The Laughing Frog (笑う蛙, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2002)

laughing frog posterEver have a day (or perhaps a lifetime) where you feel so stupid that even the frogs are laughing at you? That’s pretty much how it is for disgraced former bank manager Ippei when he turns up one day at a family holiday home he assumed would be empty but turns out not to be. In Laughing Frog (笑う蛙, Warau Kaeru) director Hideyuki Hirayama deftly dissects the modern family, the gradual redundancy of the middle-aged man, and the way society seems to have of anointing the lucky and the unlucky, in a darkly humorous satire in which even mother nature seems to be mocking our petty human concerns.

33 year old Ryoko (Nene Otsuka) is attending the third memorial service for her late father at which her greedy sister-in-law (Kumija Kim) asks for various things in an attempt to get some of the inheritance in advance while Ryoko’s brother (Shuzo Mitamura) wanders off to chat about silkworms in Chinese on his mobile phone. The event ends with Ryoko’s sprightly mother (Izumi Yukimura) and the sister-in-law urging her to sort out some kind of marital difficulties in order to ease the awkwardness surrounding her lack of external connections.

Meanwhile, Ryoko’s missing husband, Ippei (Kyozo Nagatsuka), rocks up at a rural station and climbs into a familiar house through an open window. Wandering around in his pants, he hears a noise and realises someone lives there after all. Ryoko has moved into her father’s old house in the country and started a whole new life for herself. After a brief discussion, Ryoko agrees to let him stay for a while on the condition that he finally sign the divorce papers but Ippei soon finds himself confined to an especial kind of irrelevance as he starts his new life in the hall cupboard observing his wife’s new freedoms by means of a tiny hole in the wall.

No one seems to have much of a good word to say about Ippei, which is fair enough seeing as he apparently became obsessed with a bar hostess and embezzled money from his bank to pay for a lavish affair before running away and leaving his wife to deal with the fallout. He is, however, paying for it now as his own irrelevance is once and truly brought home to him as he lives out his days like an impotent ghost trapped in a storage cupboard undergoing his wife’s strange mix of kindness and revenge.

Ryoko, the goodly wife, is not quite all she seems. Ippei’s mistress makes a surprise appearance to try a spot of extortion on the wealthy wife but she’s no match for Ryoko’s perfectly practiced poise. One of the oddly cruel accusations the mistress has to offer is that Ippei once referred to a kind of boredom with his wife’s properness, branding her a “fancy pet cat” whilst apparently avowing the mistress’ bedroom superiority. If Ippei’s sheepish behind the wall expression is anything to go by he is guilty as charged but then perhaps the uncomfortable statement leads right back to his uncomfortable place within Ryoko’s upperclass family who seem to look down on a mere bank manager, affecting politeness while secretly bemoaning the fact that their daughter has married beneath herself.

The model upperclass family is a simulacrum. Feigning politeness, elegance and dignity they attempt to disguise their otherwise distasteful affectations. Ryoko’s sister-in-law is at least honest in her constant harping on about the inheritance, plan to steal grandma’s house out from under her to knock it down and build a new one, and constant asides to her apparently hopeless (and unseen) son away at a (not great) university. Meanwhile her husband, Ryoko’s brother, pretends to chat silkworms in Chinese on his phone but is really talking to a Chinese mistress and Ryoko’s mum is planning to get married again to a (possibly dodgy) antiques dealer (Mickey Curtis) who is so deeply in debt there won’t even be any inheritance anyway.

Ryoko too has moved on. Ippei is forced to watch as she entertains her new boyfriend (Jun Kunimura), a stonemason whose main line is headstones, while the frogs outside work themselves into some kind of frenzy. Little by little all his manly affectations are worn away – he’s forced to realise how foolish he’s been, how irrelevant he is in Ryoko’s life, and how perfectly pointless his fugitive existence really is. Ryoko meanwhile remains calm and calculating. She “lies” and she wins in a bloodless victory, allowing her opponents to sentence themselves to the punishments they feel themselves to deserve. Ippei, it seems, is just a weak, unlucky man doomed to ruin himself through a series of poetic failures and petty self involved mistakes. Meanwhile the frogs look on and laugh at our human follies. Makes you feel small doesn’t it….


