Hee (火, Kaori Momoi, 2016)

heeOne of Japan’s best known actresses with a career spanning over forty years, Kaori Momoi is perhaps just as well known for her outspoken and refreshingly direct approach to interviews as she is for her work with such esteemed directors as Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Yoji Yamada, and Shohei Imamura. One of the few Japanese actors to have made a successful international career starring in Hollywood movies such as Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha and international art house fare in Alexander Sukurov’s The Sun, Momoi currently lives in LA and is even reportedly preparing to play Scarlett Johansson’s mother in the upcoming US live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. It’s perhaps less surprising then that in choosing to adapt a short story by one of Japan’s best young writers, Fuminori Nakamura, Momoi has chosen to shift the story to LA whilst maintaining its Japanese characters.

We first meet Azusa (Kaori Momoi) as she’s washing her foot in a public sink near a beach. A strange conversation with an American man implies that she’s involved in some kind of sex work and the pair head into a hotel where they’re stuck in a crowded lift with a collection of noisy strangers. Aside from this lift scene which is replayed with slightly different emphasises throughout the film, the narrative, such as it is, is provided by Azusa’s two sessions with passive psychiatrist, Dr. Sanada (Yugo Saso). In the first of these she discusses her feelings of guilt over the death of her family, killed in a fire started (perhaps not) by accident as she carelessly played with matches as a child. Later sessions see her accompanied by an official looking American man, seated in the corner but unable to understand much of what’s going on. Now Azusa is suspected of a violent crime but finds herself confessing to various other moral and criminal transgressions, but then again perhaps “confessing” is the wrong word.

Transposing the story from Japan to LA brings an additional layer of alienation to Azusa’s story as she finds herself alone and set adrift far from home. The slightly rundown, beachside faded glamour of the outside world contrasts neatly with the cool, ordered interior of the psychiatrist’s office where Sanada appears almost indifferent to Azusa’s monologue as he makes coffee in a vacuum pot and stares blankly straight ahead. It’s little wonder why Azusa remarks that perhaps he’s just not suited to this kind of work during her first session and even later states that he’s really just a sounding board for her – she’s monologuing for real, applying the talking cure to herself.

Intercut with Azusa’s monologues and the reoccurring lift scene in which Sanada also appears, Sanada is seen with his own, not quite happy, family. Married to a fellow doctor working at the same clinic, Sanada seems a little uncomfortable with his confident, dominant wife. Conversing in English at home the couple share extravagant meals prepared by their housekeeper with their little daughter but as Azusa’s monologues continue the family scenes become ever more strange and disjointed and Sanada is even seen wolfing down a plate of high grade beef in his pyjamas whilst sitting next to a bright burning fire inside a patio chimney heater. Azusa maintains control, both in the room and out, with Sanada left behind as passive observer.

Expertly played by director and lead actress Momoi, Azusa is a necessarily unreliable narrator as she offers her series of sad stories each of which leads towards a fire. Betrayed by men from her father onwards leading to a failed marriage, inappropriate relationship with another Japanese man in the US, and an ill fated assignation with an American possibly more interested in her daughter, Azusa’s only constant has been the fire but it also seems to spark her madness. It’s impossible to tell how much of what Azusa is saying is “true” at any given time as her oddly circular narratives fracture off yet return to the same point but what she appears to crave from Sanada is the simple act of acknowledgement – of being seen, understood, and respected as a human being.

Reportedly shot in just ten days for a minuscule budget, Hee is anchored by a strong performance from its leading lady but is occasionally undercut by Sanada’s passivity which leaves her without the necessary pushback. The English language actors offer their lines in a slightly surreal manner which adds to the heightened atmosphere of the piece but does not always gel with the other theatrical elements and, at times, proves jarring. Though sometimes too obtuse for its own good, Hee takes an interesting, experimental approach to its material and displays a nice flair for composition even if the cinematography itself remains more conventional. A frustrating, if sometimes fascinating, experience, Hee is the story of woman trapped in flames with only the last remaining hope that we will be able to see through the smoke and heat haze to finally acknowledge her presence.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラヂオの時間, Koki Mitani, 1997)

Welcome Back Mr. McDonaldKoki Mitani is one of the most bankable mainstream directors in Japan though his work has rarely travelled outside of his native land. Beginning his career in the theatre, Mitani is the master of modern comedic farce and has the rare talent of being able to ground often absurd scenarios in the  humour that is very much a part of everyday life. Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラヂオの時間, Radio no Jikan) is Mitani’s debut feature in the director’s chair though he previously adapted his own stage plays as screenplays for other directors. This time he sets his scene in the high pressure environment of the production booth of a live radio drama broadcast as the debut script of a shy competition winner is about to get torn to bits by egotistical actors and marred by technical hitches.

