Another World (半世界, Junji Sakamoto, 2018)

Another World poster 2Director Junji Sakamoto’s career has been more meandering than most. Shuttling between hyper masculine fighting dramas, issue movies, and broad comedies, Sakamoto has always displayed an intense interest in the depth of male friendship which where his latest feature, rural drama Another World (半世界, Hansekai), takes him. A deceptively gentle story of small-town homecoming eventually broadens into a meditation on fathers and sons, frustrated dreams, and middle-aged malaise as its three dejected heroes attempt to bridge the gulf of years between them in order to rekindle the simple, innocent friendship they forged as naive teenagers more than 20 years previously.

The drama begins when Koh (Goro Inagaki) spots childhood friend Eisuke (Hiroki Hasegawa) unexpectedly hanging around his old home, now sadly abandoned following the death of his mother. Eisuke, unlike his friends, left his hometown to join the self defence forces and see the world. He has not returned home in some years and his sudden appearance is a pleasant, if perhaps concerning, surprise. Koh calls the other leg of the triangle, Mitsuhiko (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), and the trio of teenage buddies reunite, but Eisuke still seems distant and remains holed up in his family home rarely venturing outside, reluctant to confide in his old friends about whatever it is that he’s going through.

Meanwhile, the small town guys have problems of their own. Koh made the stubborn decision to take over his father’s charcoal business mostly to spite him, but times have changed and not only is demand dwindling but his product is unfavourably compared to his dad’s. Despite a seemingly happy marriage to the supportive Hatsuno (Chizuru Ikewaki), his home environment is also tense with resentment high between father and son as Koh struggles to relate to sullen teen Akira (Rairu Sugita) who is, unbeknownst to him, being bullied by the local delinquents. Unique among the three, Mitsuhiko has never married and still lives at home where he helps out with the family’s struggling car dealership, but remains cheerful in himself and is the most invested in maintaining the relationship between his two best friends in place of forging new relationships of his own.

Eisuke brings a new dynamic back with him as he struggles to readapt to small town life. As Koh suggests, he likely came back because he didn’t know where else to go but to his old friends even if he doesn’t quite want to let them help him. Now divorced and struggling with PTSD from his time in service as well as guilt over the death of a colleague, Eisuke provides an unexpected source of support for the conflicted Akira as he teaches him how to fight in order to defend himself while imparting what he knows of Koh in order to smooth the path between father and son. Koh, he tells him, had a bad relationship with his own violent dad who forbad him from the charcoal business which is exactly why he rebelled and did it anyway. Still fighting the ghost of his father, Koh has not found a way to connect with his son other than to let him be.

In a sense, each of these now middle-aged men is living in their own individual worlds as they push back against the forces of desperation but as Koh tells Eisuke, this small town existence is the “real world” too. Eisuke longs for escape, eventually retreating to a life on the sea after exposing his barely suppressed rage through an ill-advised show of violence which was itself in service of friendship. He superficially rejects the attempts of his friends to bring him back into the intimacy of their younger days as if fearing he no longer belongs in this ordinary world of wholesome small-town pleasures, but continues to search for the time capsule they buried all those years ago as if longing to recover their buried innocence.

Yet there is hope for the younger generation at least. Akira, coming to understand his father, accepts that he has a choice and eventually decides to honour both his father’s legacy and his own desires as he ponders the lonely life of a charcoal maker while putting on the boxing gloves that will allow him to fight for a freer future. Tragedies strike, life doesn’t turn out liked you hoped, but it goes on all the same with or without you. A warm if melancholy tribute to the healing power of friendship and its capacity to endure despite the weight of ages, Another World puts middle-aged malaise in perspective as its three disappointed heroes begin to find accommodation with where their choices, informed by those who came before, have led them, finding both peace and resignation in their in their ordinary small-town existence.


Another World was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Knockout (どついたるねん, Junji Sakamoto, 1989)

Knockout cap 1Thirty years after his debut, the career of director Junji Sakamoto has proved hard to pin down. An early focus on manly action drama gave way to character pieces, issue films, and comedy, but it was with his breakout first feature Knockout (どついたるねん, Dotsuitarunen) that something like a signature style was born. One of Japan’s many boxing movies (perhaps an unexpectedly populous genre), Knockout is once again the story of a man fighting himself as he struggles to overcome serious physical injury, emotional trauma, and his own fiercely unpleasant personality to finally become the kind of champion he has always feared himself incapable of becoming.