Oh Lucy! (オー・ルーシー!, Atsuko Hirayanagi, 2017)

Oh Lucy! posterDespite its rich dramatic seam, the fate of the lonely, long serving Japanese office lady approaching the end of the career she either sacrificed everything for or ended up with by default has mostly been relegated to a melancholy subplot – usually placing her as the unrequited love interest of her oblivious soon to be retiring bachelor/widower boss. Daihachi Yoshida’s Pale Moon was perhaps the best recent attempt to bring this story centre stage in its neat contrasting of the loyal employee about to be forcibly retired by her unforgiving bosses and the slightly younger woman who decides she’ll have her freedom even if she has to do something crazy to get it, but Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy! (オー・ルーシー!) is a more straightforward tale of living with disappointment and temporarily deluding oneself into thinking there might be an easier way out than simply facing yourself head on.

Middle-aged office lady Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is the office old bag. Unpopular, she keeps herself aloof from her colleagues, refusing the sweets a lovely older lady (herself somewhat unpopular but for the opposite reasons) regularly brings into the office, and bailing on after hours get togethers. Her life changes one day when the man behind her on a crowded station platform grabs Setsuko’s chest and says goodbye before hurling himself in front of the train. Such is life.

Taking some time off work she gets a call from her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) to meet her in the dodgy maid cafe in which she has been working. Mika has a proposition for her – having recently signed up for a year’s worth of non-refundable English classes, Mika would rather do something else with the money and wonders if she could “transfer” the remainder onto Setsuko. Despite her tough exterior Setsuko is something of a soft touch and agrees but is surprised to find the “English School” seems to be located in room 301 of a very specific brothel. John (Josh Hartnett), her new teacher, who has a strict English only policy, begins by giving Setsuko a large hug before issuing her a blonde wig and rechristening her “Lucy”. Through her English lesson, “Lucy” also meets another man in the same position “Tom” (Koji Yakusho) – a recently widowed, retired detective now working as a security consultant. Setsuko is quite taken with her strange new hobby, and is heartbroken to realise Mika and John are an item and they’ve both run off to America.

Setsuko’s journey takes her all the way to LA with her sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), desperate to sort her wayward daughter out once and for all. As different as they are, Ayako and Setsuko share something of the same spikiness though Setsuko’s cruel streak is one she deeply regrets and only allows out in moments of extreme desperation whereas a prim sort of bossiness appears to be Ayako’s default. Setsuko’s Tokyo life is one of embittered repression, having been disappointed in love she keeps herself isolated, afraid of new connections and contemptuous of her colleagues with their superficial attitudes and insincere commitment to interoffice politeness. Suicide haunts her from that first train station shocker to the all too common “delays caused by an incident on the line” and the sudden impulsive decision caused by unkind words offered at the wrong moment.

“Lucy” the “relaxed” American blonde releases Setsuko’s better nature which had been only glimpsed in her softhearted agreeing to Mika’s proposal and decision to allow Ayako to share her foreign adventure. John’s hug kickstarted something of an addiction, a yearning for connection seemingly severed in Setsuko’s formative years but if “Lucy” sees John as a symbol of American freedoms – big, open, filled with possibilities, his homeland persona turns out to be a disappointment. Just like the maid’s outfit Setsuko finds in John’s wardrobe, John’s smartly bespectacled English teacher is just a persona adopted in a foreign land designed to part fools from their money. Still, Setsuko cannot let her delusion die and continues to see him as something of a saviour, enjoying her American adventure with girlish glee until it all gets a bit a nasty, desperate, and ultimately humiliating.