Mild-mannered housewife Miyako Suzuki (Kyoka Suzuki ) has won a competition to get her radio play, titled “Woman of Destiny”, on air. A romantic tale of a bored housewife unexpectedly finding love at the pachinko parlour, her story may have a thin layer of autobiography or at least wish fulfilment but at any rate she is very close to her material. Unfortunately, “difficult” actress Nokko (Keiko Toda) has been foisted on the production crew due to entertainment world politics and objects to her character’s name because she once dated a married guy whose wife shared it. Eventually Nokko demands to be called something more interesting like “Mary Jane” (the irony!). At this point, all the other actors start wanting changes too and before you know it Miyako’s gentle tale of forbidden romance has become a gangster crime thriller set in Chicago filled with mobsters and tommy guns!

The writer is god, in one sense. Only, god has been locked out of the room leading to total chaos. Each small change necessitates a series of other changes and seeing as this is all being done live and on the hoof, no one is quite thinking through the implications of each decision. When the actor playing “Mary Jane’s” love interest suddenly goes off book and declares his name is “Donald McDonald” (inspired by left over fast food cartons) and he’s a pilot not a fisherman as agreed (though why would a fisherman be in the mountains of Chicago anyway?), everything goes completely haywire eventually ending up in an outer space based love crisis!

If all this wasn’t enough, someone has also wandered off with the key to the sound effects machine which would be fine if they hadn’t added all the gangster shenanigans in the first place. The show’s producer, Ushijima (Masahiko Nishimura), explains to Miyako at one point that radio has a very important advantage over visual media as you really can do anything even on no budget because your biggest resource is your audience’s imaginations. He has a very real point, though the completely bizarre saga of “sexy female lawyer” Mary Jane, her “Nasa Pilot” (a quick save after “Donald’s” plane is reported missing and someone remembers this slot is sponsored by an airline) true love, and her husband who for some reason is a random German named Heinrich is going to require a significant suspension of disbelief from the confused listeners at home.

As a theatre practitioner Mitani is an expert at creating ensemble comedy and even though he is playing with a large cast and a fast moving environment each of his characters is extremely well drawn. We see the shy writer beginning to lose heart after her story is shredded by the unforgiving production environment whilst also trying to persuade her husband who has turned up unexpectedly to go home before he figures out her script is suspiciously close to their real lives. We also see the production team frantically trying to fulfil their obligations so they can avoid getting into trouble with the higher ups and finally go home for the day. Ushijima is caught in the middle, surrounded by nonchalant yes men and lazy bosses, he’s desperately trying to compromise to keep everything on schedule whereas the jaded director just wants to do his job as written. However, it’s the director who is ultimately most moved by Miyako’s script and eventually decides it does deserve the happy ending that Miyako has been longing for.

By the end of the recording, something of the old magic has returned to the otherwise work-a-day world of the radio studio. They’ve even brought back old fashioned foley effects and retrieved the old school sound guy who’d been relegated to playing his gameboy in the security booth because no one needed his expertise anymore. Nothing went as planned, but everything worked out in the end and it’s happy endings all round both in the real world and in the completely surreal radio play. They might even do a sequel!

Mitani breaks the action every now and then to take us outside of the studio environment and into the cab of a petrol tanker being driven by a strangely dressed trucker (in a brief cameo from Ken Watanabe, no less!) who keeps trying to change the channel for more country influenced Enka but finds himself enthralled by the strange tale of the true love between Mary Jane and Donald mcDonald. We might not be quite as moved as he is, having been party to all the backstage goings on, but we have perhaps laughed more than cried through the almost screwball comedy and farcical set up of Mitani’s spot on depiction of the less than glamorous workings of the fast paced live production environment.