Dreaming dreams of boxing glory, Adachi (Hidekazu Akai) trained hard since he was a small boy and eventually became a champion of the ring. However, an ill-timed blow from a subpar opponent left him with an unexpected, life threatening injury requiring brain surgery after which he was advised to stay behind the ropes for the remainder of his days. A total asshole with a violent streak, Adachi can’t help alienating all those around him including childhood friend Takako (Haruko Sagara) whose father owns the National Brand gym where he used to train and had given vague promises of taking over once he retired. In his newly irritable state, Adachi has decided to start his own high class gym and has teamed up with a boxing enthusiast friend, Harada (Tetsuya Yuki), who runs a gay club, to buy National Brand’s promoter license to set up alone.

This being the kind of film that it is, it’s a given that Adachi will eventually want to get back in the ring despite all the inherent risks to his physical body. Nevertheless, the journey towards that realisation will be a humbling one as he is forced to confront the fact that he is a terrible person whose intense self obsession and intimidating behaviour has everyone around him walking on eggshells. Consequently, he does not make a particularly good boxing coach thanks to his didactic methods and rigid insistence on doing everything his own way. Only the kindly assistance of an older man, Sajima (Yoshio Harada), who also retired from the ring through injury, begins to show him the error of his ways but it’s not until he’s truly alienated all of his prospective pupils, as well as his patient backer, that he finally understands where it is that he belongs. 

Set in his native Osaka, Sakamoto weaves a rich tapestry of local life from the feisty Takako who dearly wanted to get in the ring herself only to be met with the constant refrain that boxing’s not for girls, to the mysterious Harada and his largely offscreen gay bar at which Adachi seems to be a frequent yet unwilling visitor who claims the place is too “weird” and fears interacting with others in the establishment. Meanwhile the applicants at his new gym which promises training with a “kindly” coach run from young toughs to softening salarymen desperate to engage with their dwindling masculinity. This is definitively a manly affair in which the frustrations of young(ish) men take centre stage though mainly through the destructive effects they have on the world around them – you’ll nary find a face around here that doesn’t have a bruise on it. While Adachi’s parents tiptoe around their own son as if he were some sort of gangster, Takako is the only one willing and able to stand up to him save the late entry of Sajima who appears to be dealing with some neatly symmetrical family issues of his own.

Starring real life boxer Hidekazu Akai, Knockout strives for realism in the ring even whilst emphasising the ongoing psychodrama that lies behind it. Adachi, like many boxing heroes, is engaged in constant battle with himself, trying to overcome the frightened little boy he once was rather than accepting him and admitting that even older he is often still scared and angry without really knowing why. Perhaps through his final, infinitely dangerous entry into the ring he will find some kind of answers to the questions he has been too afraid to ask but he has, in any case, become less of a problem for those around him in his continued quest towards becoming the best version of himself.


Children of the Dark (闇の子供たち, Junji Sakamoto, 2008)

Children of the Dark posterJunji Sakamoto’s career has been marked by a noticeable split between commercial projects and artier genre pieces but even considering his tendency towards socially conscious filmmaking, Children of the Dark (闇の子供たち, Yami no Kodomotachi) is a surprising entry into his filmography. Starring heartthrob Yosuke Eguchi as an earnest reporter determined to expose the extent of Japanese complicity in the exploitation of Thai children, Sakamoto’s film is hard hitting in the extreme, refusing to back away from the horrors that these children are forced to experience but perhaps taking things too far in putting his young actors through a series of emotionally difficult scenes. Children of the Dark was pulled from its slot in the Bangkok Film Festival for painting a less than idealised picture of the grim underbelly of Thai society but Sakamoto is also keen to point out that the problem is a global one which merely finds an unhappy home in a country many regard as a “paradise”.

Nanbu (Yosuke Eguchi), a Japanese ex-pat reporter living in Thailand, has been handed a hot tip on a difficult piece of investigate reporting relating to the illegal trafficking of human organs. His investigation brings him back into contact with a local NGO who operate a centre promoting educational and human rights whilst helping the impoverished children of the area. The NGO is currently investigating the disappearance of child they’d been trying to save, but the two investigations eventually overlap as it becomes clear that the organ trafficking and sexual exploitation of abandoned children are part of the same deeply entrenched cycle of human cruelty.

