawa means to double cross them, hiring ronin to take out the young samurai whose sense of honour he manipulated to eliminate the admittedly corrupt (but aren’t they all?) lord for his own political gain while planning to send in his retainers to finish off the job to ensure there are no witnesses. Genta gave up his samurai status because he was “disgusted” by just this sort of duplicity along with the meaningless codes of loyalty that govern samurai society and caused him to betray a friend who was acting only in the interests of justice. Leader of the ronin Jurota (Shin Kishida) did something similar though in his case for love when his fiancée’s father was condemned on false charges and she and her mother exiled. He wants not land or status but only money in order to redeem the woman he loves from a geisha house and like Genta is under no illusions about the nature of samurai life having figured out most of what’s going on but hoping to emerge with the means to liberate both himself and his wife from samurai oppression. 

Even the elderly chamberlain later rescued by Genta tries to warn Tabata that the samurai life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, hinting at the ways they are also oppressed by their own code while clearly gleeful to have had the opportunity of stepping into a teahouse for the first time responding to Genta’s request to stay put that if he could he’d like to stay put for the rest of his days. Both former samurai, neither Genta nor Jurota are minded to draw their swords knowing that whatever the outcome it would be unhappy while the young who thought it was their duty to change the world by removing one who brought shame on their names are faced with the realisation that they have been used and their resistance will count for nothing. Even their bond as brothers banding together to achieve a common goal is eventually disrupted by alcohol and petty jealousy.

Genta acts as a kind of chorus, touched by the naivety of the seven samurai holed up in a mountain lodge because they believed in justice, while knowing that the society itself is innately unjust and already beyond redemption. Tabata eventually comes to a similar conclusion having gained samurai status but found it quite literally uncomfortable deciding to shake off his newfound nobility and rejoin Genta as a cynical yet pure hearted wanderer because the only way to escape samurai oppression is to actively live outside it. The final irony is that it’s the elderly chamberlain who eventually sets him, and all they women trapped in indentured servitude at the geisha house, free using samurai gold to enable them to escape a system he himself cannot escape but does not exactly support while Genta enlists the help of local peasants to hold a festival of rebellion to cover the final assault. Marked by Okamoto’s characteristically absurd humour and cartoonish composition along with the eerily gothic emptiness of the deserted ghost town where not even yakuza can survive the film takes on a quasi-spiritual dimension in which Genta and the gang eventually walk out of hell if only into a purgatorial freedom. 


Kill! screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 2 as part of the Monthly Classics series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The End of Summer (小早川家の秋, Yasujiro Ozu, 1961)

Fathers in Ozu are usually sentimental and doting, sometimes insensitive or austere, but by and large responsible. The crises the family faces are generally emotional more than they are practical, few Ozu fathers fail in a duty of care towards their wives and children. And then, there’s Manbei (Ganjiro Nakamura). The hero of Ozu’s penultimate film, The End of Summer (小早川家の秋, Kohayagawa-ke no Aki), is quite the opposite. He does as he pleases and enjoys his life to the fullest without really noticing the effect his behaviour has those around him. But then, as his sister later puts it, he was a very happy man which is rare thing in this society so perhaps he had something right after all. 

Produced for Toho and set in Osaka rather than the usual Shochiku and Tokyo, the film opens not with Manbei but with his brother-in-law Kitagawa (Daisuke Kato) trying to set up Manbei’s widowed daughter-in-law Akiko (Setsuko Hara) with a widowed industrialist obsessed with cows. Meanwhile, the family is also trying to find a match for his youngest daughter, Noriko (Yoko Tsukasa), who is put off by the whole idea of an arranged marriage and worried that Manbei and her older sister Fumiko (Michiyo Aratama) may try to pressure her into accepting because their family sake brewery is trouble. Fumiko’s husband Hisao (Keiju Kobayashi) is technically running the brewery and favours a merger to save the business but Manbei is resistant. Manbei himself is largely absent and his increasing habit of skipping out during the day is beginning to worry the family, especially when they discover he’s been visiting an old mistress with a 21-year-old daughter he thinks is his. 

Followed to a cafe, Manbei exclaims that summer refuses to end in an accidental metaphor for his life. For him everything is sunshine and rainbows, scuttling away from the family home like a little boy sneaking out after dark while the now grownup kids are left behind to clean up his messes. Manbei is a widower, and aside from the financial dimension, perhaps it’s not a huge problem if he wants to go and hang out with an old flame, but Fumiko in particular is scandalised remembering the various humiliations he put her late mother through when she was just a child. Hisao advises her that perhaps it’s best not to bring it up. Manbei isn’t going to change his behaviour and it’s only going to create more drama whereas it might be more manageable if they all pretend not know. Fumiko, however, can’t stay silent even if she knows her father isn’t going to listen to her and in fact lies quite baldly about what he’s been doing in Kyoto. 

