12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2019)

12 Suicidal Teens posterJapan has a relatively high suicide rate, but even so the number of people taking their own lives had been steadily decreasing, hitting a 22-year low in 2016. Conversely, youth suicide rates peaked, hitting a 30-year high. Inspired by Tow Ubukata’s novel, 12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Juni-nin no Shinitai Kodomo-tachi), as the title implies, sees a dozen high school students forming a kind of club in which they will take the decision to live or die as a group, ironically undercutting the sense of powerlessness which has led them to the conclusion that they have no other choice other than death.

Ringleader Satoshi (Mahiro Takasugi) has recruited 11 likeminded souls and furnished them with complicated instructions involving a series of secret codes granting them access to a basement meeting room in an abandoned hospital. The 12 dutifully make their way into the building, but a surprise is waiting for them. When the first guest arrives, a young man is already lying in one of the 12 beds arranged around the edges of the room, apparently having jumped the gun, dead or dying after taking a large amount of sleeping pills. Everyone concludes he must be the event’s organiser, only for Satoshi to suddenly arrive and attempt to “open” the meeting at which they’re supposed to discuss the issues thoroughly so they can be sure they’re making the right decision. Because of the unexpected 13th guest, a decision is taken to postpone the discussion until after they figure out what’s going on.

Part of the reason for that is less curiosity than a kind of resentment. The teens are worried that their own deaths maybe misunderstood or misused if they’re discovered with this randomer in their midst. What if he’s the victim of a serial killer and everyone thinks they are too, never getting the message that each of them was desperate to send with their deaths? One young man who is dying to get back at a neglectful mother by denying her a life insurance pay out is worried it might backfire and she’d end up quids in if the police decide he’s a murder victim and not a suicide. He decides to live (for the moment at least) almost all out of spite.

Spite is, it seems, a powerful motivator in one sense or another. What most of our teens want isn’t really death but freedom, an end to pain or suffering. Suicide rates spike in September because bullied students can’t bear the thought of returning to school. Bullying is indeed the reason one of our teens wants to die, only the instigator was a teacher who led his class to victimise an innocent student solely for the crime of being an “annoying” person. Another teen, meanwhile, was bullied until he finally snapped, pushing his aggressor down a flight of stairs. Unable to live with the guilt, he too feels he can’t go on.

For the girls, the lack of control is all the more obvious. One young woman walks around with a surgical mask covering her face, not because she’s hideously burned but because she’s fantastically beautiful. One of Japan’s many celebrity idols, she’s on the cover of a thousand teen magazines but doesn’t recognise herself in the images that she sees and resents the way in which her existence is micromanaged by others. She wants to die as a means of seizing her own agency, to prove that her life and her individuality were valid and mattered as distinct from the fake persona created by her managers. Her fame endangers the mission of the group’s most emo member who declares that the mass suicide should be bomb detonated under an indifferent society, that she’s dying to reject her existence and rebelling against having been born.

Like some of the others, she’s a survivor of abusive parenting and resents having been given a “meaningless” life. A few of the other teens feel the same but for different reasons, they are suffering longterm or terminal health conditions and resent both their fates and being forced to live on without hope. They choose death now to prove they have a choice and are leaving on their own terms, not those of the universe.

Eventually the conclusion that they come to is that to live is also a choice. Working together to solve the mystery of the unexpected guest, they begin to understand a little of each other’s lives and their own, bonding in a shared sense of futility that slowly drifts into a rejection of the nihilism that had convinced them that their only choice was death. A strangely uplifting experience, 12 Suicidal Teens is a dark celebration of life that makes a virtue of endurance and finally finds meaning in commonality and the simple joy of empathic connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kingdom (キングダム, Shinsuke Sato, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Kingdom poster 1The class war arrives in feudal China via modern Japan in Shinsuke Sato’s big budget adaptation of the wuxia-inspired manga by Yasuhisa Hara, Kingdom (キングダム). Set in China’s Warring States period, Kingdom offers a surprisingly progressive message, if mildly tempered by a failure to tackle the system in its entirety, in which the oppressed (which in this case includes the king) rise up against sneering aristocracy fuelled mostly by righteousness and fierce defence of the right to dream.

The tale begins with a fateful meeting between enslaved war orphans Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa) and Xin (Kento Yamazaki) on a small farm somewhere in rural China. The boys, realising there is no way out of their enslavement save the sword, commit themselves to perfecting their martial arts with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s greatest generals. Their intense bond is broken when a mysterious man, Lord Chang . Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima), appears and offers Piao a job at the palace. Though he agonises over leaving his brother behind, Piao seizes his destiny little knowing he has been hired not quite so much for his sword skills as for his resemblance to weakened king Ying Zheng (also played by Ryo Yoshizawa). Sometime later, Piao returns close to death, entrusting Xin with an important mission – go to Ying Zheng and seek his own destiny by restoring rightful rule.