Nanbu’s key interest is in the Japanese connection to organ transplant case. A wealthy Japanese couple will apparently be bringing their son to Thailand for an illegal transplant to get around Japan’s strict medical ethics laws which prevent children becoming organ donors. Though it might be thought that the boy’s parents simply believe they will be undergoing a legitimate medical procedure only abroad, they are perfectly aware that the organ they will be receiving will have been acquired specifically for the purpose and will have been ripped from a healthy child rather than transplanted from an unfortunate accident victim.

Using the NGO’s contacts, Nanbu begins to realise how deeply the conspiracy runs. The NGO’s investigations lead them to a brothel in which extremely young boys and girls are kept in cages to be picked out like lobsters in a restaurant by the international clientele each after a different kind of sexual experience. The children are beaten if they refuse and literally “thrown out” in black bin bags should they contract illnesses such as AIDS. When one of the children is killed by a client who overdoses him on hormones, the matter is settled with financial compensation and the body disposed of. Many of these children are orphans from backgrounds of extreme poverty, neglected or abandoned by their parents into a life of sexual servitude in part caused by ongoing economic inequality which is only exacerbated by the thriving underworld enterprises of people and drug trafficking.

Nanbu is, however, only a reporter. Keiko (Aoi Miyazaki), a young and idealistic Japanese woman recently arrived in Thailand to work with the NGO, is committed to saving individual lives whereas Nanbu and the paper are committed to being passive observers exposing the truth in the hope that the whole sordid system will one day collapse. Keiko’s sometimes dangerous naivety is contrasted with Nanbu’s jaded complicity in essentially allowing a young child’s life to be sacrificed to get his story with only the justification that something might be done if the truth were known.

A final revelation, however, proves a step too far even if it encourages all to point the finger back on themselves and accept that personal complicity may run far deeper than most suspect. The tragedy is further undercut by the strange decision to end on an idyllic scene of paradise with a karaoke track playing over the top complete with lyrics pasted on the side – a tonal variation too far given the necessarily somber atmosphere of the the film as a whole. Despite the strangeness of the ending with its unexpected reversals and clumsy attempt at reflexivity, Children of the Dark is an urgent, difficult piece exposing the unspeakable cruelties hidden away in the underbelly of a foreign “paradise”.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Projects (団地, AKA Danchi, Junji Sakamoto, 2016)

danchi posterTimes change so quickly. The “danchi” was a symbol of post-war aspiration and rising economic prosperity as it sought to give young professionals an affordable yet modern, convenient way of life. The term itself is a little hard to translate though loosely enough just means a housing estate but unlike “The Projects” (団地, Danchi) of the title, these are generally not areas of social housing or lower class neighbourhoods but a kind of vertical village which one should never need to leave (except to go to work) as they also include all the necessary amenities for everyday life from shops and supermarkets to bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, aspirations change across generations and what was once considered a dreamlike promise of futuristic convenience now seems run down and squalid. Cramped apartments with tiny rooms, washing machines on the balconies, no lifts – young people do not see these things as convenient and so the danchi is mostly home to the older generation, downsizers, or the down on their luck.

The Yamashitas – Hinako (Naomi Fujiyama) and her husband Seiji (Ittoku Kishibe), moved into the danchi just a few months ago after abruptly closing their herbal medicine business. The couple have integrated into the mini community fairly well, but as newcomers their neighbours remain a little suspicious and stand offish while Hinako and Seiji have their own reasons for moving and mostly want to be left alone. To make ends meet, Hinako is working part-time at the local supermarket but Seiji is mostly left alone in his thoughts and likes to wander through the nearby woodland behind the estate, eventually earning a nomination for head of the housing committee thanks to his calm and reliable character.

Despite being the last thing he wanted Seiji warms to the idea and has quite a few suggestions for improvements to the estate if he gets elected. Sadly, he loses out at the last second when the incumbent decides to stand again. Depressed and humiliated, Seiji decides to hide inside the mini storage compartment under the couple’s kitchen floor, only emerging for meals and to use the bathroom. Seeing as no one has seen Seiji in weeks, the danchi is ripe with gossip. What can have happened to him? Has he run away with his tail between his legs? Found another woman? Disappeared? Another new resident whose husband is a TV reporter has different idea – Hinako must have killed him!