Fumiko is on the side of marrying Noriko off, but unlike her husband, father, and uncle, is keen to emphasise that they should move slowly and be sure to take her feelings into account. Rather than her sister, Noriko turns to Akiko for support. Originally in favour of meeting the prospective husband, after all you can always turn it down if you don’t like him, she cautions Noriko that the most important thing is character rather than behaviour and that it’s essential to marry without regret. Noriko feels as if she’s obliged to do as everyone says, but is secretly in love with a young man she met on a skiing holiday who has just been transferred to Sapporo. Akiko, meanwhile, was not altogether taken with the cow-loving widower, but in any case would prefer to maintain her present way of life as a single mother even while others pressure her to remarry. 

The conclusion Noriko comes to is, perhaps strangely, inspired by her carefree father in that she decides it’s best to do what will make her the most happy rather than simply going along with what everyone else wants her to do which may or may not be in her best interest. Fumiko grudgingly admits that though her father was often exasperating perhaps he was the only thing holding the family together. Ozu broadly lends the irresponsible but never malicious Manbei tacit approval in celebrating the fact that he lived the life he wanted to live and he was at least defiantly happy in his own eternal summer, but then ends on an uncharacteristically morbid note as two farmers wash vegetables in the river opposite a crematorium remarking on the increasing number of crows while resigning themselves to the cycle of life. Smoke and crows await us all, perhaps Manbei had it right and the thing is to be happy while you can without taking much notice of what others might have to say about it. 


Goodbye, Don Glees! (グッバイ、ドン・グリーズ!, Atsuko Ishizuka, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A diffident high schooler finds a new sense of confidence after a poignant summer adventure in Atsuko Ishizuka’s heartfelt coming-of-age anime, Goodbye, Don Glees! (グッバイ、ドン・グリーズ!). In many ways about finding direction in life, learning to live with grief, and making the moment count, the film is also a paean to male friendship as the trio at its centre develop new senses of security through mutual support while beginning to figure out what treasure it is they’re seeking in the further course of their lives. 

For Roma (Natsuki Hanae), a farm boy largely rejected by the other kids in the village, this summer is a little different. Not only is it his first as a high schooler, it’s also the first since his best and only friend Toto (Yuki Kaji) moved to Tokyo for high school and despite their previously close relationship it’s clear there’s a minor awkwardness in the distance that’s arisen between them since they’ve been apart while Roma has also added a third boy, Drop (Ayumu Murase), to their secret Don Glees friendship group. Now that he’s been living in the city, Toto finds the whole Don Glees thing childish and decidedly uncool while Roma is obviously keen to hang on to their shared history and childhood friendship. 

Their dilemmas may seem opposed but are in actuality very similar. Toto resents Roma for not having the courage to come with him to study in Tokyo where there are more academic high schools, choosing instead the safe option of attending a vocational school with a focus on agricultural education implying that he plans to stay in his hometown and take over the family farm. It isn’t immediately clear if it’s because this is what he wants to do with his life or if he is simply too afraid to strike out and try something different. Roma does indeed seem to lack confidence often remarking that he feels he’s not enough in some way or doesn’t have the right to chase after the things he wants. Unable to face his inability to tell his middle school crush Tivoli, who has since travelled to Ireland to study abroad, how he feels he ends up deleting his Instagram account to avoid being confronted with pictures of her exciting international life. Toto meanwhile is stressed out by his cram school lifestyle and newly uncertain in his decision making realising that he’s just been following the path his parents set out for him and wondering if he really wants to become a doctor after all. 

The mysterious Drop makes constant suggestions that he can’t really afford to think about the future and is living intensely in the moment. He is insistent on finding some kind of treasure, afraid of ending his life without resolving this one mystery and keen to ask both boys what it is they’d regret if the world were to end tomorrow. The quest takes on literal dimensions when the boys are accused (falsely) of starting a forest fire and set out in search of a drone they were using, technically illegally, to capture a local fireworks display hoping it will contain footage to verify their innocence but getting lost along the way and eventually sharing their fears and anxieties alone together under the night sky. It seems this new friendship is destined to end in unexpected tragedy, but as Drop is fond of saying sometimes all it takes is a little courage to make a jump and see things from a different perspective allowing Roma to gain the confidence in himself he’d been lacking to chase the things he really wants. 

A teen summer adventure movie, Goodbye, Don Glees! features lush animation of the Japanese countryside along with some enhanced CGI of nature in bloom captured forever via photograph which as Tivoli points out is like a freeze-frame in time trapping both the image and its accompanying emotions. That is perhaps what Roma learns, to make memories he can treasure when the moment ends while saying goodbye to something doesn’t mean it’s gone forever, it just exists in a different form. A warm and heartfelt tale of teenage male friendship and summer’s end, Goodbye, Don Glees! discovers a sense of the serene in the face of life’s futility through connections both momentary and eternal. 


Goodbye, Don Glees! screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and is in US cinemas from Sept. 14 courtesy of GKIDS.