English subtitled trailer:

The Assassination of Ryoma (竜馬暗殺, Kazuo Kuroki, 1974)

Ryoma AnsatsuSakamoto Ryoma is a legendary revolutionary of Japan’s Bakumatsu period which encompasses the chaos that ensued after Japan was forced open after centuries of self imposed isolation. Ryoma was a low level samurai from a small town who resented the unjust treated of the arrogant true samurai above him and skipped out on his clan without the proper permission to go study sword fighting in the city. After the arrival of the Americans and witnessing their far superior technologies, Ryoma was one of several men who became convinced that Japan needed to modernise quickly or become a slave to more advanced cultures. However, this was a turbulent era and there was general infighting among all factions and all sides and Ryoma was mysteriously assassinated in 1867 along with his friend and ally Nakaoka Shintaro.

In thinking about the legacy of Sakamoto Ryoma, it’s important to try and separate the man from the legend. His legacy has become somewhat romanticised as his visionary ideas of a modernised Japan free of outside influence but also of outdated, feudalistic ideals have developed into an easily cop-opted set of talismans. Kuroki Kazuo’s 1974 film The Assassination of Ryoma (竜馬暗殺, Ryoma Ansatsu) attempts to place Ryoma firmly back within the mortal realm as it explores the events of his last days in late 1867 when he was brokering the new world from the shadows.

Played by Japan’s original ‘70s wild beast Harada Yoshio, this Ryoma is a slightly bumbling though thoughtful young man who likes to have a good time when he isn’t busy trying to overthrow the shogunate. An early scene sees him fiddling with a revolver which he claims is a better weapon to be in hiding with because it’s a little more portable and discreet than a traditional sword. However, he doesn’t quite know how to use it and can’t figure out how to make it fire in order to give his friend a demonstration. Later, having moved on slightly from his ideas of a peaceful revolution, his plan to buy a number of rifles backfires when he is sent a camera instead.

Ryoma is joined by two “allies” who both originally came in order to kill him but have apparently switched sides. The first is one of his oldest friends, Shintaro, who remained a member of a hard right revolutionary group in Ryoma’s home town which ran under the slogan “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Foreigners”. Understandably they haven’t taken too well to Ryoma’s change of heart regarding the modernisation of Japan and are committed to taking him out – hence dispatching Shintaro, though he proves reluctant to assassinate his friend. The other is a mysterious and largely silent assassin, Uta (played by Matsuda Yusaku), who also ends up forming an unlikely friendship with Ryoma which prevents him from carrying out his mission.

Kuroki shoots in black and white within a 4:3 frame and in gritty 16mm but also goes in handheld almost like newsreel footage shot by a frontline war correspondent. As well as using some silent cinema inspired compositional techniques, Kuroki also adds in a few intertitles either with historical information or to provide some additional commentary on the action such as when he tells us that violence from left wing samurai is a daily occurrence. Drawing a neat parallel between he chaos of the Bakumatsu era and its tussling between new and old, Kuroki leaves us with a sense of historical continuity by equating the left wing samurai rebellion of the 1860s with the left wing student moment of a whole century later.

However, Ryoma is just one man. In an enlightening metaphor about a cat who got stuck up a tree, Ryoma calls to it and tried to climb up to get the cat down but it just kept climbing higher and wouldn’t even take the mochi he tried to offer it on a stick. Eventually Ryoma wanted to cut the whole tree down in order to save the cat but everyone laughed at him – cut down a 10ft wide tree to save one skinny cat? At that time Ryoma laughed too but later it made him angry. He thought the idea of cutting down the tree should be allowed to be considered, that every option ought to be explored. The important thing is to see things from all angles and allow yourself the freedom to change your mind, reject all previous knowledge in the light of a new way of thinking. This kind of freedom is necessarily frightening and may lead others onto a path which you yourself do not wish to follow but all the same it is the very idea which gives birth to Ryoma’s entire philosophy.