The village mentality is very much alive in the danchi where the dwindling population and host of empty apartments mean that everyone is very invested in everyone else’s business. Thus the gaggle of women who make up the chief gossip society are suddenly convinced they have a murderer in their midst! Hinako, disinterested in her neighbours’ petty chitchat, ignores them and tries to go on with her business whilst putting up with Seiji’s odd antics as best she can. The neighbours’ suspicions are further aroused by the couple’s mysterious visitor, Shinjo (Takumi Saito), who speaks extremely strange Japanese with oddly robotic delivery.

However much the residents like to tell tales about each other, they are still reluctant to get involved in each other’s affairs. Everyone seems to know that the bossy man from across the way is abusive towards his wife and step-son but no one wants to do anything about it. The boy wanders the same woodland as Seiji, loudly singing the Gatchaman theme song with its cheerful chorus of the world being as one, and trying to keep out of his stepfather’s way. Only Hinako, witnessing the man about to inflict some harsh discipline on his step-son is brave enough to say something but her intervention only provides a momentary reprieve.

Though largely played for laughs there are some darker sides to the world of the danchi – the covert affairs, the gossip, the boredom, and the wilful ignoring of other people’s distress, to name but a few. In true Osakan style there is however a warmth to the comedy coupled with an endearing silliness which contrasts nicely with the more melancholy aspects hanging around the edges. Taking in everything from petty local politics to murder accusations and over zealous TV reporting, not to mention aliens, The Projects’ ambitions are wild and the tone oddly surreal but then again, nothing’s impossible in the danchi!


The Projects was screened as part of the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Injured Angels (傷だらけの天使, Junji Sakamoto, 1997)

injured-angelsDespite having started his career in the action field with the boxing film Dotsuitarunen and an entry in the New Battles Without Honour and Humanity series, Junji Sakamoto has increasingly moved into gentler, socially conscious films including the Thai set Children of the Dark and the Toei 60th Anniversary prestige picture A Chorus of Angels. Injured Angels (傷だらけの天使, Kizudarake no Tenshi) marries both of aspects of his career but leans towards the softer side as it finds genial private detective Mitsuru (Etsushi Toyokawa) accepting a request from a dying man to ensure the safe passage of his young son to the boy’s mother in Northern Japan.

Reluctantly taking on an assignment to question the last remaining tenant of an office block, Mitsuru discovers the man inside already mortally wounded. During their conversation, the man offers him all the money he has left to take his young son to his estranged wife, currently living in a small town in the North of Japan. Mitsuru doesn’t really want this kind of hassle but feels sorry for the man and his son and eventually decides to make sure the boy, Hotaru, gets to someone who can take of him. The pair set off on a kind of road trip eventually joined by Mitsuru’s partner Hisashi (Claude Maki) meeting friends old and new along the way.

Inspired by the 1970s TV series of the same title, Injured Angels adopts an oddly jokey tone throughout as Mitsuru has various strange adventures whilst trying to guide a small child to someone willing to take him in. At one stage, the film goes off on a long and improbable tangent in which Mitsuru runs into an old friend who is currently wearing a lucha libre mask “for work”. The pair then board the bus with the wrestlers before Mitsuru himself ends up in the ring. Though fun, the sequence has little to do with the ongoing plot other than adding to the already absurd atmosphere.

Predictably, when Mitsuru reaches the address he’s been given, Hotaru’s mother has already moved on but even when they eventually find her, the reaction is not the one you’d expect. Soon to be married again, Hotaru’s mother (Kimiko Yo) is not keen to resume custody of her son (or rather, her husband to be has no desire to raise another man’s child and even goes so far as to use physical violence on Mitsuru to show the strength of his feeling). Hotaru starts to grow attached to the two detectives who are probably giving him the most normal kind of family life that he has known for a very longtime. The guys seem to know they can’t keep him indefinitely and are intent on finding another relative but the mini family they’ve formed may be painful to break up.

While all of this is going on, Mitsuru also has a series of meetings with a woman from Tokyo, Eiko (Tomoyo Harada), who keeps bumping into him. Though an obvious attraction develops, Eiko is also fleeing her own kind of trouble and the pair seem content to leave things up to fate and possible drinks in Tokyo at an unspecified point in time, but this oddly integrated plot strand fails to have a real impact within the narrative as a whole. It does, however, add to Mitsuru’s ongoing existential dilemma as he begins to reexamine his life and relationships after bonding with Hotaru. Ultimately he opts for asking his partner, Hiasashi, to move in with him when they get back to Tokyo but at the same time Mitsuru seems to know he may be headed for another destination entirely.

