MANZAI Conflict (令和対俺, Kenya Okubo, 2021)

“There’s definitely nothing good about him at all” is the verdict on the Tsukaguchi, the irredeemable hero of Kenya Okubo’s eventually intense psychological drama MANZAI Conflict (令和対俺, Reiwa tai Ore). Not even his stage partner Kunimatsu is prepared to defend him as a person, but still refuses to end their partnership insisting that Tsukaguchi is funnier than he is though to everyone else evidence of Tsukaguchi’s funniness is thin on the ground. “Manzai” is a form of double act comedy particular to Japan often involving high speed, surreal narrative skits thrown back and for between the funny guy (boke) and straight man (tsukkomi). For these purposes, Tsukaguchi is the funny the guy in that he leads the narrative while Kunimatsu occasionally chimes in with a note of realism, but the problem is that Tsukagichi’s comedy, like the man himself, is stuck in the 1970s and his series of poor taste jokes simply aren’t very funny. 

Okubo signals his intentions early on. The film opens with a riff on the classic Toei logo, a studio closely identified with the yakuza genre and most particularly of the 1970s. Even the opening credits are presented in classic blood red calligraphy just like those of a retro gangster picture though this is not a gangster film even if Tsukaguchi broodily walks about in a trench coat and three-piece suit, smoking away and generally behaving like a street thug angry at a world he doesn’t understand. When he and Kunimatsu, at this point calling themselves the Ashtray Brothers, are banned from the rundown, tiny comedy club where they usually perform because of one of Tsukaguchi’s off-colour routines, Tsukaguchi tracks down another performer who criticised his act and brutally assaults him in the street eventually getting arrested. 

Tsukaguchi keeps harping on that he’s only one who truly understands manzai and everyone else is just a hack while the audience are simply too unsophisiticated to appreciate his art. We occasionally see brief flashbacks to the two men rehearsing which appear to show them laughing together happily suggesting that Tsukaguchi may have been conventionally funny at some point in the past when he wasn’t doing lewd routines about his grandmother’s sex life, but as a TV exec points out no one want a loose cannon like Tsukaguchi around which is why he’d like to hire Kunimatsu independently as a fill-in artist for his variety show. Loyal to the end, Kunimatsu resists and tries to bring Tsukaguchi with him, but the offer along with the failure of Tsukaguchi’s relationship with his live-in girlfriend whom he beats and attempts to rape, provokes a kind of crisis in the mind of the already troubled “comedian” born being forced to switch sides from funny guy to straight man now standing stage left rather than right. 

After the TV show, which might not even be “real”, Tsukaguchi’s mental state becomes ever more fluid drifting between fantasy and reality in confronting differing versions of himself playing straight man to his girlfriend’s funny guy before snapping back to take out his masculine frustrations on the calmer Kunimatsu who has renamed their duo the “New Cigarettes” and written a much more conventional routine better suited to a variety show audience which ironically also includes an onstage wedding. “If you stray from the path of manzai I’ll fucking kill you” he dramatically declares, an abusive partner onstage and off seemingly fragile in his masculinity and intent on dominance unable to accept either of his partners creative or romantic has the right to break with him even as his internalised self-loathing fuels his continually destructive behaviour. 

Yet Okubo in a sense refuses to condemn him. The film’s Japanese title translates as “Me vs Reiwa”, painting Tsukaguchi as a man who was simply born in the wrong time as if he’s a refugee from one of Toei’s grittier yakuza flicks where his intense misogyny and destructive male pride might have seemed even “normal” given the values of the time. Tsukaguchi literally defaces the modern society, beating it to a bloody pulp attempting to assert his own dominance while unable to escape his sense of impotence and futility. Shot in 4:3 and in a variegated muted colour scheme travelling from stark digital monochrome to a softened ‘70s grain, Okubo’s psychedelic psychodrama travels in a decidedly unexpected direction as its defiant anti-hero discovers that you can’t beat an era into submission. 


MANZAI Conflict streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (華岡青洲の妻, Yasuzo Masumura, 1967)

The close relationship between two women is disrupted by the reintroduction of a man in Yasuzo Masumura’s fictionalised account of the rivalry between the wife and mother of pioneering Japanese doctor Seishu Hanaoka. Scripted by Kaneto Shindo and adapted from the novel by Sawako Ariyoshi, the refocusing of the narrative is apparent in its title, not the life of but The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (華岡青洲の妻, Hanaoka Seishu no Tsuma) less a tale of scientific endeavour than of domestic rivalry born of the inherently patriarchal social codes of the feudal society which cannot but help pit one woman against another while forcing each of them to play a role they may not wish to fulfil in order to secure their status and therefore their survival. 

Samurai’s daughter Kae (Ayako Wakao) first catches sight of the beautiful Otsugi (Hideko Takamine) at only eight years old and is instantly captivated by her, a fascination which persists well into adulthood when she is approached to marry into the Hanaoka household as wife to oldest son Seishu (Raizo Ichikawa) away studying to become a doctor like his father. Kae’s father originally objects to the match because of the class difference between the two families, Seishu’s father Naomichi (Yunosuke Ito) being only a humble country doctor of peasant stock whereas they had envisaged a grander station for their only daughter. Yet Kae is already old not to be married and continues to decline prospective suitors and so her mother and nanny (Chieko Naniwa) are minded to put it directly to her discovering that she is in fact more than willing to become a Hanaoka though mostly it seems in order to get close to Otsugi whom she has continued to idolise. 

