Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル, Toshimitsu Iizuka, 2017)

poetry angel posterLife is confusing. You think you know what you want, only to realise it wasn’t what you wanted at all. What you really wanted was the very thing you convinced yourself you didn’t want so that you could want something else. The characters at the centre of Toshimitsu Iizuka’s Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル) are all suffers of this particular delusion, lost and alone in a small town in rural Japan without hope or direction. That is, until they discover the strange sport of “poetry boxing”.

Our hero, Tsutomu (Amane Okayama), is a 21-year-old farm boy with dreams of becoming an author. His illusions are, however, shattered when he checks the board in the community centre and discovers he hasn’t even placed in a local history essay writing contest which appears to have been won by a child. In this delicate state, a pretty girl suddenly approaches him and begs for his help but then drags him into a seminar room where he is forced to listen to a lecture on “poetry boxing”. Almost everyone else leaves straight away but Tsutomu is intrigued – after all, semi-aggressive literary sport might be just the thing to get an aspiring author’s creative juices flowing.

Tsutomu’s problems are the same as many a young man’s in Japanese cinema – he resents having his future dictated to him by an accident of birth. His father owns a large orchard and is a well respected producer of salt pickled plums. As the only child, Tsutomu is expected to take over but he hates “boring” country life and the repetitive business of farming, his thinly veiled jealousy all too plain when an old friend returns from Tokyo on a visit home between university graduation and a new job in the capital. Tsutomu thinks of himself as special, as an artist, but no one seems to be recognising his genius.

This might partly be because his only “poem” is an alarming performance art piece in which he laments his tendency to destroy the things he loves with his “weed whacker”. The sport of poetry boxing has no physical requirements but it has no limits either. It’s more or less like performance poetry or a less directly confrontational kind of slam, but participants are encouraged to step into the boxing ring and express themselves in whichever way they see fit. Once both participants have concluded their “poems” a panel of judges votes on the winner. Like Tsutomu, the other members of the poetry boxing team are dreaming of other things or claiming to be something they’re not. Rappers who really work in cabaret bars, lonely girls who fear they’re plain and long to be “cute”, civil servants longing to kick back at inconsiderate citizens, and old men who really do just want to write poetry and appreciate the time they have left.

Yet through the endlessly wacky tasks set by Hayashi (Akihiro Kakuta), the leader of the group, each of the participants begins to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what they really want. Not least among them An (Rena Takeda), a gloomy young girl who spends her life scowling at people and refusing to speak. She’d been into boxing for real and first met Tsutomu when she punched him in the face because his unexpectedly sexist friend from Tokyo was harassing her in the street. Poetry, however, begins to unlock even her deepest held desires which can finally be voiced from the ironically safe space of the poetry boxing ring.

There may be nothing particularly original about Iizuka’s delayed coming of age tale, but it has genuine warmth for its confused no hopers as they look for connection through formalised language and ritual play, discovering new depths to themselves as they do so. As it turns out mostly what you want was there all along, only you didn’t want to look. Annoyingly, other people may have figured it out before you but that can’t be helped and is, after all, only to be expected. Poetry is a doorway to the soul but it’s also one that might need a good kicking to get it open. Maybe the boxing ring is a better place to start than one might think.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Mohican Comes Home (モヒカン故郷に帰る, Shuichi Okita, 2016)

mohican-comes-homeJapan may be famous for its family dramas, but there is a significant substrain of these warm and gentle comedies which sees a prodigal child return to their childhood home either to rediscover some lost aspect of themselves or realise that they no longer belong in the place which raised them. Shuichi Okita’s The Mohican Comes Home (モヒカン故郷に帰る, Mohican Kokyo ni Kaeru) includes an obvious reference in its title to Keisuke Kinoshita’s colourful 1954 escapade Carmen Comes Home which cast legendary actress Hideko Takamine somewhat against type as a ditsy airhead show girl eager to show off all her city sophistications to the rural backwater she abruptly ran out of some years before. Like Carmen, the hero of Mohican Comes Home makes an unexpected trip to visit his family in the picturesque Hiroshima island village where he grew up only to find not very much has changed but an equally unexpected tragedy prompts him into a wider consideration of his past and future as he faces life’s two extremes in the very same moment.