The two boys are about as oppressed as it’s possible to be – orphaned slaves with no prospect of improving their condition save the one they’ve already decided on, fighting in a war. This doesn’t quite explain how they can release themselves from the farm, but Xin’s eventual flight, in which his master does not attempt to stop him, might suggest the first hurdle is not as big as it seems. In any case, Xin finds an unlikely ally in Ying Zheng who has been deposed from the throne by his younger brother for not being royal enough because his birth was illegitimate and his mother was a dancer.

Of course, Ying Zheng’s intention to regain his “rightful” throne is in defence of a necessarily unequal social order, but it’s also a blow against the kind of elitism which mark’s his brother Cheng Jiao’s (Kanata Hongo) philosophy. Cheng Jiao believes that he is the most rightful king because his blood is the most royal. He looks down on Ying Zheng as low born, and has no respect for his subjects or the lower orders. “A peasant in fine clothes is still a peasant” one of his minions intones to intimidate an opponent, but someone with a sword is still someone with a sword no matter their circumstances of birth and provided you have access to acquire one, perhaps swordsmanship is a truly egalitarian art given that it largely depends on how well you wield a blade. Eventually, Ying Zheng makes an ally of another oppressed people – the mountain dwellers subjugated, and previously betrayed, by the powers that be who lend their strength to toppling a corrupt power structure in order to restore something like peace and balance to the land.

Indeed, asked to give a brief manifesto speech, Ying Zheng cooly declares that he aims to create a unified China by eliminating borders and therefore the need for war. Insisting that when a king picks up a sword it ought to be in service of his people, he makes the case for a borderless world, little caring that, as his general points out, history may brand him a tyrant. Nevertheless, he remains a “puppet king” whose status is dependent on the loyalty of key general Wang Yi (Takao Ohsawa) with whom true power lies. Wang Yi, as we later find out seems to be a “good” person who used his troops to protect the innocent and ensure no civilians were harmed during the chaos of the insurrection but he does indeed wield dangerously vast power for just one man. Meanwhile, Ying Zheng may reject the primacy of blood, but does dare to claim his birthright as an oldest son and is of course acting in service of an inherently oppressive system even if he means to make minor improvements towards the kind of meritocracy that allows men like Xin to embrace the power of their dreams.

The power of dreams is indeed the key. Though Cheng Jiao’s hardline mercenary may sneer that “dreams are bullshit” and deny a slave like Xin’s right to have one at all, to men like Xin dreams are all they have. As he says, they get you back on your feet when everything else seems hopeless. Learning that Piao achieved his dream even if it was only for a few moments gives him the strength to pursue his own in service not just of himself but his brother, friends, and kingdom.

Appropriating the aesthetics of wuxia may prove problematic for some, but like many Japanese manga with international settings, Kingdom’s mechanics are essentially home grown which is perhaps why Sato heavily leans on Kurosawa’s legacy, possibly overusing the distinctive side wipe and giving his heroine a look echoing that from Hidden Fortress while other influences seem to feed back from Star Wars in the strangely cute masked mountain elders and gleaming golden armour of bad ass warrior queen Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa). A surprisingly positive, perhaps ironically bold plea for a borderless world and if not actual equality at least a friendly kind of egalitarian nobility, Kingdom hands victory to those who fight hardest for their right to dream while subtly advocating for their right to rebel against an inherently unjust social order in order to claim it. 


Kingdom was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be screened in US cinemas from Aug. 16 courtesy of Funimation.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Psychic Kusuo (斉木楠雄のΨ難, Yuichi Fukuda, 2017)

psychic kusuo posterMany may bristle at an attempt to label director Yuichi Fukuda an auteur, but you can’t argue with the fact that he’s developed something of a house style. That house style may have just catapulted him to the top of the box office with two successful movies inspired by the gag filled Gintama, but outside of his big budget studio efforts he’s something of an acquired taste. Take Hentai Kamen, for example. For some a hilariously perverse super hero adventure comedy. For others one childish joke stretched out for 90 minutes. Psychic Kusuo (斉木楠雄のΨ難, Saiki Kusuo no Sainan), coming from the same general area as the phenomenally successful Gintama in adapting an absurdist gag manga only this time one by Shuichi Aso, undoubtedly belongs in the latter category.

16-year-old Kusuo Saiki (Kento Yamazaki) is the most powerful esper on Earth. Seeing as he was born to a lovely, hippyish couple who didn’t mind that he was a bit strange, Saiki grew up appreciating his superpowers for what they are but also mindful that they could cause him a problem if they got out of hand. He uses his powers to hypnotise those around him so that they don’t notice his neon pink hair or the antennas in his head which keep his emotions in check and prevent him accidentally destroying all of Tokyo. Nevertheless, it is quite a bother to be burdened by unnatural abilities especially in that it makes life extremely dull not to mention a little stressful when you can hear everything everyone is thinking in every tiny detail.

The big problem is that Saiki is coming up on his first high school culture festival. Saiki is not big into celebrations and hanging out with other people so what he likes about festivals is that no one’s going to miss him so he can escape for a little me time. The last few festivals, however, have each descended into chaos and if it happens again this year they’re going to be cancelled for good. In order to save his precious haven of relaxation, Saiki will have to forgo it this time to make sure no one starts any trouble.

Fukuda began his career writing skits for TV variety shows and the humour in his films is indeed very specific and of the kind familiar to fans of Japanese television comedy, which is to say it is extremely broad and somewhat meta with frequent breaking of the fourth wall. The major antagonist of Psychic Kusuo is conceited high school classmate Kokomi (Kanna Hashimoto) who is accounted by all as the school’s number one beauty and knows it. As he’s able to read minds, Saiki knows she’s in no way as pretty on the inside and makes a point of ignoring her. Of course, this only ends up attracting her attention because she’s incapable of accepting that there’s a boy who doesn’t instantly sigh on catching sight of her. In keeping with Fukuda’s over the top approach, Kokomi becomes little more than a collection of preening looks alternating between calculated cuteness and outright bunny boiler villainy.

Meanwhile, Fukuda throws in a series of in jokes and random references to other franchises from Assassination Classroom to Dragon Ball, piling absurdity on top of absurdity through a series of possible crises as yankees from another school threaten to cause a ruckus and the Dark Reunion turn up to prosecute their conspiracy on school grounds. Meanwhile a creepy stage magician and his surprisingly sprightly mother/assistant take credit for all the strange goings on and Saiki accidentally ends up marooned in space.

Yet the problem is that it just isn’t very funny or particularly interesting. It comes to something when the most entertaining part of the movie is Saiki’s extremely nice parents and their unflappable acceptance of the strange goings on which often befall their family. Over reliant on reaction shots and schoolyard humour, Psychic Kusuo may play well to Fukuda’s many fans, those familiar with the anime or manga, and lovers of TV variety skits but anyone else may find themselves scratching their heads at its decidedly lowbrow, scattershot attempt at humour and longing for an end to its considerably dubious charms.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Assassination Classroom (映画 暗殺教室, Eiichiro Hasumi, 2015)

photo_4First Published on UK Anime Network in November 2015.


You might make the mistake of thinking that the E in class 3E just means it’s the 5th 3rd year class, or that it stands for “elite” and contains some of the top students in the school. You’d be wrong, “E” stands for “end” because these are the no hoper kids that everyone’s already written off as having no future. However, it’s precisely these kids that a mysterious extraterrestrial being insists on becoming the teacher of in return for not destroying the Earth (just yet). Nicknamed UT (unkillable teacher), the giant yellow octopus-like creature has already destroyed 30% of the moon just for kicks and has now set the challenge that if the boys and girls of class 3E fail to assassinate him before graduation he’ll destroy the Earth too.

The ironic thing is, UT is the best teacher they’ve ever had, but to pass the course (and save the world) they have to kill him. The high schoolers are also under the tutelage of a self defence forces officer for their military training and a sexy assassin who randomly ends up becoming their English teacher (and giving them one of the least appropriate English lessons ever recorded on film). Every morning they bow and then pull out their various kinds of firearms as UT takes the register whilst flitting about dodging bullets. Despite wanting to destroy the Earth, UT is 100% committed to training his students both in the arts of assassination and in the more regular subjects. Because of his super speed and ability to be in several places at once he has time for everybody and is quick to work out each of his charge’s specific weaknesses and help them work on those to become better people as well as ace students.

Still, the students are supposed to kill their teacher and there’s a little bit of sadness creeping in as they inevitably grow closer to UT and his quirky antics. Up ’til now everyone has given up on them and now they’re supposed to kill the one person who’s actually trying to help. Of course, even while this surreal situation is going on these are just regular high school kids undergoing regular high school stuff like wanting to sneak into the girls’ changing rooms or having a crush on someone who hasn’t even noticed you. Despite the impending end of the world, the kids of Class 3E are just enjoying their time trying to work out ever more complex ways of trying assassinate their seemingly invincible teacher.

UT himself is strangely adorable with his giant yellow smiley face style head and bizarre little laugh. He also changes color according to his mood and has a tendency to go off on tangents with one notable example which turns into a long form ‘80s style melodrama about abandoned single mothers before being politely shut down by the bored students. Assassination Classroom is undoubtedly bizarre, surreal and full of absurd humour but all the better for it. It’s just very silly but has an undeniably clever and very witty script that proves near impossible to resist.

To put it mildly, Assassination Classroom is just heaps of zany, crazy fun. It also manages to be genuinely heartfelt as we come to care for this rag-tag bunch of no hopers but also for UT himself as we start to hope the kids will somehow fail and succeed at the same time so we can save both the world and UT. The film drops us a few hints about UT’s backstory but stops short of offering a full explanation for the crazy goings on. Thankfully a sequel, Assassination Classroom: Graduation Day is already in production and even if it doesn’t offer any answers, Assassination Classroom is already one of the most enjoyably absurd offerings to come out of Japan this year.


Assassination Classroom receives its UK premiere at the Leeds International Film Festival on 15th November 2015.

Look out for a review of Tag which is also playing at the festival as it Happy Hour, and Our Little Sister.