The strange thing is that the wedding is conducted in Seishu’s absence, a medical text standing in for him while Kae in effect marries her mother-in-law Otsugi. These early days are spent in blissful tranquility as Kae does her best to be the ideal daughter-in-law, Otsugi even remarking that she’s come to love her more than a daughter. The two women share a room, Kae often staring longingly at the back of Otsugi’s head, their relationship one of mutual respect and affection that allows them to forget their respective stations but when three years later Seishu finally returns, it forces them apart in reverting to the roles of wife and mother their statuses conferred only by proximity to a man. 

Pregnant with her first child and about to become a mother herself, Kae’s resentment towards Otsugi begins to boil over. In an ironic premonition of the way the relationship between Masumura and his muse would eventually break down, she claims to have seen through Otsugi’s beauty and concluded that she is cold and calculating believing that she only brought her into the household as an unpaid servant forcing her to work a loom to raise money for Seishu’s medical training. Alternately jealous and condescending, Otsugi’s resentment is mediated through attempts to undermine her daughter-in-law’s authority finally leading to an ironic and absurdist battle between the two as they attempt to outdo each other volunteering to become test subjects for Seishu’s ongoing experiments to discover a safe anaesthetic in order save patients who require surgery but cannot endure the trauma. 

The marriage itself perhaps represents a moment of change in the feudal society, it becoming clear that the samurai are on their way down while skill and knowledge will define success in this new age of enlightenment. While Seishu works on his anaesthetic, the superstitious local community begins to view the Hanaokas with suspicion, believing that the misfortune that befalls them is the result of a curse owing to the large number of cats and dogs which have become casualties of Seishu’s failed experiments while a pedlar brings news of a mysterious disease attributed to the rain which is in fact due to mass malnutrition following a famine caused by the bad weather. When news of Seishu’s prowess as a doctor spreads they are soon overwhelmed with patients, many of whom cannot pay but are seemingly treated anyway. 

Seishu’s eventual victory is one of science over superstition, but it also requires faith which is the battleground contested between wife and mother. Having found a successful solution in cats, Seishu needs human test subjects with both instantly volunteering only to become locked into an absurd, internecine contest to prove who is the most self-sacrificing. The competition goes so far that it effectively becomes a game of dare with each determined to be the one to die for Seishu’s discovery but later realising that the stakes are even higher than first assumed because the winner will be dead but the loser saddled with guilt and possible ostracisation as someone who allowed their mother/daughter-in-law to die to in their place. 

Even so, the pair of them are described as “wonderful examples of womanhood” in their willingness to risk their lives for their “master’s success”. Kae is reminded that a woman’s job is to give birth to a healthy baby, later weaponising her ability to do so as currency in realising that Otsugi has all the control but the one thing she can’t do is bear Seishu’s child. Ironically enough, the cases Seishu is trying to treat are of aggressive breast cancer, the oft repeated maxim being that a woman’s breasts are her life and to remove them is as good as killing her contributing to the sense that maternity is the only thing that gives a woman’s life meaning. It’s not without irony that the first successful surgery under anaesthesia directly juxtaposes a massive tumour removed from a woman’s breast with a baby being removed from a pregnant Kae who, at this point having lost her sight as a consequence of Seishu’s experiments, must bear the pain with no relief. 

Brought together by tragedy, Kae comes to a better understanding of her relationship with her mother-in-law only after she dies learning to see her once again as the kind and beautiful woman she met at eight years old while her unmarried sister-in-law having witnessed their painful war of attrition prays that she won’t be reborn as a woman glad that she was never forced to become a bride nor a mother-in-law. “The struggles of the women in this house were in the end just to bring up one man” she laments, suggesting that Seishu most likely noticed the conflict between the two and used it to his advantage in getting them to participate in his experiments as they desperately tried to prove themselves the better through dying for his love. 

Going one step further, it seems that being a woman is an exercise in futility the only source of success lying paradoxically in birth or death alone, the natural affection between Otsugi and Kae neutered by the presence of Seishu who inserts himself as the pole around which they must dance for their survival. Kae becomes a local legend, a woman who sacrificed her sight in service of her husband but now rejects this mischaracterisation of her life along with the implication that it’s somehow a wife’s duty to deplete herself for her husband’s gain retreating entirely from the society of others while Seishu’s practice continues to prosper. Even so Masumura ends on a note of irony in the literal transformation of Kae into the figure of Otsugi recreating the opening scene as she walks among the bright flowers she can no longer see.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Scherzo (スケルツォ, Takayoshi Shiokawa & Kanta Tomatsu, 2021)

It may be one thing to live profoundly in the moment, but if you have no memory of yesterday and know you’ll have no memory of today tomorrow can you really say that you “exist”? The hero of Takayoshi Shiokawa & Kanta Tomatsu’s Scherzo (スケルツォ) believes that he’s born every day and dies every day, his mind wiped clean each time he sleeps but how can you learn to find meaning in a life so defiantly brief in which you have no past or future?

Then again, according to a random man in a laundrette people only start thinking about the value of life in order to avoid thinking about how bad their lives are currently when the real answer is to concentrate less on whether your current life has value and more on how to lead a better one. For “Koji” however, a name he chose for himself, the question may be moot. He wakes up every day on a stained mattress in a partially exposed rooftop flat with a sign above telling him to look at the wall where he’s explained to himself that his memory resets every day. A selection of polaroid photos feature the same young woman who also appears in a video tape playing on a nearby TV though Koji doesn’t know who she is. Taking the video camera with him he walks out into the town recording his every movement in lieu of his ability to remember and lives as if there’s no tomorrow because in a sense there isn’t. His first few days he hangs out in a hostess bar where he can’t pay the bill, robs a pizza man, and visits a sex worker for some existential chit chat abandoning the rules of morality in the knowledge that there can be no consequences because he dies by night and his existence is futile. 