Eikichi (Ryuhei Matsuda) left his island home some years ago for the bright lights of Tokyo where he fronts a punk band by the name of Grim Reapers. The band has some moderate underground success, but the guys are getting old for the punk scene and finding themselves with real world responsibilities from healthcare costs to the prospects of supporting wives and children. Eikichi, sporting a prominent bleached mohawk, feels this more than most as he’s soon to become a father and is intending to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Yuka (Atsuko Maeda), if only he had the money. He’s been promising to take his future wife to meet his parents for some time but so far they’ve never actually made the trip.

This time, things are different and so Eikichi makes a shocking return after seven years only to wander in during an awkward scene as his mother and younger brother try to manoeuvre his drunken father into a more convenient position whilst protecting his precious white suit from alcohol born ruin. Eikichi’s family own the village liquor store but his father’s passion is for music and he also coaches the local middle school band. A devotee of legendary Hiroshima born superstar Eikichi Yazawa, Osamu (Akira Emoto) insists the kids play his favourite tune ad nauseam to much eye rolling from the youngsters forced to associate themselves with such an uncool and old fashioned song.

Eikichi’s homecoming has not got off to the best start, especially after his father begins to sober up and recommends a hair cut and real job, both of which Eikichi resolutely refuses. Things take a more serious turn when Osamu realises his son is being financially supported by his girlfriend whom he has also got pregnant but is not yet married to. Experiencing extreme moral outrage at his responsibility shirking son, Osamu chases him around the table in what appears to be a scene often repeated during Eikichi’s childhood but the situation soon ends in an unexpected way foreshadowing Osamu’s decline into ill health.

Deciding to stay a little longer than intended, Eikichi and Yuka blend into the family home trying to help mother Haruko (Masako Motai) and boomerang younger brother Koji (Yudai Chiba) adjust while Osamu is in the hospital. The contrast between town and country, traditional and modern is never far from view whether in Yuka’s kindhearted decision to finish off preparing the family dinner though she has to consult a youtube video to find out how to gut fish, or in her astonishment at the very ordinary way in which her future in-laws met (i.e. simple propinquity). While the women begin to bond over their shared concern for their men as Haruko decides to teach Yuka some home style tips and tricks, Eikichi and his father spar with each other warmly as Eikichi takes charge of a band rehearsal and allows them to let loose on the much hated song with an energised punk fuelled twist.

Despite a strained relationship with his father, Eikichi is a good person who also wants to offer some kind of comfort to the old man in his final days. Going to great lengths to track down a particular pizza Osamu suddenly requests (the last time he ate pizza was on his 60th birthday) or eventually pretending to be Yazawa himself whom Osamu is very proud to have made eye contact with during a Tokyo concert in 1977, Eikichi comes to a kind of understanding of the man his father was as well as the man he is. Full of warm, naturalistic humour giving way to two elaborately constructed set pieces, The Mohican Comes Home is a typically well observed family drama from Okita which neatly undercuts its essentially melancholy set up with a layer of stoical perseverance.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Tatsushi Omori, 2010)

crowd-of-threeTatsushi Omori’s debut feature The Whispering of the Gods proved so controversial that he was left with no choice other than to set up his own temporary cinema to screen it. Five years later he returned with another uncompromising look at modern society which is only a little less grim than its predecessor. A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Kenta to Jun to Kayo-chan no Kuni) takes what has become a staple of quirky indie comedy dramas – a small group of disconnected people taking a road trip to look for something better, and turns it into a depressingly nihilistic voyage to nowhere. Never quite achieving the kind of painful, angst ridden atmosphere of disaffected young men desperately trying to break out of a social straight jacket, A Crowd of Three is an oddly cold film, undercut with a pervasive layer of misogyny and hopelessness which makes its ultimate destination somewhere few will wish to travel.