Kuroki’s vision of this visionary hero is an unconventional one and one which was not universally accepted by the audience of the time. Just as radical as the man himself, Kuroki’s film portrays Ryoma as a modern revolutionary who lived a hundred years ago, yet wanted many of the same things that the youth of the day were still fighting for – personal freedom, equality for all, and a modern society which allowed his nation to stand independent, on an equal footing with its European counterparts. The assassination itself is brutal, bloody and efficient. It’s an uncinematic ending for a cinematic hero in which he’s violently cut down in a frenetic yet naturalistic fashion leaving a trail of polluting black blood spreading across the high contrast bright white background. His ideas were too radical for his era, and his tragic end a sadly predictable one but what does this say about the world of today and the would be revolutionaries whose voices appear to have been silenced?


(I’ve gone for surname first order here because that’s the most usual way of referring to historical figures – I accept that it’s confusing but it is at least consistant).

The life story of Sakamoto Ryoma has been dramatised many times, most recently as a Taiga drama, Ryomaden, directed by Rurouni Kenshin’s Ohtomo Keishi and starring Fukuyama Masaharu, which has apparently boosted Ryoma’s profile even more and created a raft of new tourist spots in various areas of Japan. (It’s obviously very long as it’s Taiga drama but is well worth the investment in time and effort.)

Unsubbed trailer:

No More Comics! (コミック雑誌なんかいらない!, Yojiro Takita, 1986)

No More ComicsThe word “paparazzo” might have been born with La Dolce Vita but the gossip hungry newshound has been with us since long before the invention of the camera. Yojiro Takita’s 1986 film No More Comics! (コミック雑誌なんかいらない, Komikku zasshi nanka iranai AKA Comic Magazine) proves that the media’s obsession with celebrity and “first on the scene” coverage is not a new phenomenon nor one which is likely to change any time soon.

Kinameri (Yuya Uchida) is a hack reporter on a gossipy news magazine programme which reports on all the sordid personal details of the private lives of celebrities. In a bit of neat meta commentary, we first meet him when he’s doggedly following real life top actress of the time Kaori Momoi (making a brief self cameo) as she tries to board a plane at the airport. Kinameri keeps on asking his inappropriate questions about her alleged relationship with a screenwriter whilst Momoi successfully ignores him before finally reaching the relative sanctuary of the security cordon preventing Kinameri from actually boarding the plane with her. Of course, his interview attempt has failed but he plays the footage on the programme anyway justifying her silence as a lack of denial and that he has therefore “proved” that the rumours are true.

Kinameri is both respected and ridiculed by his colleagues who praise his probing journalistic techniques which see him doggedly refusing to give up on a story but also find his intensity amusing seeing as he’s mostly chasing cheating spouses rather than uncovering the next great political scandal like his heroes who exposed Watergate. Having graduated from a top Japanese university in political sciences, this is far from the line of work Kinameri would want to be doing and its vacuity coupled with his own failed ambitions push him further and further into a spiral of self loathing and depression.

It’s not only celebrities either. Even if you could make a case that those in the entertainment industry have entered into a pact with the media and are, therefore, fair game, civilians and particularly victims of crime should be off limits. Kinameri will literally stop at nothing to scratch a up a story including attending the funeral of a murdered 14 year old girl and quizzing her mother over the rumours that the girl had been engaging in prostitution to try and elicit some kind of social commentary about the youth of today. After his programming starts to decline in popularity he’s relegated to the late night slot which involves visiting various shady places such as strip clubs, snack bars that are actually yakuza hang outs, and even the set of a porn film where he gets a cameo feeling up the lead actress in the front of a convertible.

While all of this is going on, Kinameri is also receiving some bothersome cold calls offering to sell him gold as an investment proposal. His elderly neighbour is visited by a woman from the company and does actually buy some but Kinameri smells a rat and his journalistic instincts kick back in. His bosses at the network aren’t convinced though – dodgy gold dealers doesn’t sound like a ratings winner after all and even when Kinameri agrees to even shadier assignments so he can pursue his leads, they still aren’t really behind him. Eventually they catch up but it’s almost too late.