Having believed herself to have only two paths to the future – being “retired” like the office grandma, pitied by the younger women who swear they’ll never end up like her (much as Setsuko might have herself), or making a swift exit from a world which has no place for older single women, Setsuko thought she’d found a way out only to have all of her illusions shattered all at once. “Lucy” showed her who she really was, and it wasn’t very pretty. Still, even at this late stage Setsuko can appreciate the irony of her situation. That first hug that seemed so forced and awkward, an insincere barrier to true connection, suddenly finds its rightful destination and it looks like Setsuko’s train may finally have come in.


Screened at Raindance 2017

Expanded from Atsuko Hirayanagi’s 2014 short which starred Kaori Momoi.

Clip (English subtitles)

Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2010)

sketches of kaitan cityYasushi Sato, a Hakodate native, has provided the source material for some of the best films of recent times including Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence but it has to be said that his world view is anything but positive. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri takes on Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kaitanshi Jokei) inspired by a collection of short stories left unfinished on Sato’s death by suicide in 1990. Despite the late bubble era setting of the stories (now updated to the present day), his Kaitan (eerily close to the real life Hakodate) is a place of decline and hopelessness, populated by the disillusioned and despairing.

The first story concerns a brother and sister whose lives have been defined by the local shipbuilding industry. Since their father was killed in a dockside fire, older brother Futa (Pistol Takehara) has been taking care of his little sister Honami (Mitsuki Tanimura) and now works at the docks himself. Times being what they are, the company is planning to close three docks with mass layoffs inevitable. The workers strike but are unable to win more than minor concessions leaving Futa unable to continue providing for himself or his sister.

Similar tales of societal indifference follow as an old lady living alone with her beloved cat is hounded by a developer (Takashi Yamanaka) desperate to buy her home. Across town the owner of the planetarium (Kaoru Kobayashi) is living a life of quiet desperation, suspecting that his bar hostess wife (Kaho Minami) is having an affair. Meanwhile a gas canister salesman (Ryo Kase) is trying to branch out but having little success, and a tram driver dwells on his relationship with his estranged son.

Economic and social concerns become intertwined as increasing financial instability chips away at the foundations of otherwise sound family bonds. Futa’s situation is one of true desperation now that he’s lost the only job he’s ever had and is ill equipped to get a new one even if there were anything going in this town which revolves entirely around its port.

Yet other familial bonds are far from sound to begin with. The gas canister salesman, going against his father’s wishes in trying to diversify with a series of water purifiers he believes will be a guaranteed earner because of the need to replace filters, takes out his various frustrations through astonishing acts of violence against his wife who then passes on the legacy of abuse to his son, Akira (You Koyama). Resentful towards his father and embarrassed by his lack of success with the water filters, the gas canister salesman threatens to explode but unexpectedly finding himself on the receiving end of violence, he is forced into a reconsideration of his way of life – saving one family member, but perhaps betraying another.

The gas canister salesman is not the only one to have a difficult relationship with his child. The planetarium owner cannot seem to connect with his own sullen offspring and is treated like an exile within his own home while the tram driver no longer speaks to his son who is apparently still angry and embarrassed that his mother worked in a hostess bar.

Yet for all of this real world disillusionment, despair takes on a poetic quality as the planetarium owner spends his days literally staring at the stars – even if they are fake. The gas canister salesman’s son, Akira, becomes a frequent visitor, excited by the idea of the telescope and dreaming of a better, far away world only to have his hopes literally dashed by his parents, themselves already teetering on the brink of an abyss. Futa’s lifelong love has been with shipping – the company officials are keen to sell the line that it’s all about the boats and an early scene of jubilation following the launch of a recently completed vessel would seem to bear that out, but when it comes down to it the values are far less pure than a simple love of craftsmanship. Kaitan City is a place where dreams go to die and hope is a double edged sword.