This tonal strangeness is a serious weakness where would expect a more nihilistic atmosphere as Mitsuru’s journey begins to take shape but the inconsequential humour and mildly absurdist approach continues right until the anticlimactic ending. Perhaps feeling a need to recreate the feeling of the TV series, Sakamoto fails to reconcile these differing levels of seriousness into a convincing whole in allowing for the kind of light and breezy action in which everything is definitely going to be OK by next week’s episode. For what’s actually a look at neglected, abandoned children coupled with intense friendships and romantic dilemmas, the bouncy, ridiculous tone is an odd fit and robs the piece of its dramatic weight. Nevertheless, despite the structural problems, Injured Angels is often a fairly enjoyable, if odd, character drama even it ultimately fails to amount to very much as a whole.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Junji Sakamoto, 2012)

chorus of angelsAs you read the words “adapted from the novel by Kanae Minato” you know that however cute and cuddly the blurb on the back may make it sound, there will be pain and suffering at its foundation. So it is with A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Kita no Kanariatachi) which sells itself as a kind of mini-take on Twenty-Four Eyes (“Twelve Eyes” – if you will) as a middle aged former school mistress meets up with her six former charges only to discover that her own actions have cast an irrevocable shadow over the very sunlight she was determined to shine on their otherwise troubled young lives.

Haru has been working as a librarian in the city for the last twenty years and has finally reached retirement age but before that she was a school teacher in Japan’s frozen north. Before she can even think about enjoying her new found freedom, a pair of policeman turn up at her door to ask her a few questions about one of her former pupils, Nobuto, who is a suspect in a murder case. It seems that they found Haru’s address amongst Nobuto’s possessions and are keen to find out what kind of relationship she had with him and anything she might know about his current whereabouts. Haru is shocked to the core but remembers that she always gets a New Year card from one of Nobuto’s classmates, Manami, and decides to return home at long last to try and put to rest some wandering ghosts.

Like much of Kanae Minato’s work, A Chorus of Angels is a perfectly constructed mystery only this time much more of the heart than of the head. Consequently, it would be wrong to reveal too much of the plot but suffice to say that a traumatic incident twenty years ago left a profound effect not only on each of the children but also on their teacher and others in the surrounding area. Re-encountering each of her six pupils again, Haru discovers that each of them has been harbouring a deeply buried sense of guilt and shame, believing themselves to have been responsible for what happened that day. That sense of unresolved trauma has prevented each of them from fully getting on with their lives, as if some part of each of them was frozen in time when they were just primary school children singing in a choir and feeling proud of themselves for the first time in their lives.

Their teacher, Haru, also left a part of herself behind in that snowy northern landscape. Having committed something which some would regard as a sin, she’s hounded off the island – or perhaps allows herself to be, giving in to a punishment that she sees as befitting her own sense of guilt. However, as is customary for Minato, Haru’s “crime” is not such a black and white affair. If she betrayed someone, that person understood and, ultimately, only wanted the best for her. That she sacrificed the things that might have allowed her to go on living a happy life is the kind of tragic irony Minato is known for and the lonely, cold and shut off appearance of Haru’s twenty years of librarianing exile is another perfect example. She didn’t really do anything wrong except for try to live, and yet she’s paid for that with the next twenty years of her life and not only that, in robbing the young children who’d come to see her as something of a guardian angel of her very presence, she’s left them to pay too. Guilt grows like a mountain until it eclipses even the brightest of suns.

Despite its unfeasibly starry cast which radiates around veteran actress Sayuri Yoshinga and includes such young talents as Hikari Mitsushima, Mirai Moriyama, Ryuhei Matsuda, Ryo Katsuji, Aoi Miyazaki and Eiko Koike, A Chorus of Angles is actually fairly ordinary in terms of its directorial style and though it manages to stay on the right side of saccharine, never quite manages to make its tear-jerking set-up quite as moving as it seems to want to be. That said, it does boast some extraordinarily beautiful scenes of the Hokkaido snowscape which is a perfect setting for this chilling, frozen ghost story in which no actual ghosts appear. The children’s childhoods are all blissful blue skies and sunny summer days but in the future there’s only snow and cold winter sunshine. Just stay alive, it would be enough – to live is to suffer, but you have to go on. The important thing to learn is that it’s one thing to forgive everyone else, but there comes a time when you have to forgive yourself, too.


The Hong Kong release of A Chorus of Angels includes English subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer: