Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.

Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow (聖の青春, Yoshitaka Mori, 2016)

satoshiThere’s a slight irony in the English title of Yoshitaka Mori’s tragic shogi star biopic, Satoshi: A Move For Tomorrow (聖の青春, Satoshi no Seishun). The Japanese title does something similar with the simple “Satoshi’s Youth” but both undercut the fact that Satoshi (Kenichi Matsuyama) was a man who only ever had his youth and knew there was no future for him to consider. The fact that he devoted his short life to a game that’s all about thinking ahead is another wry irony but one it seems the man himself may have enjoyed. Satoshi Murayama, a household name in Japan, died at only 29 years old after denying chemotherapy treatment for bladder cancer in fear that it would interfere with his thought process and set him back on his quest to conquer the world of shogi. Less a story of triumph over adversity than of noble perseverance, Satoshi lacks the classic underdog beats the odds narrative so central to the sports drama but never quite manages to replace it with something deeper.

Diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome as a child, the young Satoshi spent a lot of time alone in hospitals. To ease his boredom his father gave him a shogi set and the boy was hooked. Immersing himself in the world of the game, Satoshi read everything he could about tactics, practiced till his fingers bled and came up with his own unorthodox technique for playing that would eventually take him from his Osaka home to the bright lights of Tokyo. Determined to become the “Meijin”, beat top shogi player Habu (Masahiro Higashide), and get into the coveted 9th Dan ranking Satoshi cares for nothing other than the game, his only other hobbies being drink, junk food, and shojo manga.

Undoubtedly brilliant yet difficult, Satoshi is not an easy man to get along with. Years of medical treatment for nephrosis have left him pudgy and bloated, and an aversion to cutting his hair and nails (poignantly insisting that they have a right to live and grow) already makes him an unusual presence at the edge of a shogi board. He’s not exactly charming either with his overwhelming intensity, aloofness, and fits of angry frustration. Yet the shogi world fell in love with him for his encyclopaedic yet totally original approach to the game. His friends, of which there many, were willing to overlook his eccentricities because of his immense skill and because they knew that his anger and impatience came from forever knowing that his time was limited and much of life was already denied to him.

This insistent devotion to the game and desire to scale its heights before it’s too late is what gives Satoshi its essential drive even if the road does not take us along the usual route. Reckless with his health despite, or perhaps because of, his knowledge of his weakness, Satoshi operates on a self destructive level of excessive drink and poor diet though when he starts experiencing more serious problems which require urgent medical intervention, it’s easy to see why he would be reluctant to get involved with even more doctors. Eventually diagnosed with bladder cancer, Satoshi at first refuses and then delays treatment in fear that it will muddy his mind but the doctors tell him something worse – he should stay away from shogi and the inevitable stress and strain it places both on body and mind. For Satoshi, life without shogi is not so different from death.

Satoshi has his sights set on taking down popular rival Habu whose fame has catapulted him into the Japanese celebrity pantheon, even marrying a one of the most beloved idols of the day. Habu is the exact opposite of Satoshi – well groomed, nervous, and introverted but the two eventually develop a touching friendship based on mutual admiration and love of the game. On realising he may be about to beat Satoshi and crush his lifelong dreams, Habu is visibly pained but it would be a disservice both to the game and to Satoshi not to follow through. Outside of shogi the pair have nothing in common as an attempt to bond over dinner makes clear but Habu becomes the one person Satoshi can really talk to about his sadness in the knowledge that he’ll never marry or have children. As different as they are, Satoshi and Habu are two men who see the world in a similar way and each have an instinctual recognition of the other which gives their rivalry a poignant, affectionate quality.

Despite the game’s stateliness, Mori manages to keep the tension high as elegantly dressed men face each other across tiny tables slapping down little pieces of wood featuring unfamiliar symbols. Japanese viewers will of course be familiar with the game though overseas audiences may struggle with some its nuances even if not strictly necessary to enjoy the ongoing action. Matsuyama gives a standout performance as the tortured, tragic lead even gaining a huge amount of weight to reflect Satoshi’s famously pudgy appearance. Rather than the story of a man beating the odds, Satoshi’s is one of a man who fought a hard battle with improbable chances of success but never gave up, sacrificing all of himself in service of his goal. Genuinely affecting yet perhaps gently melancholy, Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow is a tribute to those who are prepared to give all of themselves yet also a reminder that there is always a price for such reckless disregard of self.


Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fallen Angel (人間失格, Genjiro Arato, 2010)

fallen-angelThe Fallen Angel (人間失格, Ningen Shikkaku), based on one of the best known works of Japanese literary giant Osamu Dazai – No Longer Human, was the last in a series of commemorative film projects marking the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth in 2009. Like much of Dazai’s work, No Longer Human is semi-autobiographical, fixated on the idea of suicide, and charts the course of its protagonist as he becomes hopelessly lost in a life of dissipation, alcohol, drugs, and overwhelming depression.

Even when we meet him as a small child, Yozo Oba (Toma Ikuta), feels himself set apart from his peers. Unable to connect fully with the people around him, Yozo gets through life by playing the clown. As a teenager, he meets another boy, Takeichi, who can see straight through his mask and encourages him in his artistic pursuits. Eventually, Yozo moves to Tokyo where he meets another artist, Horiki (Yusuke Iseya), who introduces him to the seedier pleasures of the city including drinking and hostess bars.

Yozo still feels adrift and is unable to cement his new found friendship with true connection. After asking Horiki to die with him (which he laughingly refuses to do), Yozo begins an ill-starred romance with a melancholy bar hostess with whom he does actually attempt double suicide. She dies, he doesn’t but his life is changed when he loses access to his familial wealth and is kicked out of university because of the scandal. Yozo has another shot at conventional happiness by briefly forming a family with a single mother and her little girl before leaving them because of problems resulting from his alcoholism. Eventually marrying a kind hearted woman, Yozo kicks the booze for a while and builds a career in manga but sure enough Horiki finds him and ruins his marital bliss by setting him back on the road to dissipation.

Arato makes a few changes to Dazai’s novel, mostly streamlining the book’s tripartite structure by eliding two events into one, but perhaps because of the well known nature of the story, he feels comfortable in making abrupt cuts and wide ranging shifts in terms of time. Dazai’s novel is much more focussed on the mental condition of its protagonist, whereas Arato has opted for a more overt display of the increasingly tense political environment with soldiers lurking in the background, later occupying a train shortly before the scene turns into a surreal segment in which Yozo reacquaints himself with all those he’s wronged throughout the course of the film.

Yozo’s tragedy is his inability to connect with other people even though he leads an ostensibly successful social life. Making himself an amiable presence, Yozo keeps people around him by making himself a figure of fun – a mask which gradually becomes far too heavy to wear. This buffoonish aspect of his personality is not very much in evidence in Arato’s film which focusses much more on his underlying depression than the joviality he uses to try and prevent anyone noticing just how broken he is inside. For this reason it becomes harder to see why everybody lets Yozo get away with his extremely bad behaviour for so long. Toma Ikuta captures Yozo’s listlessness and despair but without the necessary intensity to back them up and, ironically, without his sad clown routine Yozo does not always seem like someone anyone would want to hang out with for any great length of time.

Arato has recreated the novel’s pervading sense of numbness and despair to the letter with the consequence that his film remains resolutely cold. As appropriate as that may be, it makes it harder to achieve the kind of connection forged through Yozo’s first person narrative in the book. This approach brings out Yozo’s unpleasant qualities – his selfishness, weakness, cowardice, and propensity to addiction, but fails to display his better ones which lead to him being characterised as the ruined “angel” of the title. In distancing us from Yozo, Arato encourages us to see him either as a metaphor for the political turmoil taking place in his country during his lifetime, or simply as a someone whose intense self loathing eventually destroys his sense of self. What it does not encourage us to do is see that Yozo’s struggle is our own struggle, his despair is our despair felt to a greater or lesser degree. Too obtuse to be affecting, The Fallen Angel fails to capture the overwhelming nihilism of Dazai’s novel and ironically remains far too distant to achieve true connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Grasshopper (グラスホッパー, Tomoyuki Takimoto, 2015)

grasshopperThe best revenge is living well, but the three damaged individuals at the centre of Tomoyuki Takimoto’s Grasshopper (グラスホッパー) might need some space before they can figure that out. Reuniting with Brain Man star Toma Ikuta, Takimoto moves away from the more overtly sci-fi elements but maintains a level of everyday strangeness that adds weight to this standard B-movie affair. A revenge thriller in which revenge itself is shown to be a fallacy, Grasshopper manages to mix its grimy grind house violence aesthetic with an oddly hopeful view of human nature.

One tragedy connects three very different people. Halloween, Shibuya – a crazed man at the wheel of a 4×4 receives a phone call instructing him to “crush all those bugs”, because he’s “the saviour”. The man obeys and plows into the holiday revellers crushing them like insects under his wheels. One victim, Yuriko (Haru), who died pushing a child out of harm’s way happened to be the fiancée of middle school science teacher, Suzuki (Toma Ikuta). Revisiting the spot where she fell, Suzuki unexpectedly receives a letter informing him that the events which occurred at Halloween were not as straightforward as the media asserts and he should set about investigating the father and son working at “Fraulein”. His mind burning with thoughts of vengeance, Suzuki abandons his old life and launches himself headlong into the criminal underworld in search of answers.

Meanwhile, the evil kingpins at the centre of things have sent their ace hitman with a difference, Kujira (Tadanobu Asano), to silence a troublesome reporter. Kujira’s unusual assassination method involves a kind of hypnosis in which he forces his victims to acknowledge their darkest sins and eventually commit suicide. Though this sounds like the ideal plan for evading detection, the gangsters are nervous that Kujira has learned to much through his near death conversations with his targets and send a duo of slightly less competent killers on his trail. This leads us to our third strand – sociopathic blade wielding killer, Semi (Ryosuke Yamada), and his stray cat rescuing handler, Iwanishi (Jun Murakami).

Suzuki finds himself out of his depth in the murky, crime ridden underworld. Talking to yet another hitman he crosses paths with, Suzuki is offered the grasshopper analogy which lies at the centre of the film. Pusher (Hidetaka Yoshioka) tells him that unlike regular migratory locusts which are generally green, there is a mutant breed which undergoes a “swarm phase” in which their wings grown darker and longer, becoming ever more destructive in the quest to feed themselves in a crowded environment. People, Pusher claims, are no different. The film is filled with these mutant insects, crushing their fellow humans like roaches under boots, yet there’s something to be said for the migratory guys who keep moving and oppose the mutant breed through stealth and cunning.

Each of the three men is looking for a kind of revenge even if it’s ultimately self inflicted. Unusual hitman Kujira has hit the assassin’s version of angel wings in that he can see the faces of all the men and women he has killed, quite literally haunting his every move and offering a running commentary on his life. Setting out for vengeance against the men who’ve ordered his death, Kujira knows he’s nearing the end of his path yet before he gets there he will have to face off against Semi with whom he has no particular quarrel despite having just given Semi a reason to seek vengeance against him. Semi’s quest for revenge is pointed at Kujira but their mutual need for satisfaction will destroy each of them whilst also bringing them together as equals.

Everything prior to the fateful Halloween is bathed in golden light where warm colours predominate in Suzuki’s fond memories of his fiancée, but everything after is dark, reds and blacks tinged with insect green as grasshoppers swarm like harbingers of a great evil. Revenge itself is constantly frustrated and ultimately swept away from each party by shadowy forces secretly working against the darkness. Nothing is quite as it seems, no one is quite telling the truth. Yet as deep as the original conspiracy goes, the counter conspiracy consistently exceeds it.

Filled with impressive action sequences from Semi’s well choreographed balletic knife displays to large scale crowd scenes and good old fashioned fist fights, Grasshopper owns its down and dirty origins but reinvigorates them with a degree of modern sophistication. Yuriko, a soup chef, insists that the true secret ingredient in her cooking is genuine emotion – that this is what’s left behind when everything else is gone. Suzuki could choose to dive inside his cocoon of unresolved vengeance for the rest of his life but that would not have been what Yuriko wanted for him. In this anti-revenge drama, vengeance is the fallacy that detracts from the truth – that the ultimate form of revenge is learning to live with the past rather than wasting time settling scores.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lost Paradise (失楽園, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1997)

lost paradiseYoshitmitsu Morita tackled many different genres during his extremely varied career taking in everything from absurd social satire to teen idol vehicles and high art films. 1997’s Lost Paradise (失楽園, Shitsurakuen) again finds him in the art house realm as he prepares a tastefully erotic exploration of middle aged amour fou. Based on the bestselling novel by Junichi Watanabe, Lost Paradise also became a breakout box office hit as audiences were drawn by the tragic tale of doomed late love frustrated by societal expectations.