Kinameri keeps doing what he’s paid to do, even if he clearly despises everything about it. Asking trivial and ridiculous questions and being ignored anyway, conducting a vacuous meet and greet with a gang of up and coming idol stars, even posing as a gigolo – there are no lengths to which he will not sink in pursuit of his story. By the film’s finale he’s still the frontline reporter, looking on while a vicious yakuza (played by a young Takeshi Kitano) commits a brutal murder right in front of the cameras. No one is moving, no one is trying to stop this, everyone is manoeuvring to get the best coverage. Kinameri has had enough and, with a look of rage and contempt on his face, he launches himself through the widow in a last minute attempt to make a difference but once again, lands up flat on his face and, finally, excluded from the action.

Years ahead of its time, No More Comics! takes an ironic look at invasive media coverage of celebrity gossip which clogs the airwaves while the real story is wilfully ignored. Ironically, Kinameri even becomes something of a celebrity himself, well known for his dogged interviewing style. He receives countless answerphone messages from “fans” (somehow ringing his personal phone number) either praising his efforts or berating him for not pushing his targets harder. When a young aspiring journalist stops him in the street and asks for advice, Kinameri doesn’t even answer but just walks away with a look of contempt and sadness on his face. Finally, after his mad dash into a crime scene in the final reel, he becomes the news himself. All of his fellow reporters suddenly want to know “what happened”, “what was it like”, “did you go in to save him or for the story?” etc. Still stunned and probably in need of medical attention, Kinameri looks directly into the camera, puts his hand across the lens and states “I can’t speak fucking Japanese”.

Filled with rage and shame, No More Comics! is a Network-esque satire on the world of live broadcast reporting exposing the seedier sides of journalistic desperation. Ahead of its time and sadly still timely in the age of 24hr coverage which mainly consists of the same trivial stories repeated ad nauseum, its messages are needed more than ever.


Unsubtitled trailer:

 

Main Theme (メイン・テーマ, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1984)

main themeDespite being one of the most prolific directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the work of Yoshimitsu Morita has not often travelled extensively overseas. Though frequently appearing at high profile international film festivals, few of Morita’s films have been released outside of Japan and largely he’s still best remembered for his hugely influential (and oft re-visited) 1983 black comedy, The Family Game. In part, this has to be down to Morita’s own zigzagging career which saw him mixing arthouse aesthetics with more populist projects. Main Theme is definitely in the latter category and is one of the many commercial teen idol vehicles he tackled in the 1980s.

A tale of two intersecting love stories, Main Theme begins with nursery nurse Shibuki getting close to the father of one of her pupils, Omaezaki, who will shortly be transferred to Osaka. Omaezaki also has a long running thing with a cabaret jazz singer, Kayoko, which seems to be a messy situation to begin with. Shibuki then ends up running into magician with a pick-up truck Ken who drives her to Osaka where she’s set to meet up with Omaezaki to become some kind of nanny living with him and his wife. En route, the pair pick up Kayako little knowing of her relationship with Omaezaki. Eventually, everyone ends up in Okinawa where Ken lives and Shibuki has an older sister each hoping to sort out their romantic difficulties under the blue island skies.

Main Theme stars popular idol of the time Hiroko Yakushimaru (star of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun) and is, unsurprisingly, centred around her chart topping song of the same name. A neat, new Japanese arrangement of the classic jazz standard Sway, the song fits neatly into the movie’s soundtrack which also features a number of other jazz hits such as The Man I Love and most notably Bei Mir Bistu Shein (or Shoen, or Shön depending on which version you’re looking at) courtesy of our cabaret singer (and her rivals) but being an ‘80s movie there’s still a bit of pop synth in there too though our central couple do seem to have oddly sophisticated tastes.

Though it is, as it’s intended to be, a teen romantic comedy, Morita tries (not entirely successfully) to put a little more substance into the background by also showing us the unhappy romance of middle-aged jazz singer Kayoko and the non-committal Omaezaki. It seems the pair have had an entailment probably stemming back years, perhaps even before Omaezaki’s marriage. Mrs. Omaezaki is a fairly ditzy and neurotic woman who loves shopping and seems to be more interested in the appearance of things than the reality. The status of the marriage itself is difficult to discern and it’s not quite clear if Omaezaki’s problem is a lack of will to leave his wife or that he’s already “left” and is trying to find a way to support her. In any case, introducing Shibuki, a 19yr old with an obvious crush on him, to the household is not one of his better ideas.

