Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2019)

The thing about hotels is, people often go to them when they want to be someone else, so how can you be on the look out for suspicious behaviour when everyone is to some degree acting out of character? Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best known authors particularly praised for his elaborately plotted mysteries. In contrast to some of his famous detective novels, Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル) leans into his softer side, taking its cues from Agatha Christie in its ultimately cheerful exploration of the strange world of hotels while praising the detective acumen both of cynical policemen and eager to please hoteliers. 

The police are hot on the trail of a serial killer and, due to clues found at the previous crime scenes, have concluded the next killing will take place at the Hotel Cotesia Tokyo. To scout out the potential crime scene, the detectives have co-opted the hotel’s basement as an incident room and are preparing to go undercover to keep an eye on things upstairs. Dishevelled detective Nitta (Takuya Kimura) has been assigned to the front desk because of his English skills apparently honed while living abroad in his youth, and is to be paired with earnest hotelier Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) who will do her best to turn him into a first rate hotelman. 

As might be expected, Nitta and Naomi do not exactly hit it off. Gruff and given to giving everyone in 50m radius the hard stare, Nitta is a shaggy haired middle-aged man in creased suits and shiny shoes. The first thing Naomi makes him do is get a haircut which does wonders for his image, but also plays into the peculiar art of masquerade which defines hotel life. Nitta is in the habit of calling the guests “customers” which instantly irritates Naomi who has spent the entirety of her professional life learning to be deferent. She reminds him that in here the guests are in charge, they make the rules and therefore can never break them. Her job is to provide the best service, which means she often has to set her personal pride aside and allow the sometimes unpleasant clientele, the ones who like to come to posh hotels to throw their weight around and abuse the staff, to get away with being obtuse because that’s just part of her job. 

That’s a big ask from Nitta who is both a proud man and a justice loving policeman to whom the idea of letting people act badly is almost anathema. To do his job, however, he’ll have to learn to bear it or risk letting a potential serial killer slip through his fingers. What Naomi realises is that they’re more alike than they first seemed. Both of their jobs rely on an astute assessment of their targets, even if they come at it from opposite ends. Naomi knows that each of her guests is wearing a kind of mask, taking on a slightly different persona when they enter her hotel, but her job is to see past it without ever letting on. A good hotelier knows what the guest wants before they do and is always ready to provide it, that’s the nature of service. So Naomi trusts her guests and is careful not to judge them. Nitta, meanwhile, is a policeman so he’s trained to question everything and suspect everyone. His job is to unmask and confront his suspects with who they really are. 

They both, however got into this game essentially because they want to protect people even if she wants to protect them inside and he out. Which means of course that they can work together after all, learning a little something from each other along the way. Naomi, well versed in the liberties often taken by her guests, is nearly taken in by an obvious scam that only Nitta is quick enough to catch thanks to his cynical policeman’s logic. He’s also first to suspect that there’s something not quite right with a harmless little old lady, and though Naomi senses it too she’s minded to let it go and doubles down on being the perfect servant thanks to her animosity towards Nitta. That “not quite right”, however, proves to be a slight misreading of the guest who, like many Nitta encounters, is pretending to be something they’re not for reasons that prove perfectly understandable once revealed. 

But then, Higashino characteristically pulls the rug out from under us and asks if we haven’t been suckered in buying all those reasonable excuses. Thanks to his conversations with Naomi, Nitta begins to get a grip on the crime, while she struggles with her conscience after learning that her guests may be in much more danger than she thought. Staking all on justice, the pair of them vow to abandon their respective professions if a guest gets hurt, but fail to realise that the crime may hit far closer to home than they’d anticipated. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a strangely whimsical admiration for the weird world of hotels where no one is quite the same person they were before they walked through the revolving doors.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shippu Rondo (疾風ロンド, Teruyuki Yoshida , 2016)

Shippu Rondo posterIn this new age of anxiety, can we find the time to laugh about the possible release of a deadly bioweapon illegally developed and then stolen by a disgruntled employee who then finally gets hit by a truck before he can reveal what he did with it? On watching Shippu Rondo (疾風ロンド), your answer may be a predictable no. Adapted from a novel by Keigo Higashino, who is not particularly known for his sense of humour, Shippu Rondo fails to capitalise on the inherent absurdity of its premise, lurching between broad comedy and existential dread before making a late in the game shift towards sentimental family melodrama.