Kenta (Shota Matsuda) and Jun (Kengo Kora) are young men working dead end construction jobs. Growing up together almost like brothers in the same orphanage the pair share an intense bond but also a shared sense of having been badly let down by life even at such a young age. Their main source of relief seems to be in picking up “loose women” from the street by asking random ladies on their own for their ages. One evening Jun picks up Kayo (Sakura Ando) – a melancholy woman with low self esteem who sleeps around because she is insecure about her own plain looks. After Kenta is assaulted by the foreman, he decides to take revenge by smashing up the office and his boss’ car before taking off on a journey north to see his (biological) brother who is currently in prison.

Kayo tags along with the pair after apparently having fallen in love with Jun who is only interested in her for easy sex and occasional cash tips. Despite the fact that the film’s original Japanese title is “Jun, Kenta, and Kayo’s Country”, Kayo is quickly cast aside by the pair of travellers who think it’s funny to throw all of her stuff out of the window and abandon her at a service station in the middle of nowhere. Getting thrown out of cars and left behind in remote places is something which happens to Kayo repeatedly throughout the film as she tries to follow Jun despite his obvious indifference towards her.

Kayo just wants to feel love, but at least as far as the film goes she’s looking for it in all the wrong places. Even if Jun does start to feel something more genuine for her in the end, it’s born of a kind of shared insecurity as he worries about a repetitive strain injury from using the pneumatic drill which turns his hand white at moments of stress. After literally jilting Kayo, Jun takes up with a vacuous bar hostess who does, indeed, recoil from his pale hand. The bar hostess has very ordinary dreams – a big house, wealthy husband, children. She’s even planned out her own death. These are all things which Jun could never give her, a middle school drop out with no family he already fears he has no future but at least he’s not railroaded onto a pre-determined course and is free to choose his destination even if he feels there is nowhere for him to go.

Kenta expresses this early in the film when he states that there are two kinds of people – those who choose how they’re going to live, and those who don’t. The boys feel as if they’re in the no choice category – unceremoniously kicked out of social care and expected to fend for themselves with no education or contacts, reliant on poorly paid temporary work to get by. In a slightly overworked metaphor, Kenta and Jun’s jobs on demolition projects point to their desire to dismantle their world but the more they smash away at it the less progress they make. Kenta’s literal smashing of the car and office belonging to his boss are his final act of choice but again it gets him nowhere. Even talking to his brother who is in prison for the most heinous of crimes, Kenta finds no encouragement but only cold rejection.

A Crowd of Three goes to some very dark places ranging from work place harassment to child abuse and sexualised violence, but it largely fails to capitalise on its grim atmosphere to make any kind of impact aside from the pervasive melancholia. Omori mostly sticks to a straight forward approach with some interesting editing choices and composition but largely relies on the quality performances of his leading players. Far from youth aflame with nihilistic rage, A Crowd of Three is bleaker than bleak and frozen throughout making the battling of its heroes to transcend their difficult social circumstances a forlorn hope of epic proportions.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sorekara (それから, AKA And Then, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1985)

Sorekara PosterYoshimitsu Morita had a long and varied career (even if it was packed into a relatively short time) which encompassed throwaway teen idol dramas and award winning art house movies but even so tackling one of the great novels by one of Japan’s most highly regarded authors might be thought an unusual move. Like a lot of his work, Natsume Soseki’s Sorekara (And Then…) deals with the massive culture clash which reverberated through Japan during the late Meiji era and, once again, he uses the idea of frustrated romance to explore the way in which the past and future often work against each other.

Daisuke (Yusaku Matsuda) is a youngish man approaching early middle age. Thirty years old and a “gentleman” of leisure, he lives in a world of perpetual ennui where he even has to hold his hand to his chest to check that his heart is indeed still beating. His days might have gone on aimlessly had it not been for the unexpected return of an old friend from university, Hiraoka (Kaoru Kobayashi), who has been dismissed from his job following a series of problems with his superiors which has also landed him with a considerable debt to repay and no prospects of further employment. Adding to his sorrows, Hiraoka and his wife, Michiyo (Miwako Fujitani), have recently lost their infant child and have been told that due to Michiyo’s poor health they may not be able to have any more. Daisuke wants to help them, but he’s also facing a lot of pressure from his family to accept an arranged marriage which will further his father and brother’s prospects and is becoming conscious of the relative lack of freedom his life of dependent idleness entails.