All that begins to change, however, when he encounters a woman, Hinako, who looks like the one in his photos and appears to be suffering from the same condition as himself. Bonding with her slowly though neither of them can recall the other, Koji suddenly wants to find a way to remember certain that logically they are here today because of something that happened yesterday because of all the yesterdays that came before. 

Scherzo literally means “joke” in Italian, and you could indeed read Koji’s predicament as a bizarre cosmic prank otherwise unexplained in its absurdity. Yet it’s perhaps also a metaphor for the mutability of memory and elusiveness of love as much as in its usage in classical music a playful allusion to the self-contained brevity of his daily lives. He feels an innate connection to Hinako, as if he must have known her before but simply can’t remember. Even the most essential of emotions, love, can it seems be forgotten or gently fade away even if, as in the bar hostess’ melancholy ballad, something of it remains when everything else is gone. This is in one sense at least, a story of a couple who’d fallen out of love, or perhaps taken it for granted to extent that they’d almost forgotten it was there, rediscovering their feelings for each other and discovering in them a meaning for life. 

Meanwhile, Koji obsessively records all of his actions, filling 40 DV tapes of a sleepless road trip with Hinako, as if a physical recording could be more accurate than an organic memory. Memory is of course subjective and you can never know what it is you’ve forgotten whereas a tape maybe tampered with or faulty but supposedly contains objective truth though even that has a subjective quality simply by virtue of who recorded it and how. Nevertheless, if you can forget love, does memory really count for anything at all? Koji thinks he dies every day, but like Alice in Wonderland no one except for Koji is the same person they were yesterday or will be tomorrow. He can’t change or grow and has only the same version of himself to offer imperfect guidance. Nevertheless it’s love that in a sense restores his identity, gives him the will to remember, and makes it possible for him to live in the shadow of tomorrow rather than in an eternal present. Shot with a deadpan absurdism, Takayoshi Shiokawa & Kanta Tomatsu’s dryly humorous drama eventually concludes that it’s the memory of love, even if old or faded or failed, that gives life meaning allowing its anxious hero to move forward in finally regaining a sense of self if reflected in the eyes of another.


Scherzo streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Kihachi Okamoto, 1959)

By 1959, Japan was well on the way towards economic recovery but this transitionary period brought with it its own dilemmas and particularly for those whose main line of business had in a sense depended on instability and desperation. The first of Kihachi Okamoto’s early crime capers, The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Ankokugai no kaoyaku) finds the yakuza at just this moment of crisis, prescient in a sense in perhaps prematurely implying that post-war gangsterdom was already on its way out. 

The film opens, however, with a piece of yakuza thuggery as a mysterious man guns down an industrialist before barreling down the stairs and into a waiting car occupied by getaway driver Mineo (Akira Takarada) who is inconveniently spotted by a passerby, 16-year-old ramen restaurant waitress Kana (Rumiko Sasa). As we discover, Mineo is the younger brother of veteran gangster Ryuta (Koji Tsuruta), a middle-ranking member of the newly rebranded, rapidly corporatising yakuza outfit Yokomitsu Trading who seem to specialise in legal debt collection and running the entertainment district. Torn between their desire for a degree of legitimacy and their thuggish instincts, Yokomitsu have evidently knocked off a rival using an external hitman but now have a problem on their hands especially as Mineo has apparently embarked on a career as a singer in a teen jazz bar located in the same area as Kana’s restaurant which is at the very least unwise. 

Mineo is in many ways the “innocent” seen in many other similarly themed yakuza dramas, still too young to have been corrupted by the underworld and only an accomplice in the crime for which he is being asked to pay. He wants to get out of the yakuza life and sees singing as his escape route, adopting the persona of “Eddie Mineo” and styling himself as a teen idol in the vein of the rock ’n roll American pop culture which seems to be dominiating the late ‘50s youth scene. Yet Okamoto is also clearly evoking the world of Hollywood crime cinema, the environment open and dusty while everyone seems to drive massive Cadillacs and his gangsters behave much more like those in American movies than traditional yakuza even as the traditional yakuza is also changing. 

“I can’t stand it anymore” Ryuta finally exclaims, “There’s neither righteousness nor rules among mobsters”, tipped over the edge by the gang’s plan to kill the teenage witness. He wants out too, but considers himself already too far gone while pulled in two directions in his desire to save both his brother and his young son who has a lame leg and is being cared for in a hospital. Ryuta wears his wedding ring throughout though there’s no mention of what happened to his wife, while he’s also pulled between two potential love interests in the sympathetic doctor who cares for his son, Sumiko (Yumi Shirakawa), and the brassy cabaret girl, Rie (Mitsuko Kusabue), who does her best to save him, but in the end is never very much interested in either of them. He’s constantly haunted by his crimes, knowing what happens to yakuza who fall from grace in his murder of a man who limped and walked with a crutch just like his son. 

The clan are also planning to off a former foot soldier, Ishiyama, who in fact commits suicide immediately after his release from prison realising the futility of his position. Ishiyama’s suicide note directly references that of notorious post-war gangster Rikio Ishikawa whose life inspired Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor 15 years later “I took too big a gamble. lt’s a big laugh. It’s been a thirty year long spree.“ Ryuta realises there’s no way out of his life of crime, but finds himself conflicted even in his desire to ensure his brother and son remain free of it. His sense of futility is however wider, witnessing the death and decline of the traditional yakuza in itself the film climaxing in a moment of yakuza apocalypse as those apparently sick and tired of violence and intimidation finally fight back making it clear that organised crime is no longer welcome in the increasingly prosperous society. 

