A Boy and His Samurai (ちょんまげぷりん, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2010)

Boy and his samurai poster 1Edo/Tokyo – what difference can a name make? A lot, it seems, but then perhaps not so much as you’d think. “Edo” was the seat of power in Japan from 1603 until it was renamed “Tokyo” during the Meiji Restoration, heralding a brand new era of modernity following more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation. Logically, there must have been people who went to sleep in Edo and woke up in Tokyo, but most of them didn’t nap for nearly 200 years. The hero of A Boy and his Samurai (ちょんまげぷりん, Chonmage Purin) didn’t exactly nap either, but he’s fetched up 200 years in the future, which, you have to admit, is very disorientating.

Divorced single mother Hiroko (Rie Tomosaka) is late getting her 6-year-old son Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki) out of the house and on his way to school so she’s less than interested when he suddenly stops in the street to stare at a severe man in samurai dress standing outside a supermarket. Assuming it’s some kind of advertising stunt, Hiroko drags her son away, but the man turns up again later wandering around their apartment block and seemingly very confused. Hiroko tries to help him, but he is extremely rude and intimidating, eventually demanding to be taken back to her apartment almost at sword point. Nevertheless, once everyone has figured out the man, who says his name is Kijima Yasube (Ryo Nishikido) and he’s a samurai retainer, is either quite mad or a time traveller, the trio being living together and trying to bridge their very different social values.

Those values have obviously changed a lot, but in many ways not enough. Hiroko has a regular job at an advertising agency but is disrespected by some of her colleagues because she can’t work overtime and has to leave early to make sure someone picks up Tomoya. We learn that the reason she divorced her husband two years ago is that while he pretended to be modern and progressive, he was unwilling to share his portion of the domestic burden and secretly wanted his wife to quit work and look after the house despite superficially encouraging her with her career. Hiroko figured it made no difference if he was around or not, so she left him and took Tomoya with her. Hiroko likes her job, but working also reinforces her individual identity (even if blending into the corporate) aside from that of wife and mother which has all too often been all that a woman is in a rigid and conformist society.

Indeed, when Yasube first arrives he adopts a superior tone and refers to Hiroko only as “woman”, viewing her as necessarily inferior by reason of sex while also reasserting himself as a samurai communicating with someone he assumes to be of the lower orders. Yasube is stunned to learn that Hiroko has a surname – a reminder that those of the lower orders did not (officially) have surnames until the Meiji Restoration. He now thinks she must be very noble, adopts a suitably humble tone, and resigns himself to accepting her hospitality in the absence of other options. He can’t get his head around her family situation or process the various motions towards sexual equality the modern world has produced. To him women manage the house and men protect it from outside. He finds Hiroko’s desire for independence strange and this new world uncivilised.

Nevertheless, he decides to give the Tokyo way a go by stepping briefly beyond himself – in return for room and board, he’ll effectively become Hiroko’s “wife”, managing all the domestic chores while she concentrates on her career. Yasube finds a strange affinity for domesticity, quickly getting to grips with white goods and taking recipe notes from cooking TV (to write them down with ink and a brush using classical Japanese script). Despite never tasting them before, he finds himself a natural baker providing sweet treats for all. However, Hiroko perhaps disappoints herself by accidentally slipping into the role of workaholic salaryman, suddenly embracing the art of overtime and leaving everything at home in the capable hands of Yasube without really considering his feelings even if he never seems to resent it.

Trouble brews when Yasube gets the opportunity to build a career of his own as a pastry chef. Hiroko, true to her word, is encouraging and obviously wants to give him the opportunity to fulfil himself, but the same situation recurs – Yasube becomes obsessed with his professional development leaving little Tomoya brokenhearted and missing his surrogate dad. The problem isn’t so much gender roles as a reluctance to fully commit by agreeing to share domestic responsibilities equally in recognition of equal commitment to a mutual endeavour. Then again, Yasube disappoints – his Edo ethics reassert themselves. he answers Hiroko’s pleas that he spend more time with Tomoya by suggesting she quit her job so he won’t be lonely while his wages can support them as a family. He thinks he’s saying something nice, confirming his loyalty to them as a father figure who will protect and provide, but it’s the wrong the thing to say and only goes to show that his “ancient” way of thinking is sadly not quite archaic enough.