We meet Kuki (Koji Yakusho) and Rinko (Hitomi Kuroki) about to bid each other goodbye for the day, playfully in love though perhaps self conscious. It’s not until later that we realise they are both already married – just not to each other. Kuki, 50 years old, has reached an impasse in his life. Effectively demoted and sidelined at work, his homelife is not exactly unhappy but has long since lost his interest. His daughter is grown up and married herself, his wife has a career of her own, his mortgage is already paid off. There is really nothing left for him to do. That is until he meets calligraphy teacher Rinko and falls passionately in love for the first time in his life.

Rinko, 38, entered into an arranged marriage at 25 though the kindest way of describing it would be “unfulfilling”. Haruhiko (Toshio Shiba), her husband, is a doctor by profession and cuts a cold and distant figure. Prone to violent outbursts and pettiness, he treats Rinko more as a house keeper than a wife ordering her to buy his favourite kind of cheese (even urging her to travel to a different shop if the first one doesn’t have it) but then not even looking up when she brings it into his study for him. Lasciviously poking a spoon into the soupy mess, he pauses only briefly after savouring his first taste to give Rinko her next set of orders with no word of thanks or even acknowledgement of her success in obtaining this oddly specific cheese related request.

Finally in each other Rinko and Kuki find completeness long after they’d stopped seeking it. Rinko is unhappy in an arranged marriage which offers scant comfort, though Kuki’s problems are more akin to a mid life crisis as he finds himself an unnecessary presence at home whilst also realising that he’s already passed the high point of his career. Though there are no real barriers to Rinko and Kuki simply leaving their spouses and starting again together, it’s never quite that simple as the social stigma of an extra-marital affair continues to undermine their new found romance.

As in many of Morita’s films, the overall tone is one of pessimism as Rinko and Kuki face opposition from all sides whilst falling ever deeper into a whirlwind of self destructive passion. Rinko confides in a recently divorced friend who has guessed her secret and urges her to try and be happy, but Kuki keeps matters to himself whilst listening to the romantic problems of his workmates many of whom state that they too would like to fall madly in love, just once. When one of Kuki’s most valued colleagues falls ill, he laments having lived his life in the straightforward way expected by society. He’s done everything right – spent all his time working hard, built a career which was about to go south anyway. If all that happens is that you get old and die what was it all for – perhaps you’re better off just doing as you please, social expectations be damned.

Eventually the pair get an apartment and indulge in some part-time domesticity though an ill thought out blackmail plot soon changes things for both of them. Haruhiko refuses to divorce Rinko but Kuki’s wife is more sympathetic and open to the idea of sorting things out as quickly as possible. Though he suffers in other ways, Kuki finds it easier to accept the idea of moving on than Rinko who also faces opposition from her own mother who brands her as immoral and someone to be pitied for having given in to weakness and allowed her baser instincts to take over. Soon the couple find themselves thinking about a way to be together for eternity even if it lies in another world than this one.

Likened to the famous case of Sada Abe (also the inspiration for Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses), Rinko and Kuki are consumed by their own passion and ultimately unable to continue living outside it. Morita opts for an artful aesthetic and keeps his eroticism on the classy side rather than descending into exploitation or salaciousness. Making use of frequent handheld camera and odd angles to bring out the giddy, unbalanced mindset of the central couple Morita also experiments with colour often cutting to black and white or sepia mid-scene. The tragedy of this love story is that it occurs at a societally inconvenient time – there is nothing wrong in Rinko and Kuki’s romance save that it started after they were already married to other people. This may not seem such a great problem but in a society which demands conformity and adherence to its rules, those who break them must be prepared to pay a heavy price. Perhaps the last words ought to belong to Kuki’s poetic friend who points out that life if short and rarely rewards those who play by the rules, it may be better to burn out brightly rather than flicker away for an eternity.


Original trailer (no subs)