The trouble begins when a disgruntled employee (Shigeyuki Totsugi) fired for his zeal in creating a virulent bioweapon returns and steals its only sample, skiing out into the woods and burying it in a canister which will open automatically should the temperature rise above 10ºC. Hoping for a hefty ransom, he nails a teddybear containing a radio signal to the nearest tree and sends an email asking for cash in return for the location. Unfortunately, he gets hit by a truck before he can give more detailed information but does at least leave a radio transmitter and a photo as a clue.

Hapless widowed researcher Kuribayashi (Hiroshi Abe) is the one charged with bringing the extremely dangerous K-55 back under control, taking his 14-year-old son Shuto (Tatsuomi Hamada) along as a kind of guide/cover in the exciting world of Japanese ski resorts. The problem is, Shippu Rondo can’t decide if it wants to be an absurd black comedy about the potential death of thousands because of self-centred, selectively stupid scientists, a serious crime thriller, or a tearjerking melodrama of emotional repression and filial misconnection.

Thus, after arriving at the ski resort, we largely forget about the urgency surrounding the missing canister of deadly toxins while becoming involved in the various dramas of the otherwise peaceful town. The younger sister of one of the local teens apparently died of flu, leaving a nasty rumour behind that her depressed mother, who runs the local cafe, secretly plots revenge against the youngsters who “spread” the disease. Meanwhile, a man in a funny hat (Tsuyoshi Muro) keeps following Kuribayashi around while he looks for the canister, and the ski patrol guy (Tadayoshi Okura) tries to encourage his friend (Yuko Oshima) and probable love interest that she should fight for her sporting dreams while she wonders if to do so is irresponsible in the wake of mass tragedy like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The irony of the flu proving deadly while the threat of mass death from incurable anthrax looms over the heads of everyone is never lost, though its eventual resolution is underbaked in the extreme. Despite the fact we’re repeatedly told that the lid on the canister is designed to dissolve if the temperature exceeds 10ºC, someone carries it in their pocket for an undetermined amount of time while considering whether to use it to poison all their friends in the hope of cheering someone up and rising in their estimation. It’s a peculiarly Higashino-esque touch in its bizarre mean-spiritedness, but then gives way to broad sentimentality as the beneficiary of the action reminds the would-be mass killer that they shouldn’t wish misfortune on others but rather should double up on happiness for all. Meanwhile, Kuribayashi’s jaded middle-aged cynicism rubs up against his son’s adolescent idealism as he tries to process the fact that his dad works in illegal weapons, has lied to everyone around him by telling them they were looking for an experimental vaccine needed to save a terminally patient, and is planning to brush the whole thing under the carpet to save his own skin.

More gentle comedy than disaster thriller, the crisis eventually works itself out if in continually farcical episodes of swapped vials and villains falling off cliffs, while Kuribayashi’s self-interested boss Togo (Akira Emoto) dances maniacally around his office. Low budget in the extreme, Teruyuki Yoshida’s direction is of the TV special variety, veering between broad comedy and a cynical drama in which the day is saved largely because a teenage boy has entirely lost faith in his feckless father to do the right thing. Still, it all ends in a positive message as the champion snowboarder resolves that the best way to help people might lie in embracing your unique skillset while her bashful friend supports from the sidelines, the older generation remember their responsibility to lead by example, and evil corporate mad scientists are forced to own their casual disregard for public safety.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Shuichi Okita, 2009)

If there’s one thing which unites the universes present in the films of Shuichi Okita, aside from their warm and humorous atmosphere, it’s their tendency to take a generally genial, calm and laid back protagonist and throw them into an inhospitable environment which they don’t quite understand. When it comes to “inhospitable”, the hero of The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Nankyoku Ryourinin) couldn’t have it much worse, unfairly transferred to a polar research station where the air temperature is so cold nothing, not even bacteria, can survive outside. Still, like all of Okita’s laid back guys, he handles his difficult circumstances with a kind of stoical resignation until, of course, the situation can be handled no more!

Separated from his wife and children, Jun Nishimura (Masato Sakai) previously worked for the Japanese coastguard but has now been transferred (not altogether of his own volition) to a polar research station where he is responsible for all the culinary needs of the seven men who will be working together during the expedition which is intended to last one year. Each of the other men has his own part to play in the scientific endeavours but cooped up as they are, the greater issue is downtime as the guys revert to a kind of high school camp, divided into various groups and activities from the “Chinese Research Club” to a bar being run by the doctor who is also training for a triathlon. 365 days in the freezing cold does eventually begin to take its toll but all of the crazy only serves to remind people how important it is that they all get on and make it through this together.

Based on the autobiographical writings of the real Jun Nishimura, Okita’s isolation experiment has a pleasantly authentic feeling as the titular chef laments the difficulties of the conditions but continues to churn out beautifully presented culinary treats despite the hostile environment. Resources are also strictly limited as the original provisions are intended to last the entire expedition – hence why most of the foodstuffs are canned, vacuum packed or frozen but there are a few luxuries on offer including some prize shrimp apparently left behind, uneaten, by a previous team which proves an additional occasion for celebration just as despair is beginning to set it in. Seeing as the men are all here for more than a year, celebratory occasions do present themselves with regularity from birthdays to “mid winter holiday” and even a good go at the Japanese festival of Setsubun with peanuts instead of beans.

Despite these brief moments of respite, being completely cut off from the outside world for such a long time with little natural light and hardly anything to do outside of research places its own kind of pressure on the minds of these top scientists. As their hair gets shaggier and their beards progressively less kempt, sanity also begins to slip. Each of the guys has their own particular marker, something they’re missing that’s playing on their minds until they eventually break completely. For some this could be realising they’ve eaten all of the ramen which exists in their tiny world and now have nothing left to live for, missing their kids, or realising that their girlfriend might have met someone else while they’ve been busy devoting themselves to science, but this being an Okita film even if an axe is raised it rarely falls where intended and the only cure for mass hysteria is guilt ridden kindness and a willingness to work together to put everything right again.

Of course, the other thing the guys have to put up with is the attitude of the outside world as everyone is very keen to ask them about the cute penguins and seals which they are sure must be everywhere at the South Pole, only to have to explain that it’s just too cold for cuteness though it does lead them to the epiphany that they are the only living creatures in this desolate place and so share a special kind of kinship. Filled with Okita’s usual brand of off the wall humour and gentle humanity, The Chef of South Polar is another warm and friendly tale of nice people triumphing over adversity through cooperation, mutual understanding and sustained belief in the healing power of ramen.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

April Fools (エイプリルフールズ, Junichi Ishikawa, 2015)

april-foolsIn this brand new, post truth world where spin rules all, it’s important to look on the bright side and recognise the enormous positive power of the lie. 2015’s April Fools (エイプリルフールズ) is suddenly seeming just as prophetic as the machinations of the weird old woman buried at its centre seeing as its central message is “who cares about the truth so long as everyone (pretends) to be happy in the end?”. A dangerous message to be sure though perhaps there is something to be said about forgiving those who’ve misled you after understanding their reasoning. Or, then again, maybe not.