Skewing darker in tone than Okamoto’s subsequent entries into the “ankokugai” or “underworld” series, The Big Boss is lighter on his characteristically absurdist sense of humour but does feature a little of the exaggerated, cartoonish violence otherwise his hallmark while adding a note of irony as in his use of a sign outlining the numbers for police and ambulance or the sight of a bunch of children playing with guns while a hitman has a go on the swings. There is perhaps a sense of resistance to the conventionality of the material or that his relative inexperience, this being only his third film (the first two both romantic comedy vehicles for Izumi Yukimura) prevented him from fully embracing his anarchic spirit but The Big Boss nevertheless sows the seeds of his later career in its insistence on the absurdity of violence. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Follow the Light (光を追いかけて, Yoichi Narita, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

“We all want to run, but still we’re holding on” insists the hero of Yoichi Narita’s rural coming-of-age tale, Follow the Light (光を追いかけて, Hikari wo Oikakete). Not perhaps as its title implies a religious treatise, Narita’s gentle drama nevertheless chases faith in the future while exploring the effects of rural depopulation, economic stagnation, and familial fragmentation on the lives of the young but eventually rediscovers a sense of security, not to mention wonder, in the natural world along with the importance of community in creating a feeling of emotional rootedness. 

Teenager Akira (Tsubasa Nakagawa) has just moved back to his dad’s hometown following the divorce of his parents, his mother presumably having left the family. As one might expect he is sullen and resentful, wishing a meteor storm would destroy his new home and drawing violent comic books to that effect. He ignores everyone at school and is uninterested in making friends, continuing to view himself as an outsider who is not destined to stay. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the school itself is about to close down due to the declining numbers of children in the local area as a result of rural depopulation. 

Akira’s interest is piqued, however, on witnessing a mysterious girl standing atop the roof of a farm house and surveying all below. Accidentally making friends with a bullied boy, Shota, Akira discovers the girl’s name is Maki (Itsuki Nagasawa) but is warned off her on the grounds that she is “crazy” and potentially violent. Akira ignores the warning, but is in any case guided towards the ostracised young woman by a mysterious light said to be caused by a UFO which leads him towards a crop circle in a rice paddy in the middle of which Maki is currently lying.

As Akira discovers, Maki has problems of her own in that her parents are in the middle of a debt crisis and about to lose the small petrol station they’ve been running as a family business. They are in fact just one of many casualties in the faltering local economy which is in a constant state of recession given that the young people all leave for the cities and there’s precious little money to be made in farming anymore. Akira’s father Ryota (Taro Suruga) went to Tokyo to be a musician, an ambition which obviously did not work out, and now he’s come back works for an organisation attempting to find solutions for the future of agriculture in an effort to bring prosperity back to the countryside. Akira’s teacher, Michiru (Rina Ikoma), by contrast who will soon be out of a job is disinterested in her work partly because she left to go to uni in Tokyo but was dragged back by parental pressure and remains intensely resentful trapped in a backwater provincial life quite clearly not of her choosing. 

It wasn’t of Akira’s choosing either and on top of dealing with the disruption of his parents’ separation he feels himself displaced as a city kid unused to the gentle rhythms of country life while struggling to understand the impenetrable local dialect. He originally does nothing on witnessing Shota’s bullying but later befriends him only for their friendship to be derailed by petty jealously in Shota’s resentment towards his growing interest in Maki. Maki, meanwhile, is also struggling with a sense of abandonment largely cared for by her down-to-earth farmer uncle in the wake of parental failure. Akira may originally feel the same way about his boomerang dad, returning home to live with grandma having failed in the city, but later perhaps comes to understand that return is not necessarily defeat while gradually warming to the joys of the country life with its wide-open vistas and kindhearted locals. 

Even so there’s a sense of desperation in these young lives as they watch their world dismantled in front of them as symbolised in the imminent closure of their school. Guided by lights they decide to look towards the future, positing a new sense of community open to anyone willing to be a part of it. As if echoing the sound of the Earth, Maki accepts her parental legacy in continuing to sing a traditional rural folksong once sung by her mother while Akira discovers a new sense of belonging in his father’s latent love for his old hometown. A hymn to a disappearing small-town Japan, Follow the Light is less lament than resurgent hope that something can be saved if only in change.


Follow the Light streamed as part of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Crest of Betrayal (忠臣蔵外伝 四谷怪談, Kinji Fukasaku, 1994)

“I was trying to reform our times!” cries a man about to abandon his revolution at the moment of its inception. “The times have reformed us” his friend retorts, rejecting him for his self-interested cowardice before seconds later deciding to follow his example. Largely remembered for his contemporary jitsuroku gangster pictures, Kinji Fukasaku’s tale of rising individualism amid political turbulence and economic instability Crest of Betrayal (忠臣蔵外伝 四谷怪談, Chushingura Gaiden: Yotsuya Kaidan) hints at a perceived moral collapse in contemporary post-Bubble Japan defined by a sense of nihilistic impossibility in marrying the classic ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan with the noble tragedy of the 47 Ronin. 

The action opens the very concrete date of 14th March 1702 which as an early title card reminds us is at the close of the Genroku era which had been regarded as a “golden age” but its appearance of affluence had in fact been semi-engineered by the shogunate’s unwise decision to continue debasing the currency which later led to an inflation crisis (sounding familiar?). Meanwhile, in the samurai world Tsunayoshi, the fifth Tokugawa shogun, has deposed 38 Daimyo creating 40,000 masterless samurai each vying either for new positions as retainers in other clans or some other way to survive in a manner which befits their station. 