There are, however, small shoots of positivity. The old lady welcomes her cat back into her arms, discovering that it is pregnant and stroking it gently, reassuring it that everything will be OK and she will take care of the new cat family. Signs of life appear, even if drowned out by the noise of ancient engines and the sound of the future marching quickly in the opposite direction. Bleak yet beautifully photographed, Sketches of Kaitan City perfectly captures the post-industrial malaise and growing despair of those excluded from economic prosperity, left with nothing other than false promises and misplaced hope to guide the way towards some kind of survival.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Drifting Classroom (漂流教室, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1987)

Drifting ClassroomNobuhiko Obayashi may have started out as an experimental filmmaker and progressed to a lengthy narrative film career but he remains best known for his “what the hell am I watching?” cult classic Hausu. Aside from his 1983 take on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, very little of his other work has travelled outside of Japan. In the case of 1987’s The Drifting Classroom (漂流教室, Hyoryu Kyoshitsu), this is doubly surprising firstly because it’s based on a hugely popular manga by the godfather of horror comics Kazuo Umezu and secondly because it’s set in an international school so around 80% of the dialogue is in English.

Obayashi jettisons most of Umezu’s original plot which involves an ordinary Japanese school being suddenly and mysteriously uprooted from its city centre location leaving only a gaping hole to mark its place. This time our hero is Shou – a teenage boy who has recently returned from living in LA and is attending Kobe International School until his Japanese improves enough to get into a normal establishment. Having lived abroad for so long, Shou is a totally Americanised boy with a rebellious, individualistic streak and just wants to hang out with his cool American pals rather than study like his parents want him to do so he can get a foot on the all important ladder of the Japanese educational system. Consequently he argues with his mother and says some very harsh things which leads to her telling him to get out and not to bother coming back – sentiments which both are about to spend the rest of their lives regretting.

Right before taking the register some weird shit goes down and there’s an intense storm which fills most of the school building with sand. Looking out of the windows, everything seems to have become desert. The kids and the two remaining teachers think about what to do and settle on practical things like rationing the food and water left in the school canteen. Back in Kobe, there’s just a giant hole in the ground and a whole lot of confusion….

For some reason, Obayashi decided to set the story in an international school which means that most of the dialogue is in English (though judging by the accents and languages there are some Europeans and students from other parts of Asia around too). This is the single worst decision of the adaptation as the dialogue, which is overly silly to begin with, is offered in stilted, halting tones by its disappointing child actors with the native English speakers not doing very much better than the Japanese kids who are at least trying their best. Perhaps for these reasons (or just out of operational necessities) the film is entirely shot in non-sync sound and the dubbing never quite links up either.

It almost seems as if Obayashi is targeting an overseas audience as his tone is very much indebted to ‘80s kids’ movies with its cast of slightly plucky (sometimes irritatingly so) youngsters trying to solve the mystery of their own disappearance. However, it doesn’t seem as if the film was ever released outside of Japan (where it has never even been released on DVD) despite the presence of one time American star Troy Donohue leaving the strange Americanisms as a sort of exotic plot element with no real resolution.

Though the story seems to be aimed at older children with the usual themes of perseverance in times of adversity and the importance of teamwork and friendship, there are a few scary moments including a psycho style gag where a teacher’s head spins round before dissolving into sand. However, the majority of the special effects are extremely unconvincing resembling an ‘80s kids TV programme with a host of matte paintings, bad green screen, early digital effects and even some tokusatsu style people in rubber suits playing strange cockroach-like monsters. Arguably the best of these is the friendly creature who hangs round with the kids from school and most closely resembles a disgruntled potato with legs (but may actually be giving the most accomplished performance in the entire film).

All of this could have added to the film’s kitsch, “bad movie” vibe but Obabyashi opts to get serious every now and then and ruins everyone’s fun in the process. Weirdly, everyone just seems to accept the “timeslip” argument right away as if that’s a perfectly normal thing that happens every now and then like sinkholes or spontaneous human combustion – there’s even a geologist (?) being interviewed on the news who just says “yes – it is probably a timeslip” when asked to provide some “scientific commentary” on the disappearance of the school children. Completely bizarre but not in a very interesting way, The Drifting Classroom is a misfire on all levels neither making a good adaptation of its source material or an entertaining movie in its own right. Camp classics enthusiasts or Obayashi fanatics only.


The Drifting Classroom was also adapted into a TV drama in 2002 under the title of Long Love Letter which is much better than this movie.

A short scene from the film starring its best character whom I have decided to name “Spuddy” (English dialogue):

Kabukicho Love Hotel (さよなら歌舞伎町, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2014)

165709_02Kabukicho Love Hotel (さよなら歌舞伎町, Sayonara Kabukicho), to go by its more prosaic English title, is a Runyonesque portrait of Tokyo’s red light district centered around the comings and goings of the Hotel Atlas – an establishment which rents by the hour and takes care not to ask too many questions of its clientele. The real aim of the collection of intersecting stories is more easily seen in the original Japanese title, Sayonara Kabukicho, as the vast majority of our protagonists decide to use today’s chaotic events to finally get out of this dead end town once and for all.

The first couple we meet, Toru and Saya are young and apparently in love though the relationship may have all but run its course. She’s a singer-songwriter chasing her artistic dreams while he longs for a successful career in the hotel industry. He hasn’t told her that far from working at a top hotel in the city, he’s currently slumming it at the Atlas. Our next two hopefuls are a couple of (illegal) Korean migrants – she wants to open a boutique, he a restaurant. She told him she works as a hostess (which he’s not so keen on but it pays well), but she’s a high class call girl well known to the staff at the Atlas. Our third couple are a little older – Satomi works at the Atlas as a cleaner but she has a secret at home in the form of her man, Yasuo, who can’t go outside because the couple is wanted for a violent crime nearly 15 years previously. In fact, in 48hrs the statute of limitations will pass and they can finally get on with their lives but until then Satomi will continue to check the wanted posters on the way to work. That’s not to mention the tale of the teenage runaway and the hard nosed yakuza who wanted to recruit her as a call girl but had a change of heart or the porn shoot on the second floor which stars a lady with an unexpected relationship to one of the hotel’s employees…

It’s all go in Kabukicho. The punters come (ahem), go and leave barely a mark save for the odd tragedy to remind you that this is the place nobody wanted to end up. In fact, the picture Hiroki paints of Kabukicho is the oddly realistic one of someone hovering on its fringes, acknowledging the darkness of the place but refusing to meet its eyes. Everybody is, or was, dreaming of something better – Toru with his job at a five star hotel and a sparkling career in hospitality, Satomi and her romance or the Korean couple who want to make enough money to go home and start again. In short, this isn’t the place you make your life – it’s the one you fall into after you’ve hit rock bottom and promptly want to forget all about after you’ve clawed your way out.

However, while you’re there, you’re invested in the idea of it not being all that bad, really. There’s warmth and humour among the staff at the hotel who treat this pretty much the same as any other job despite its occasional messiness. In fact, the agency for the which the Korean hopeful works is run by an oddly paternalistic “pimp” (this seems far to strong a word somehow) who sits around in an apron and chats, offering comfort and fatherly advice in between dispatching various pretty young girls off to any skeevy guy who wants to rent them for an hour or two.

That’s not to say anyone is happy here though, all anyone’s focussed on is getting out and by the end the majority of them decide it’s just not worth it and the time to leave is now. Kabukicho Love Hotel may be one of Hiroki’s most mainstream efforts (despite its far less frequent than you might expect though frank sexual content) but its overlong running time and its failure to fully unify its disperate ensemble stories make it a slightly flawed one. An interestingly whimsical black comedy that takes a humorous view of Kabukicho’s darkside, Kabukicho Love Hotel is perhaps one it’s fairly easy to check out of well before the end of your stay but does offer a few of its own particular charms over the duration of your visit.


Or perhaps, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave? We are all just prisoners here, of our own device….