Juggling seven stories April Fools is never as successful at weaving them into a coherent whole as other similarly structured efforts but begins with an intriguing Star Wars style scroll regarding alien sleeper agents who can apparently go home now because they’ve accomplished everything they came for. Changing track, pregnant snack addict Ayumi (Erika Toda) decides to ring the still unknowing father of her child after witnessing an improbable reunion on TV only he’s in bed with someone else and assumes her call is a weird practical joke. Overhearing that he’s just arrived at a restaurant for a lunch date, Ayumi takes matters into her own hands and marches over there, eventually taking the entire place hostage. Meanwhile an older couple are having a harmless holiday pretending to be royalty and a grizzled gangster has “kidnapped” a teenage girl only to give her a nice day out at the fun fair. Oh, and the hikkikomori from the beginning who’s fallen for the whole alien thing has made a total fool of himself at school by taking out his bully, kissing his crush goodbye and racing up to the roof to try and hitch a lift from the mothership.

Importing this weird European tradition to Japan, the creative team have only incorporated parts of it in that they don’t call time on jokes at noon and it’s less about practical shenanigans and elaborate set ups than it is about wholesale lying which is frustrated by this famous non-holiday apparently created in celebration of it. All of the protagonists are lying about something quite fundamental and usually to themselves more than anyone else but at least their April Fools adventures will help them to realise these basic inner truths.

Then again some of these revelations backfire, such as in the slightly misjudged minor segment concerning two college friends who are repeatedly kicked out of restaurants before they can get anything to eat. One decides to “prank” his friend with an April Fools confession of love, only to find that his friend really is gay and is in love with him. Awkward is not the word, but then an April Fools declaration of love is about the worst kind of cruel there is and is never funny anyway, nor is the casual homophobia involved in this entire skit but that’s another story.

In fact, most of the other people are aware they’re being lied to, but are going along with it for various reasons, some hoping that the liars will spontaneously reform and apologise or explain their actions. Ayumi, who is shy and isolated by nature, always knew her handsome doctor suitor was probably not all he seemed to be but is still disappointed to be proved right, only be perhaps be proved wrong again in the end. Convinced to take a chance on an unwise romance by an older colleague who explains to her that many miracles begin with lies, Ayumi is angry with herself as much as with her lying Casanova of a baby daddy, and also feels guilty about an incredibly sight deception of her own. As in many of the other stories, now that everyone has figured out the real, important, truths about themselves and about the situation, they can excuse all of the lying. Sensible or not? The choice is yours.

Despite coming from the team who created some very funny TV dramas including Legal High, the comedy of April Fools never quite hits its stride. Weak jokes backed up with slapstick humour giving way to sentimentality as the “good reasons” for the avoidance of truth are revealed don’t exactly whip up the farcical frenzy which the premiss implies. The point may very well be that we’re the April Fools going along with this, but even so its difficult to admire a film which pushes the “lying is good” mantra right to the end rather than neatly undercutting it. Still, there is enough zany humour to make April Fools not a complete waste of time, even if it doesn’t make as much of its original inspiration as might be hoped.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Snow White Murder Case (白ゆき姫殺人事件, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2014)

Review of The Snow White Murder Case (白ゆき姫殺人事件, Shiro Yuki Hime Satsujin Jiken) published on UK-anime.net


The sensationalisation of crime has been mainstay of the tabloid press ever since its inception and a much loved subject for gossips and curtain twitchers since time immemorial. When social media arrived, it brought with it hundreds more avenues for every interested reader to have their say and make their own hideously uniformed opinions public contributing to this ever growing sandstorm of misinformation. Occasionally, or perhaps more often than we’d like to admit, these unfounded rumours have the power to ruin lives or push the accused person to a place of unbearable despair. So when the shy and put upon office worker Miki Shirono (Mao Inoue) becomes the prime suspect in the brutal murder of a colleague thanks some fairly convincing circumstantial evidence and the work of one would-be microblogging detective, the resulting trial by Twitter has a profound effect on her already shaky sense of self worth.