The 14th March, 1702 is a significant date in terms of the narrative in that it marks the first anniversary of the death of Lord Asano who was ordered to commit seppuku after offending another lord, Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka (Takahiro Tamura), leaving his house ruined and his retainers masterless. Samurai code dictates they seek revenge, but leader Oishi (Masahiko Tsugawa) suggests they bide their time leaving him and the clan open to accusations of cowardice or betrayal, mocked by peasants at the memorial service while Oishi decries their appetite for samurai drama. Enter Iemon Tamiya (Koichi Sato), antihero of the classic Yotsuya Kaidan, who had apparently joined the clan only two months before it was dissolved after years as a wandering ronin biwa player and alone has the courage to ask him if he truly has no appetite for vengeance moments after Oishi has scandalised his men by pointing out that it was Asano’s “short-temperedness” which destroyed their clan. His only answer is that it cannot be now, they must wait a year in order to prove their internal resolve. 

In marrying the two classic tales, Fukasaku directly contrasts the sublimation of the individual self into the samurai code as in the internecine nobility of the 47 ronin avenging the death of their lord knowing their own must shortly follow, and the self-serving individualism of (in this case) conflicted opportunist Iemon. Iemon has indeed been reformed by his times, becoming a thieving murderer out of desperation and misplaced filial piety after he and his father were forced into a life as itinerant biwa players on the dissolution of their clan. In most versions of the classic tale, Iemon is an ambitious sociopath who tricks his way into marrying up but loses interest in new wife Oiwa after she bears his child, later doing them both in to marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant who took a liking to him in a market square. Here, Oume (Keiko Oginome) is taken with him after he hacks the sword-bearing hand off an aggressor but unbeknownst to Iemon her father is a retainer of his sworn enemy leaving him with a double conflict, while Oiwa is a lowly bath house sex worker pregnant with a child he does not truly believe is his. 

The radical samurai had wanted to “reform our corrupt times”, but Iemon like his friend who drops out of the movement after being taken on as a successor to a hatamoto and becoming a direct retainer to the shogunate, comes to the conclusion that the times cannot be reformed and he must conform to them. If he chooses Oume, he betrays his loyalty to his lord by uniting with his rival to further his own prospects, a decision many will understand it is perhaps little more than leaving one firm for a better job at another, but it’s also an unforgivable subversion of the samurai code which drives him deeper even than the class conflict which sometimes informs his choices in Yotsuya Kaidan into a hellish spiral of greed and immorality. “The world hates your type” Oishi reminds him, “they’ll kill you, like a snake. Can you live fighting with the world for the rest of your life?” He asks, pitying Iemon for his self-destructive decision to turn away from “justice” for personal gain knowing that he will never reconcile himself to his choices nor will the world approve them. 

Yet as in Yotsuya Kaidan it’s not so much his latent sense of guilt that does for him as Oiwa’s curse, her ghost with its face ruined by his transgression taking its otherworldly revenge though interestingly only indirectly against him even as she provokes Iemon into destroying his chances for the secure, comfortable life he’d chosen for himself. The 47 ronin, meanwhile, continue with their righteous mission even if it’s a stretch to insist that their vengeance serves the cause of justice or is even intended to “reform these corrupt times”. Those corrupt times, Fukasaku seems to argue, forged a man like Iemon rather than the toxic masculinity, personal insecurity, or innate sociopathy which are generally ascribed to him to explain his dark deeds, and so these corrupt times of post-Bubble insecurity might create more like him. Finding the director in a noticeably expressionistic mood, opening with an ominous storm and climaxing in an unexpected, supernatural blizzard, Crest of Betrayal adopts a register of high theatricality and an etherial air of mystery culminating in a beautifully executed series of ghost effects overlaid with a watery filter but ends on a note of hopeful ambiguity in which Oiwa’s curse has perhaps been healed even if Iemon finds himself condemned, a wandering samurai for all eternity. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ninja Girl (シュシュシュの娘, Yu Irie, 2021)

What can the ordinary person do when encountering injustice? Saying no is a start, but it might not be enough in the long run. According to the inspirational grandpa in Yu Irie’s Ninja Girl (シュシュシュの娘, Shushushu no Musume), if no one’s coming with you you’ll have to go on your own. Part coming-of-age drama, part political satire, Ninja Girl finds its reserved heroine coming into herself as she agrees to take on her grandfather’s unfinished mission and avenge the death of a family friend who took his own life in shame after being bullied into falsifying government documents in order to help a corrupt local council pass some overtly racist legislation. 

The reticent Miu (Saki Fukuda) takes care of her elderly grandfather (Shohei Uno) and has a steady job at the town hall, yet despite her ordinariness she is also a target for local shunning because of her grandfather’s intense resistance towards the “Immigrant Elimination Ordinance”. Miu isn’t in favour of it either, but is otherwise too shy to do much about it despite being harangued by her extremely unpleasant and intimidating supervisor Ms. Muteda (Mayumi Kanetani). On returning home one evening she overhears her grandfather talking to a family friend, Mano (Arata Iura), who appears depressed and talks of taking his own life after being strong-armed by Muteda among others to illegally alter and/or falsify official documentation in order to help them pass their odious bill. Mano then takes his own life in protest by jumping off the roof of the town hall, leaving Miu and her grandfather intent on avenging him by retrieving the evidence he’d preserved of governmental impropriety and exposing the mayor for what he is. Miu’s grandfather presents this as a “mission” he’s leaving to his granddaughter because he believes he’s not long left, revealing a long hidden family secret to the effect that Miu is actually descended from a long line of ninjas. 

