Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2017)

mukoku posterThe way of the sword is fraught with contradictions. Like many martial arts, kendo is not primarily intended for practical usage but for self improvement, emotional centring, and fostering a big hearted love of country designed to ensure lasting peace between men. Nevertheless, it tends to attract people who struggle with just those issues, hoping to find the peace within themselves though mastery of the sword. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s long and varied career has often focussed on outsiders dealing with extreme emotions and Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU) is no different in this regard as the two men at its centre lock swords at cross purposes, each fighting something or someone else within themselves rather than the flesh and blood opponent standing before them.

Kengo Yatabe’s (Go Ayano) life has been defined by the sword. As a young boy his father, Shozo (Kaoru Kobayashi), began training Kengo intensively but his standards were high, too high for a small boy who only wanted to please his dad but found himself beaten with the weapon he was failing to master. Twenty years later Kengo is a broken man after a long deferred violent confrontation between father and son has left Shozo in a vegetative state, neither dead nor alive, no longer a figure of fear and hate but of guilt and ambivalence. Kengo has given up kendo partly out of guilt but also as a kind of rebellion mixed with self harm and is currently working as a security guard. He spends his days lost in an alcoholic fog, trailing an equally drunken casual girlfriend (Atsuko Maeda) behind him.

Meanwhile, high school boy Toru (Nijiro Murakami) is a classic angry young man working out his frustrations through a hip-hop infused punk band for which he writes the angst ridden poetry that serves as their lyrics. Toru has no interest in something as stuffy as Kendo but when he’s set upon by a bunch of Kendo jocks he decides he’s not going down without a fight. Winning through underhanded street punk moves would normally be frowned upon but the ageing monk who runs the high school kendo club, Mitsumura (Akira Emoto), is struck by his nifty footwork and decides to convince the troubled young man that the path to spiritual enlightenment lies in mastery over the self through mastery of the sword.

The wise old monk pits the self-destructive older man against the scrappy young one, hoping to bring them both to some kind of peaceful equilibrium, with near tragic results. Kengo’s ongoing troubles are born of a terrible sense of guilt, but also from intense self-loathing in refusing to accept that he’s become the man he hated, as broken and embittered as the father who made him that way. Shozo was a kendo master, but as the monk points out, in technique only – his heart was forever unquiet and he never achieved the the true peace necessary to master his art. Knowing this to be the truth only made it worse yet Shozo also knew the burden he’d placed on his son. They say every man must kill his father, but Kengo can’t let the ghost of his go – clinging on to a mix of filial piety and resentful loathing which is slowly turning him into everything he hates.

Toru’s problem’s are pushed into the background but seeing as his enemy is not the flesh and blood threat of an overbearing father but the elements and more particularly water, it will be much harder to overcome. Water becomes a constant symbol for each man – for Toru it’s an inescapable symbol of death and powerlessness, but for Kengo it represents happiness and harmony in rediscovering the good memories he has of his father from joyful family outings to less abusive summer training sessions. Mukoku is the story of three ages of man – the scrappy rebellious teen, the struggling middle-aged man, and the elderly veteran whose own heart is settled enough to see the battles others are waging. The “warrior’s song” as “mukoku” seems to mean changes with each passing season, nudged into tune by the graceful art of kendo.

Kumakiri embraces his expressionist impulses as a young boy finds himself suddenly underwater, vomiting mud and fish while Kengo has constant visions of his father, mother, and younger self ensuring the past is forever present. The ominous score and strange occurrences including ghostly graveyard old women who appear from nowhere in order to offer a lecture on the five buddhist sins lend a more urgent quality to Kengo’s disintegration, though interesting subplots involving a possibly alcoholic girlfriend and a mamasan (Jun Fubuki) at a local bar who might have been Shozo’s mistress are left underdeveloped. Two men face each other to face themselves, trying to beat their demons into submission with wooden swords, but even if the battle is far from over the tide has turned and something at least has begun to shift.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no 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)

Antenna (アンテナ, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2004)

AntennaScarring, both literal and mental, is at the heart of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s third feature, Antenna (アンテナ). Though it’s ironic that indentation should be the focus of a film whose title refers to a sensitive protuberance, Kumakiri’s adaptation of a novel by Randy Taguchi is indeed about feeling a way through. Anchored by a standout performance from Ryo Kase, Antenna is a surreal portrait of grief and repressed guilt as a family tragedy threatens to consume all of those left behind.

Philosophy student Yuichiro (Ryo Kase) is currently working on a project which aims to reevaluate how pain is felt through attempting to identify with the pain of others. To do this he plans to investigate the S&M scene but before he can get started, a painful episode from his past is reawakened by current events. Yuichiro’s younger sister, Marie, has been missing since failing to return home from school one day when she was only eight years old. When news reports appear that another girl around the same age has been held captive in a nearby apartment complex since around the time Marie went missing hopes are sparked only to be dashed. Still no closer to discovering what happened to his younger sister, Yuichiro carries the guilt of having been unable to protect her as well as the inability to remember exactly what happened on that fateful day.

Matters come to a head when Yuichiro’s younger brother (their mother was pregnant with him at the time of the disappearance) turns up on his doorstep. Yuya (Daisuke Kizaki) repeatedly claims that Marie is about to return as he can feel her through his “antenna” (“like the horns of a snail”) and has a full scale fit aboard the train back. Things being what they are, the doctors advise Yuichiro to spend sometime at home as his distracted mother is no shape to cope with Yuya’s increasingly odd behaviour. A dutiful son, Yuichiro does what he can for what’s left of his family but his childhood home is far from a good environment for him.

Soon after Marie’s disappearance, both Yuichiro’s father and his uncle Shige who’d lived with them both died, leaving only Yuichiro’s mother and baby brother behind them. Unable to come to terms with Marie’s disappearance, Yuichiro’s mother has found religion, hosting Buddhist prayer sessions at the house and bringing in Feng Shui experts to try and heal the lingering sense of tragedy still present in the house. She has also become convinced that her second son, Yuya, is in fact the returned spirit of her daughter, raising him as a girl and dressing him in Marie’s clothes. This may explain some of Yuya’s conflicting behaviour and repeated insistence that his sister is “returning” in so much as something of her personality has become the ghost in his machine.

Once back in the house, Yuichiro’s mental state becomes ever more precarious as his memories of his sister’s disappearance begin to flicker to the surface. Overcome with repressed guilt, Yuichiro once again begins self harming by slashing his chest with a box cutter. Easing the mental pain with the physical, Yuirichiro finally begins to address some of his long buried trauma through repeated meetings with the dominatrix he was interviewing for his project. Undergoing a kind of S&M lead sex therapy, Yuichiro is slowly guided back through his memories to events he was too young to understand at the time and only now is fully able to comprehend.

Throughout his flashbacks Yuichiro is always sidelined, perched behind barriers or shut away by closed doors as the adults argue and loudly discuss things they claim are not suitable for children to hear. Crucial moments find him peaking through keyholes and seeing something he knew was not quite right but without knowing why. These incomplete and incomprehensible memories are the ones which haunt him, unresolvable but still trailing the guilt behind them of having seen yet done nothing.

Told in a slight non-linear fashion through frequent flashbacks, the film adopts a dreamlike tone and surreal imagery to make sense of the more extreme elements. The final sequence itself is either a hallucination or a dream that takes on a magical realist quality as the past is finally allowed to drift away from its lodging place, freeing up a space for light to return to the otherwise darkened house.

An intense exploration of buried trauma and childhood guilt, Antenna is a dark tale but does offer a glimmer of hope after all its hellish meandering. Kumakikri keeps things straightforward but his considered compositions have a strange kind of beauty despite the ugliness of the narrative. Embracing a number a taboo subjects coupled with strong emotion and explicit content, Antenna is not an easy watch but rewarding for those who can brave its extremes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Man 私の男 (Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2014)

162276_02Based on the Naoki Prize winning novel by Kazuki Sakuraba, My Man tackles the difficult subject of a quasi-incestual “love” affair between a young orphaned girl and the “distant” relative who adopts her as his “daughter”. Though this taboo subject has never been far from Japanese screens (find me an art film from the ’60s which doesn’t involve incest in some way), My Man dares to examine in it in all its realistic muddiness and is marked by nothing so much as its raw intensity. Brought to the screen by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri whose last picture Summer’s End chronicled the romantic and existential dilemmas of a woman approaching middle age, My Man is a disturbing and unsettling film which poses a fair few unpleasant questions about the nature of familial and romantic relationships.