The body of Miki Noriko (Nanao) has been found in a wood burned to a crisp after being viciously stabbed multiple times. Beautiful, intelligent and well connected, Noriko seems to have been well loved by her colleagues who are falling over themselves to praise her kind and generous nature, proclaiming disbelief that anyone would do such a thing to so good a person. One of these co-workers, Risako (Misako Renbutsu), happens to have gone to school with TV researcher, Akahoshi (Go Ayano) who’s a total twitter addict and can’t keep anything to himself, and decides to give him the lowdown on the goings on in her office. Apparently the offices of the popular beauty product Snow White Soap was a hotbed of office pilfering filled with interpersonal intrigue of boy friend stealing and complicated romantic entanglements. Working alongside Noriko and Risako was another ‘Miki’, Shirono (Mao Inoe), who tends to be overshadowed by the beautiful and confident Noriko who shares her surname. Shy and isolated, Shirono seems the archetypal office loner and the picture Risako paints of her suggests she’s the sort of repressed, bitter woman who would engage in a bit of revenge theft and possibly even unhinged enough to go on a stabbing spree. Of course, once you start to put something like that on the internet, every last little thing you’ve ever done becomes evidence against you and Shirono finds herself the subject of an internet wide manhunt.

In some ways, the actual truth of who killed Noriko and why is almost irrelevant. In truth, the solution to the mystery itself is a little obvious and many people will probably have encountered similar situations albeit with a less fatal outcome. Safe to say Noriko isn’t quite as white as she’s painted and the film is trying to wrong foot you from the start by providing a series of necessarily unreliable witnesses but in many ways that is the point. There are as many versions of ‘the truth’ as there are people and once an accusation has been made people start to temper their recollections to fit with the new narrative they’ve been given. People who once went to school with Shirono instantly start to recall how she was a little bit creepy and even using evidence of a childhood fire to imply she was some kind of witch obsessed with occult rituals to get revenge on school bullies. Only one university friend stands up for Shirono but, crucially, she is the first one to publicly name her and goes on to give a lot of embarrassing and unnecessary personal details which although they help her case are probably not very relevant. Even this act of seeming loyalty is exposed as a bid for Twitter fame as someone on the periphery of events tries to catapult themselves into the centre by saying “I knew her – I have the real story”.

Of course, things like this have always happened long before the internet and social media took their primary place in modern life. There have always been those things that ‘everybody knows’ that quickly become ‘evidence’ as soon as someone is accused of something. Some people (usually bad people) can cope with these accusations fairly well and carry on with their lives regardless. Other people, like Shirono, are brought down in many ways by their own goodness. What Risako paints as creepy isolation is really mostly crippling shyness. Shirono is one of those innately good people who often puts herself last and tries to look after others – like bringing a handmade bento everyday for a nutritionally troubled colleague or coming up with a way for a childhood friend to feel better about herself. These sorts of people are inherently more vulnerable to these kinds of attacks because they already have an underlying sense of inferiority. As so often happens, this whole thing started because Shirono tried to do something she already thought was wrong and of course it turned into a catastrophe which resulted in her being accused of a terrible crime. The person who manipulated her into this situation likely knew she would react this way and that’s why meek people like Shirono are the ultimate fall guy material.

Like Yoshihiro Nakamura’s previous films (Fish Story, The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker – both available from Third Window Films), The Snow White Murder Case is full of intersecting plot lines and quirky characters and manages to imbue a certain sense of cosmic irony and black humour into what could be quite a bleak situation. The Twitter antics are neatly displayed through some innovative on screen graphics and the twin themes of ‘the internet reveals the truth’ and ‘the internet accuses falsely’ are never far from the viewer’s mind. It’s testimony to the strength of the characterisation (and of the performances) that Shirono can still say despite everything she’s been through ‘good things will happen’ in attempt to cheer up someone who unbeknownst to her is the author of all her troubles, and have the audience believe it too. A skilful crime thriller in which the crime is the least important thing, The Snow White Murder Case might quite not have the emotional pull of some of the director’s other work but it’s certainly a timely examination of the power of rumour in the internet age.


Original trailer (English subtitles)