Ms. Muteda tries to talk Miu round by insisting that the legislation is neither “discriminatory” nor “racist” which seems like a stretch when you’re using words like “eliminate”. After accepting her ninja legacy and using the book she’s found to make herself an authentic ninja outfit, Miu tries to do some digging all of which eventually takes her to a scrap yard mostly staffed by migrant workers whom Mano had been trying to help. Miu is originally turned away by the owner because of her association with local government but returns hoping to find the password for Mano’s thumb drive only to discover a weird gang of racist thugs dressed in lime green high visibility jackets beating up the scrap yard’s owner and spouting a lot of rubbish about how his workforce is taking jobs off Japanese people who apparently find themselves in need following the earthquake and coronavirus pandemic. 

For all of their talk about making Japan great again and keeping Japanese traditions in the hands of the Japanese, there’s a strange irony that their nemesis comes in the form of that most quintessentially culturally specific avenger, the ninja, and not only that a young female ninja rising up against oppression all on her own. Despite agreeing that she has no real skills, Miu’s grandfather thinks she’ll make a good a ninja because of her general invisibility while her childhood hobby of making blowpipes will also stand her in good stead. Accepting her “mission” gives Miu the kind of confidence otherwise lacking in her life to seize her own agency and stand up for what she believes in even when victory seems more or less impossible. Meanwhile, Muteda and her cohorts laugh loudly about how they’re only doing what the national government and other prefectures do in illegally altering their documents to make it look like they’re not doing anything wrong while they ride roughshod over the rights of ordinary people and pursue their xenophobic agenda. 

“Never again” Miu’s grandfather insists on recalling the pogroms which occurred after the 1923 Kanto earthquake leading to a massacre of Koreans, while finding himself branded a traitor to his nation. In another touch of irony, the cheerful children’s folksong Hana plays in the background as red balloons are launched to celebrate the Immigrant Elimination Ordinance in a nationalistic incongruity that seems to leave Miu more bemused than ever. Removing herself from this intensely corrupt social order and committing herself to ninja mastery while training alongside her her favourite collection of ‘80s pop hits, she determines to clean up town sending poison darts against the otherwise unopposed voices of disorder. Shot in a strangely comforting 4:3, Yu Irie’s quirky drama is drenched in the absurd but sends a very real message as its shy, reserved heroine steps into the shadows in order to resist societal corruption even while those all around her are content to stand by and watch as their freedoms are taken from them. 


Ninja Girl screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

From Today, It’s My Turn!! (今日から俺は!! 劇場版, Yuichi Fukuda, 2020)

The high school fighting manga has long been a genre mainstay but perhaps hit peak popularity in terms of the big and small screen during the Bubble era with such well known hits as Sukeban Deka and Beb-Bop High School. More recent treatments have frequently bought into the genre’s inherent absurdity such as the contemplative and melancholy Blue Spring, or the anarchic Crows Zero series helmed by Takashi Miike to which Blue Spring’s Toshiaki Toyoda later added a sequel. Which is all to say, that a genre so deliberately puffed up and obsessed with macho posturing is near impossible to parody. Leave it Yuichi Fukuda to try with the retro nostalgia fest From Today, It’s My Turn!! (今日から俺は!! 劇場版, Kyo kara ore wa! Gekijoban), a theatrical sequel to the TV drama series adapted from the manga by Hiroyuki Nishimori. 

Set in the genre’s heyday of the 1980s, the action takes place in a small town in Chiba with an improbably large number of high schools. Nerdy high schooler Satoru (Yuki Izumisawa) floats the idea of transferring somewhere else, fed up with all the delinquents at his school disrupting his studies with their constant violence but then it seems like everywhere else is the same. The big problem is that their two top guys have recently been deposed during a conflict with rival school Nanyo leaving a power vacuum while their school is temporarily merging with Hokunei from the next town over seeing as they’ve already burnt their school building down. 

While many high school fighting manga focus on the hierarchy within one particular institution, From Today, It’s My Turn!! is much more concerned with the battle between rival schools even if some of the more antagonistic fighters are in fact secretly friends. The first fight that breaks out is between bleach blond Mitsuhashi (Kento Kaku) and blue-suited Imai (Taiga Nakano) over a juice carton he bought for Mitsuhashi’s aikido-trained girlfriend Riko (Nana Seino) which Mitsuhashi sees as an affront to his masculinity, though in truth the two guys seem to get along well enough in the long run. Most of this fighting is in essence performative posturing, something made plain by the unexpected cowardice of supposed top guy Mitsuhashi who it turns out frequently runs away when challenged even relying on Riko to get him out of trouble. 

Though there are female gangs and female lone fighters, this is largely a male affair as the women, excepting Satoru’s cousin Ryoko (Maika Yamamoto), are expected to perform their femininity as the boys perform their masculinity through fighting. The supposedly evil head of the girl gang from Seiran High, Kyoko (Kanna Hashimoto), turns into a walking embodiment of kawaii when encountering crush Ito (Kentaro Ito) who begins acting in an equally lovey-dovey fashion, but breaks right back into her delinquent tough girl persona as soon as he’s off the scene. Aikido expert Riko meanwhile is largely reduced to trying to keep Mitsuhashi out of trouble while adopting an air of nice girl refinement. Only Ryoko who determines to take revenge on behalf of the bullied Satoru with the aid of a bamboo sword is allowed to stay firmly within the confines of the sukeban

Nevertheless, despite their treatment of each other most of the gang members can’t abide bullying which is why they eventually turn on Hokunei realising that they’re the sort of guys that befriend vulnerable people only to betray them later. Yet like Mitsuhashi, Hokunei boss Yanagi (Yuya Yagira) is also an under-confident coward so insecure in his fighting prowess that he has to cheat by taping throwing knives to the inside of his blazer. Legitimate authority is it seems largely absent, parents either unseen or oblivious while the teachers are unable to offer much in the way of help, wandering round the town with a toy police car and a loudspeaker trying to fool the guys into dispersing. 