Men of Daisuke’s era have perhaps had it hardest coming of age during a period of massive social change which is incomprehensible to the older generation. He’s a well educated man, an intellectual, who can speak several languages and is given to introspective contemplation, but he’s also inherited the worst of European classism as he’s come to believe that working for money is beneath his dignity as a gentleman. He’s completely unable to identify with his friend who needs to work to eat and enjoys none of the various safety nets which are provided by his own wealth and privilege. Nevertheless, he does want to try and help Hiraoka and is dismayed to discover just how little power he has do anything for him.

Hiraoka and Daisuke were part of a group of friends at university which also included another boy who, sadly, died of an illness and his sister – Michiyo, who eventually married Hiraoka. At the time, Daisuke himself had fallen in love with Michiyo but out of a misconceived idea of “chivalry” – another unnecessary adoption of European romanticism, he stepped aside in favour of his friend. This has proved to be a disaster all round and Michiyo and Hiraoka are trapped in an unhappy union which has made Michiyo physically weak and caused Hiraoka to spend the money he should be using to pay back his massive debts on drink and geisha so he can avoid going home. Daisuke’s adherence to a code of morality which is more affectation than anything else is shown up to be cowardice, another way of avoiding adulthood, as he uses his intellectual ideas to mask what is really a fear of rejection.

Daisuke later comes to believe what he did in not acknowledging his own feelings towards Michiyo was “a crime against nature”. He now finds himself at another crossroads as he faces the choice between conforming to the rigidity of his upperclass life in marrying the woman his father has chosen for him and continuing to be financially dependent, or embracing his individuality and striking out on his own to finally claim the woman he’s always loved (and, tragically, has always loved him). In choosing to make a life with Michiyo, Daisuke would be taking several transgressive actions – firstly acting against his own self image by entering the world of working men and secondly by stealing a married woman away from her husband which is no simple matter in the still relatively conservative Meiji era society.

Ultimately, the film is much more a story of Daisuke’s journey of self realisation than it is a melodrama with a love triangle at its centre though Sorekora certainly embraces these aspects too. Morita opts for a more classical tone here with a number of long, unbroken takes and static camera shots yet he also affects a strange, dreamlike tone in which the present and the past seem to co-exist, each drifting one into the other. He intercuts scenes which echo the film’s ending into the main body of the action as well as showing us the early days of Daisuke and Michiyo’s unresolved romantic connection which is poignantly brought out by an experimental technique in which the foreground appears almost like a freeze frame while the rain carries on falling behind them. At certain points there are also some surreal sequences in which Daisuke is travelling on a train but is surrounded by fellow passengers who suddenly each pull out a large sparkler or another where a gaggle of men all dressed just like him are crowded into the the other end of the train and looking at the moon through the open roof of the carriage.

A prestige picture, but one with a healthy dose of strangeness, Sorekara is an inexpressibly sad film full of the tragedy of wasted time and the regret that comes with not having acted in way which satisfies your authentic self. In order to live a life that’s true to himself Daisuke must finally learn to risk losing everything but the film’s ambiguous ending may ask whether the cost of following your heart may not be too heavy a one to pay.


Unsubtitled trailer:

 

Miss Hokusai (百日紅, Keiichi Hara, 2015)

MISS_HOKUSAI_teaser_A4_oldpaper_1600When it comes to the great Japanese artworks that everybody knows, the figure of Hokusai looms large. From the ubiquitous The Great Wave off Kanagawa to the infamous Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, the work of Hokusai has come to represent the art of Edo woodblocks almost single handedly in the popular imagination yet there has long been scholarly debate about the true artist behind some of the pieces which are attributed to his name. Hokusai had a daughter – uniquely gifted, perhaps even surpassing the skills of her father, O-Ei was a talented artist in her own right as well as her father’s assistant and caregiver in his old age.