US release trailer (Japanese with English subtitles)

Sweet Home (スウィートホーム, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1989)

A documentary film crew hoping to discover long-hidden frescos by an artist with a tragic history find themselves on a quest to resurrect the traditional family in unlikely horror comedy Sweet Home (スウィートホーム). Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the film shares many of the hallmarks of his later career in his preoccupation with what lurks in the shadows, yet produced by Juzo Itami who also stars and apparently reshot some scenes himself it also mines a deep seam of ironic humour harking back to classic serials and contemporary kids adventures in the same way as Hiruko the Goblin among others would do just a few years later. 

This strain of irony is perceptible in the opening scenes in which producer Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto) appears in an elegant ’40s-style outfit more in keeping with an archeological dig than a haunted house adventure, her later attire strongly recalling that seen in Indiana Jones. The gang are waiting by their military-style jeep seemingly in the middle of a sandstorm while chief producer Kazuo (Shingo Yamashiro) is busy at the municipal office trying to get permission to enter the Mamiya Mansion which has been shut up for the last 30 years since the death of legendary artist Ichiro Mamiya who is the subject of their documentary. A diffident man as his daughter jokes, Kazuo finds it difficult to make headway until a slightly more cynical employee takes over the negotiations and hands over the key with the rationale that they’ll either find out the house isn’t haunted after all in which case they can turn it into a museum, or that they’ll get some tidy publicity out of the horrifying deaths of all concerned. 

A western-style gothic mansion, the house is itself as imposing as it is ominous even without swirling mists or hovering gloom. Once inside the crew find what they’re looking for, a beautiful fresco with the title “home sweet home” painted in a corner. All we’re told about Ichiro is that he died in the house, but when all is said and done he, like Kazuo, is not terribly important and it is not his death which has cursed the mansion but that of his wife. The sweet home the couple had dreamed of was coming to fruition with the long-awaited birth of a child whose life was to inspire frescos on the remaining walls only tragedy struck. As a toddler the child somehow climbed into the furnace and was burnt alive when his unknowing mother ignited it. She then went mad, kidnapping other children and apparently burning them so her child would not be lonely before eventually throwing herself in too.

Perhaps uncomfortably, Sweet Home leans in to the kind of maternal questioning common to the genre as it considers the formation of a new family in the awkward romance between the shy widower Kazuo who has brought his teenage daughter Emi (Nokko) along on the job, and capable producer Akiko who is repeatedly questioned about marriage, children, and the reasons she currently has neither of them. Keying in to the terror of the house, Emi reveals that as she grows older the memories of her birth mother begin to fade to the extent that she can barely make out her outline, envisioning her merely as an indistinct light. She is prepared to accept Akiko as second mother, offering her the dress which her own mother used to wear only for Akiko to diffidently refuse on the grounds that the dress should be worn by Emi as her mother would have wanted perhaps hinting at the way Emi often treats her father as a clueless child in need of mothering himself. 

Nevertheless, it’s the dress of maternity that Akiko must finally put on in order to claim the maternal space in venturing back into the haunted house in order to save Emi from becoming another playmate for Mrs Mamiya’s child. Rather than Kazuo, who proves rather ineffectual, she is guided by a weird old man, Yamamura (Juzo Itami), from the petrol station who apparently knows all about fighting ghosts but bluntly tells her she has no chance of success because she is not a mother herself and cannot understand the pain of a mother who has lost a child nor the magnetic pull between a childless mother and motherless child. In order to defeat the vengeful spirit, Akiko must fully embrace the role of the mother, easing the spirit’s pain with maternal compassion in returning to her what was lost. Her child restored to her, the spirit takes on the appearance of the Holy Mother ascending to Heaven bathed in golden light lifting the shadowy gloom that cursed the house. 

Even so there is something insidious in the fact that as Yamamura says if you attempt to fight shadow with light all you get is more of the same, the crew trapped in the house with no means of defence against the encroaching darkness. This unknown, shadowy sense of threat, of being swallowed by darkness, is a key harbinger of a Kurosawa’s signature style as well as a clear evocation of the gothic dread focused on the house with the ironic failure of the “sweet home” dream which is in essence what Akiko, Kazuo, and an Emi are chasing as they try to escape the haunted mansion. Ironically enough, Sweet Home has become best remembered for fathering a video game which eventually led to the Resident Evil series while Kurosawa himself has all but rejected the film claiming Itami’s later interventions undercut his directorial vision. Featuring effects work by Dick Smith, the horror is visceral and disturbing at one point a man’s face melting, his skin slipping from his bones, while the score is cheerfully whimsical in keeping with the absurd lightness of tone that recalls classic teen adventures before heading into the fable-like conclusion in which Akiko must wrest her surrogate child from a vengeful spirit through maternal exchange. Having served its purpose the mansion implodes, freeing not only the spirits trapped inside but the new family now freed of the weight of traditional mores to embrace their new connection founded on love and empathy rather than duty or convention.


Original trailer (no subtitles)