Fukuda’s brand of humour is nothing if not idiosyncratic and largely inspired by TV variety show sketch comedy which explains the random nature of many of the gags along with the absurdist manga to the max production design. He further amps up the incongruity by casting prominent actors clearly far too old for high school and then saddling them with ridiculous costumes to the extent that Taiga Nakano looks oddly like Frankenstein’s monster with his too broad shoulders and overly bouffant quiff. While action choreography leaves much to be desired, fans of Fukuda’s previous work will most likely have a ball though others it has to be said may struggle. 


From Today, It’s My Turn!! streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Moving (お引越し, Shinji Somai, 1993)

The title of Shinji Somai’s 1993 coming-of-age drama Moving (お引越し, Ohikkoshi) quite literally refers to the process of vacating one space in order to inhabit another but also to the heroine’s liminal movement into a space of adulthood while caught in the nexus of a recently destabilised society itself in a state of flux. Not only must she process the disruption of her father’s decision to leave the family home, but its wider implications that will one day leave her orphaned while coming to accept that such partings are only a part of life to borne with stoicism and sympathy. 

At around 12 or so, Renko (Tomoko Tabata) finds herself on the brink of change. Not only is she beginning to grow up, soon to be changing schools, but is also facing a further destabilisation of her home as her parents prepare to separate. The tension in the household is clear from our first meeting with the family as they sit around an almost violent, green triangular table the point aimed straight at us with Renko at the opposite end and her near silent mother and father on either side. As she often will, Renko attempts to parent her parents, repeatedly criticising her father for his poor table manners wondering if he’ll be able to take care of himself when living alone while later remonstrating with her mother for having had too much to drink while cautioning her to mind what the neighbours might think. 

Already unbalanced by the economic shock of the bubble bursting, the Japanese society of the early 90s was also changing evidenced in part by the separation itself. Divorce is still a minor taboo, even Renko herself had taken part in the shunning and bullying of another girl who’d transferred to their school after returning to her mother’s hometown following her parents’ separation, but this is perhaps the first era in which it becomes acceptable to end a marriage solely because one or both parties is unhappy rather than there being some additional pressure that endangers the family. “Marriage is survival of the fittest”, Renko’s mum Nazuna (Junko Sakurada) later exclaims during a heated exchange but we can also see that the marriage itself was already unusual perhaps uncomfortably suggesting an altered power balance and shifting gender roles led to its breakdown. Father Kenichi (Kiichi Nakai) had previously worked from home completing many of the domestic tasks while Nazuna had become the breadwinner with a successful career earning higher salary. She complains that when she was pregnant with Renko Kenichi sniped at her for not contributing to the household financially but changed his tune when her economic success undercut his sense of masculine pride. 

Despite apparently embracing her freedom Nazuna nevertheless seems to resent Kenichi for leaving, accusing him of deserting his family while he later floats the idea of trying again but only perhaps because he is feeling the ache of the loss of the home he previously hinted suffocated him in responsibility. Meanwhile, Renko is also forced to process the fact that a family friend, Yukio (Taro Tanaka), on whom she’d had an innocent childish crush, is engaged to be married. Overhearing their conversation she also learns that his fiancée is pregnant but unsure about having the baby. Given all of these changes, she begins to wonder why it is she was born, intensely anxious in potential parental abandonment while witnessing the remaking of her home. 

Yet to cure her of her anxiety Somai removes her from her environment, Renko once again taking on a parental role in borrowing her mother’s credit card to book a hotel and train tickets to a familiar destination they’d previously travelled to as a family. It’s in this liminal space that Renko begins roam, eventually encountering an old man with some important life lessons while undergoing a spiritual odyssey of her own as she weaves through a summer festival towards an ethereal encounter with her past self and the spectre of her future orphanhood. Somai’s characteristically lengthy tracking shots add to the sense of destabilisation, Renko’s world constantly in motion yet as she tells us herself she’s on her way to the future, moving on but on a more equal footing and discovering at least a sense of equilibrium in an ever shifting society.


Moving screens at the BFI on 29 December as part of BFI Japan.

Black Rain (黒い雨, Shohei Imamura, 1989)

Caught in a moment of transition, post-war Japan struggles to free itself from the lingering feudal legacy and the trauma of the immediate past in Shohei Imamura’s contemplative adaptation of the novel by Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain (黒い雨, Kuroi Ame). As many things change others stay the same, the Shizuma family burdened not only by the anxiety of a ghostly illness symptomless until it isn’t and the unfair prejudice of a wounded society, but the pressure of outdated patriarchal social codes along with a sense of filial failure in the inability to protect their ancestral estate. 