Needless to say, Ken also ends up forming an attraction to the older, melancholy musician who doesn’t seem to know what it is she wants (or knows but chooses to run away from it) leaving us in an odd kind of love square with the couples really each wanting their age appropriate partners but getting distracted by foolish dalliances with age and youth respectively. It does feel as if Morita could have made more of this dramatically interesting idea as Kayoko in particular is drawn in by Ken’s youthful innocence, but this isn’t what the film is for so it remains an intriguing yet perverse addition to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative.

The “perversity” or strangeness of the film doesn’t end there as Morita has also added a number of quirky, absurd touches to offset the flatness of the teenage love drama. Perhaps because he’s a magician we get these odd flashes of Ken where he’s suddenly got crazy eyebrows (just for one 15 second shot) or crazy hair and there’s another charming scene where he’s pulling artificial flowers out of his suit only to have the magic bouquet suddenly droop as his heart starts to break. In another intriguing trope there’s also a strange illustrated map which lead’s Shibuki to her sister’s house by outlining common scenes from the area and when she gets there the gates are covered in light up ornamental tropical fruits. Add to this that the backing behind Kayoko’s final cabaret reads “Bates Motel Live” and there’s definitely a very strange mind behind the production design on this run of the mill, idol pop pushing rom-com.

Undoubtedly of its time, there is probably a reason Main Theme has not proved a big overseas hit though it seems to have been massively popular at the time and is fondly remembered for nostalgic reasons even if not particularly well regarded today. This is perhaps how the film is best approached – as a monument of its times and as a prime example of the 80s idol dramas studios such as Kadokawa put out to push their inoffensive pop music. However, Morita does add his own quirky touches to the film which does provide its fair share of youthful fun even if it isn’t always successful.


Unsubtitled trailer:

And a more recent version of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song:

The Yellow Handkerchief (幸福の黄色いハンカチ Yoji Yamada, 1977)

siawasenoWhen you hear the name Yoji Yamada, you pretty much know what you’re getting. A little laughter, a few tears and a reassuring if sometimes sad ending. You’ll get all that and more with the Yellow Handkerchief although, to allow a minor spoiler, the ending is anything other than sad even if it provokes a few tears. Yes it’s sort of syrupy and it’s not as if it breaks any new cinematic ground but once again Yamada has been able to work his magic to turn this romantic melodrama into a warm, funny and ultimately affecting tale.

Kin-chan, nursing the pain of unrequited love buys a garish red car and goes north where he attempts to pick up girls in fairly cack handed ways. Finally he hooks one outside of a station as she’s too shy and polite to tell him to buzz off. Things get decidedly awkward until the pair bond over a shared hatred of miso noodles at which point Akemi becomes a little more lively. A short way into their road trip, they meet the forlorn figure of Yusaku (Ken Takakura) who ends up joining them on their random road trip around Hokkaido. However, Yusaku’s brooding nature raises a few questions – where has he been, where is he going and why does he both very much want to go and not want to go at all?

Given that it’s Ken Takakura playing Yusaku, you might have a few ideas and you wouldn’t be *entirely* wrong but Takakura amply proves there’s more to his talents than playing a yakuza badass in series of extremely popular but by then out of fashion gangster movies. Suffering from an excess of nobility, Yusaku is a man who’s made a series of poor life choices and is slowing building up the courage to find out if a particular bridge he tried to burn is still salvageable.

Kin-chan and Akemi by contrast turn out to be a pair of live wire odd balls with Kin-chan desperately chasing Akemi and Akemi blithely ignoring him. Despite various attempts to shake Kin-chan off he generally ends up coming back (one time with a giant crab dinner) and getting himself into all kinds of hilarious trouble. They may be the film’s comic relief but in their story proves strangely moving too.

The Yellow Handkerchief won the very first Best Picture award at the Japanese Academy Prize ceremony back in 1978 as well as a host of other awards from Kinema Junpo and other critical bodies and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a prestige picture, and a pretty saccharine one at that, but Yamada makes it all work and comes out with a genuinely affecting piece of cinema. Filmed against the gorgeous backdrop of the island of Hokkaido, The Yellow Handkerchief is the ideal rainy day movie and though it may all end in tears they are far from tears of sadness.