The film begins with a young girl, Hana, crawling away from a scene of intense devastation. Finally ending up at a refugee centre, it seems that Hana’s entire family have been killed in a natural disaster. Creeping back to her house, Hana is discovered by a rescue worker, Jungo, who by coincidence happens to be a distant relative of hers. Asked who the little girl is, Jungo immediately asserts that she is his daughter and there after claims her as his own. The pair continue to live together in a small, seaside Hokkaido town until Hana reaches middle school age at which point their relationship changes and the lines between father/daughter and husband/wife become exceedingly blurred. Only growing in intensity, the two will eventually even go so far as to kill to protect their illicit relationship which eventually takes them to the comparatively more anonymous Tokyo but what the outcome of their unconventional bond will ultimately be, only time will tell.

Hana and Jungo are both people in search of “family” and unbreakable bonds. Hana, having just lost her entire world in a tsunami is haunted by nightmares of being carried by her desperate father running from the coming storm but comes to see her new guardian Jungo as something more than a paternal figure. Jungo, as the kindly uncle Oshio remarks, is the sort of man who shouldn’t have a family. At this point, we don’t know why Oshio feels this way, merely that people seem uneasy in Jungo’s company and there’s something a little strange in his bearing and in his willingness to adopt an orphaned little girl with very little consideration. Though they are described as “distant” relatives, Jungo spent sometime in Hana’s familial home just before she was born and claims to have had a fondness for her mother – perhaps not such a “distant” relative after all.

In fact, Hana comes to feel an indestructible bond with Jungo precisely because of their blood ties. She believes he may be her true father and makes him also her carnal lover. Hana’s possessiveness begins almost at the beginning of their relationship with a repeated motif where she sucks on his fingers which takes on an increasingly erotic context as the film goes on. Seeing off Jungo’s more age appropriate girlfriend, Komachi, Hana delights in her triumphant ownership of Jungo decrying that he needs a blood relative and nothing else will do. Horrified, Komachi eventually leaves the area altogether and Hana and Jungo to their strangely intense “family” life. When Oshio accidentally discovers what exactly goes on in their household and comes to the conclusion Hana may once again need rescuing, talking may not quite be enough. Though their relationship has crossed social taboos the pair see nothing wrong in it yet are afraid of the possibility of being discovered and will go to great lengths to protect their illicit secret.

The tale starts to lose momentum a little after the move to Tokyo but it’s here that the central problem makes itself most plain. Jungo, having left the sea behind him, works as a cab driver in the city but eventually drifts into a life of aimless alcoholism as Hana grows up and away from him. “I just want to be a father” he cries after having just had a bizarre and humiliating encounter with a would be suitor of Hana’s. “You’re not good enough” he tells him, a repeated phrase offered to another of Hana’s men at the end of the film – fatherly words, but tinged with the jealousy of a rival. In the end, it seems as if Hana may have abandoned their “family” for a more conventional life, however, in a telling sequence set in a restaurant everything else appears to disappear leaving just the two of them isolated in their own world. Flirtatious and possessive, theirs is a bond which will truly never be broken, for better or worse.

Kumakiri shoots this bleak tale in a mostly naturalistic style occasionally giving way to expressionism and snaps of non-linear editing. In a pivotal scene as Jungo and Hana indulge their carnal passions one morning before school, the entire room rains blood – first falling as droplets on Hana’s back before becoming a torrent which leaves them both stained crimson. A blood wedding or presaging their further transgressions, this startling moment is only one of Kumakiri’s impressively nuanced symbolic touches. Though the film has its B-movie, melodramatic elements, Kumakiri has been able to integrate these into his slightly elevated tone with little difficulty to create a modern, melancholic mood piece which is rich with mystery and only hinted at implications.

Another interesting film from Kumakiri, My Man is an impressively directed dissection of its difficult subject matter. Anchored by extraordinary performances from Tadanobu Asano and particularly from Fumi Nikaido as the complicated and conflicted Hana, Kumakiri thankfully keeps the sleaze factor low though simmering enough for its necessary impact. It may not be a pleasant watch, but for those who can bear its unrelenting melancholy My Man offers a fascinating portrait of the modern family in crisis.