Miss Hokusai, based on the popular 1980s manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, takes up O-Ei’s story towards the beginning of her career before her marriage and subsequent divorce, after which she returned to her father’s side to nurse him as his health declined. Like the manga, the film is a collection of scenes from Edo life loosely tied together by its overarching theme, but broadly follows O-Ei as she lives her life as a young woman with a level of forthrightness and determination which sets her apart from the women of the time. Determined to become an artist, she lives with her father in their studio where neither of them cooks or cleans but each devotes themselves solely to art. Also living with them at the time is an ex-samurai and aspiring artist, Zenjiro, who specialises in erotica which has its own particular qualities even if his skills aren’t on a par with Hokusai or O-Ei.

When not in her father’s studio, O-Ei likes to visit her younger sister who, ironically, was born blind and is being cared for by the local nuns. O-Nao’s blindness is a sore spot for her father who hardly ever visits her, feeling as if her lack of sight is some sort of cosmic slight against him – the master painter with the daughter unable to appreciate his art and therefore his entire life philosophy. O-Ei is not so rigid and delights taking the girl out on trips where she can experience the world through her richly developed other senses. O-Nao particularly likes visiting the bridge with its complicated soundscape from the river below to the vendors above and all the passersby. There’s also a lovely set piece in which a young boy who quickly figures out that O-Nao can’t see tries to entertain her by knocking snow off a tree. Miss Hokusai, though a story of visual art, has an especially intricate sound design which proves that you can paint with materials other than ink and makes a point of calling out the stubbornness inherent in the world view of someone like Hokusai whose singleminded vision has become his entire universe.

O-Ei has her fair share of troubles as a young woman, though living with her father as his assistant she is a relatively free and unsheltered one. Her father doesn’t hide any aspect of his work from her – she even assists him with his erotic pieces and is said to be a particularly fine painter of women though her male figures lack conviction. “Sensation” itself becomes a theme, art is something which must be felt and therefore must have feeling imbued within it. As an unmarried woman O-Ei is ill equipt to complete these kinds of assignments and some say perhaps she should not be given them though her determination would never permit her to turn them down leading to rather a strange interlude in which she tries to gain some “experience” in a presumably “safe” way which won’t have much effect on her later life.

Less successfully, the film also attempts to enter the realm of the supernatural as we learn a painting can have other effects on the viewer particularly if it isn’t completed in the proper fashion. From a possessed geisha to a woman driven mad by O-Ei’s suitably creepy painting which features terrifying scenes from hell, Miss Hokusai most definitely occupies a world where ghosts, spirits and demons are real things which co-exist with real people. Luckily, Hokusai is able to fix the problem with the disturbing painting by closing its symbolic imagery with a suitable addition whilst berating O-Ei for having cut corners and not properly complete her vision so as to leave the onlooker “haunted” in an unintended way. Again, the painter is parent to the painting which attains the kind of immortality impossible for its creator in this transient world.

Clearly bound-up with the notion of transience, Miss Hokusai makes a valiant attempt to bring ordinary Edo living with its geisha houses, dusty rooms and drinking songs to life in vivid detail. However, its message becomes slightly confused with the superimposition of the modern Tokyo in the final frame of the film. At this point, the rather bizarre choice of a modern, electric guitar based soundtrack, begins to make a degree of sense at least on a thematic level but nowhere near enough to mitigate its jarring presence throughout the film.

Animated by animation powerhouse Production I.G who have been responsible for some of the most beautifully made animated movies of recent times, Miss Hokusai is a giant step up from Hara’s previous film, Colorful, in terms of its execution and boasts a number of scenes which are remarkable in their technical proficiency. The sky in particular as well as the background in general takes on a dreamy, woodblock style which is perfectly fitting for the film’s themes. An interesting look at the young O-Ei, an inexperienced female artist still looking for her voice in a world where the only thing that counts is the signature, Miss Hokusai doesn’t quite succeed in breathing life into its disparate collection of tales but makes a valiant attempt all the same.


Miss Hokusai is currently touring the UK with the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 and will be released by All the Anime later in the year.