Imamura opens on the fateful morning the atomic bomb struck Hiroshima, voiceovers from 20-year-old niece Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) and her uncle Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura), a soldier severing at a factory in the city, detailing what they were doing on that very ordinary day. What unfolds is a scene of hell, the train Shigematsu is riding on blown apart while he crawls free and tries to look for his wife, Shigeko (Kazuo Kitamura), packing up their house preparing for evacuation, eventually reuniting with Yasuko who had come into town to find them. Hoping to get to the factory, they make their way past charred and hideously warped bodies, a woman cradling her carbonised infant, a little boy overjoyed to have found his big brother only to go unrecognised because his face is melted away while skin hangs painfully from his forearms and fingertips. The brother only accepts him after checking his belt which has somehow miraculously survived. The trio eventually make it to comparative safety at the factory with relatively few injuries, only later learning of the implications of having been in such close proximity to the blast. 

Jumping ahead five years, the Shizumas are living quite comfortably in their ancestral home on a mountain estate largely spared the post-war agricultural land reforms because of its location, though Shigematsu attributes his mother’s dementia to an inability to accept the changing times not only their loss of a semi-aristocratic status but the essential failure of having proved unable to protect their ancestral lands. His immediate problem is however the marriage of the now 25-year-old Yasuko. We see him triumphantly leave a doctor’s office with a certificate stating that Yasuko is in good health he hopes will reassure her current suitor’s family in the face of persistent rumours that she too was a direct victim of the “flash”, rather than an indirect victim simply of the rain which Shigematsu mistakenly believes to have been less dangerous. 

At 25 this is Yasuko’s last chance, she’s aged out of the arranged marriage market. She has also had a promising job offer from the local post office but is minded to turn it down in the hopes of being married. Taking the post office job may be the most sensible option, but it also seems like defeat, an acceptance that she is unfit for marriage and a clear sign that Shigematsu and Shigeko have failed in their patriarchal duties to ensure that Yasuko finds a good husband and will be well looked after for the rest of her life. In this age, it is difficult for a woman to support herself alone even leaving aside the social stigma of being an unmarried woman. A marriage is therefore also a job, and the families fear one Yasuko may not be able to perform if as the rumours suggest her exposure to radiation may have left her unable to bear children. The situation is further complicated seeing as Shigematsu and Shigeko were not able to have children of their own, and with Yasuko’s mother Kiyoko having died young Yasuko is the last of the Shizuma line even if she technically may not bear their name. 

Lost in old memories and mistaking Yasuko for her mother, grandma (Hisako Hara) may have it right when she tells her not to marry for marriage only leads to death. Yet in an odd way, Yasuko’s liminal status perhaps grants her the right to turn away from these old-fashioned patriarchal expectations in making her own decision not marry even if she orients herself back towards the filial in requesting to stay with the aunt and uncle who raised her in order to care for them should they suddenly begin to experience symptoms of their exposure to “the flash”. Shigematsu continues to treat the notion of radiation sickness with an almost supernatural mentality, convinced that having seen the light or not is all that matters constantly trying to provide evidence that Yasuko was not there when the bomb went off while ignoring her exposure to the black rain which fell afterwards even while himself filled with the anxiety of not knowing if he may someday become ill even if he and Shigeko are in otherwise good health. 

He watches friends with secondary exposure become ill and die before him, recalling being asked to read sutras for the dead in the aftermath of the bomb though feeling himself unqualified, while some in the village perhaps jokingly accuse them of playing on their status as bomb victims as if they are merely lazy rather than actively sick. Meanwhile, across the way a young man with intense PTSD suffers flashbacks every time he hears an engine running and is compelled to throw himself in front of it as if it were an enemy tank. Yuichi (Keisuke Ishida) is ironically enough “a veteran of the suicide squad”, otherwise alright if fragile spending his days carving Buddhist Jizo statues may of which have grotesque, anguished expressions in contrast to the comforting, almost cute faces such statues usually bear. Just as the wider society distances itself from the survivors of the bomb, so they reject men like Yuichi. When Yuichi’s mother comes to propose an unlikely marriage between the two lonely youngsters who have become close after bonding through their shared anxieties, Shigematsu is offended, resenting the implication that they must believe Yasuko is a poor catch if daring to suggest she marry a man of a lower social class who is also in need of assistance in living with his mental illness. 

Yet her marriage continues to weigh heavily on Shigeko’s mind, feeling as if she has failed the Shizuma family in being unable to provide an heir and subsequently failing to secure a match for Yasuko. It is perhaps this anxiety that finally makes her ill, taking strange medicines provided by a dubious Shinto priestess who tells her it’s all her own fault for not being able to visit Kiyoko’s grave because someone has to stay at home to look after grandma. Only Shigematsu sees the writing on the wall, advising Yasuko that after grandma dies she should sell the estate and take the money as her dowry freeing her from the feudal and familial legacy and giving her permission to move into the modern post-war future even as she begins to doubt that the future has a place for her. 

Shooting in black and white and in a much more classical style than that which is found in his other work, Imamura adopts the aesthetics of Golden Age cinema to comment on the contemporary era now perhaps feeling itself sufficiently distanced from the toxicity of wartime trauma, suggesting that the entire society is in a sense soaked in black rain its inability to confront the recent past a poison slowly eating away at its foundations. “An unjust peace is better than a just war” Shigematsu is fond of saying, quoting Cicero dismayed by the heated geopolitical debates he hears on the radio he uses to set the clock, his friend dying without ever really understanding why the bomb was dropped, why on Hiroshima, why at that particular moment. Imamura denies us closure too, leaving on a note of anxiety if tempered with an all but forlorn hope for signs of a miracle on the horizon that the sickness can be healed and a better world will someday arrive.


Black Rain screens at the BFI on 28th December as part of BFI Japan and is also available on blu-ray as part of Arrow’s Imamura boxset or to stream in the UK via Arrow Player