Likewise, his old-fashioned parenting style of fatherly authority advanced with shouts and stares would likely not be approved by most today but it does uncomfortably seem to be accepted by the film, as if Tomoya needs male parental input rather than just benefiting from having a mum who’s less tired and stressed out for having someone to share her life with. He does, however, soften on exposure to Tokyo liberality, willingly embracing modern equalities in realising that there’s nothing wrong with a man supporting a woman and a child in ways other than the financial even if he eventually goes back on it when presented with the opportunity to reassert his male pride as a provider, declaring that domestic matters “no longer concern” him now that he has “other duties”. “Tokyo” still has a ways to go (where doesn’t?), but it’s moving in the right direction even if there are some who are content to be slow in catching up.


Original trailer compilation (no subtitles)

Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Masahiro Takada, 2006)

honey and clover blu-rayAh youth! Chica Umino’s phenomenally popular manga Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Hachimitsu to Clover) is, essentially, a coming of age story in which love, requited and otherwise, plays a significant part. Masahiro Takada’s adaptation is no different in this respect as its central group of friends learn to come into themselves through various different kinds of heart break leading to soul searching and eventual self actualisation. The path to adulthood is rocky and strewn with anxieties, but has its own charms as our self branded Mr. Youth seems to have figured out, romanticising his own adolescence even while he lives it.

The action kicks off at an art college in Tokyo where a circle of friends is temporarily shaken by the arrival of a new student – a distant relative of a popular professor, Hanamoto (Masato Sakai). Our youth loving hero, Takemoto (Sho Sakurai), falls instantly in love with Hagu (Yu Aoi) – a genius self-taught painter with a dreamy, ethereal personality and negligible interpersonal skills. Hagu, however, seems to have developed a strange connection with conceited sculptor Morita (Yusuke Iseya) who continues to struggle with his conflicting interests in art and commerce. Meanwhile, geeky design student Mayama (Ryo Kase) has a problematic crush on his boss, Rika (Naomi Nishida), whose husband went missing some years ago, and has begun semi-stalking her. Unbeknownst to him, Mayama is also being semi-stalked by Yamada (Megumi Seki) – a spiky ceramicist who refuses to give up on her unrequited crush despite being fully aware of his one sided love for a brokenhearted middle-aged woman.

In actuality all of our protagonists are a little older than one might assume – all past the regular age for graduating college and either hanging around after being unable to complete their studies or pursuing additional training in the hope of furthering their art. They are all also hopelessly lost in terms of figuring out who they are – perhaps why they haven’t quite got a handle on their art, either. Hagu, younger than the others, seems to have an additional problem in existing outside of the mainstream, experiencing difficulties with communication and needing some additional help to get into the swing of college life. Perhaps for this reason, maverick professor Hanamoto palms her off on the “least arty” (read “most responsible”) of his students, Takemoto, who is tasked with accompanying her for meals – something for which he is quite grateful given his first brush with love on catching sight of her at her easel.

Hagu is also, however, the most sensitive and perceptive of the students even if she can only truly express herself through canvas. Her most instantaneous connection is with Morita, whose instinctive approach perhaps most closely mirrors her own though where Hagu is quiet and soulful, Morita is loud and impetuous. Watching him creating his centrepiece sculpture, Hagu is honest enough to tell Morita that he’s overdone it. Morita agrees but ends up exhibiting the piece anyway and not only that – he sells it for a serious amount of money despite knowing that it lacks artistic integrity. Hagu is unimpressed and her disapproval only adds to Morita’s sense of self loathing in his ambivalence towards to the fleeting rewards of superficial success versus the creation of artistic truth.

A similar sense of ambivalence imbues the romantic difficulties which neatly divide the group into a series of concentric love triangles. Takemoto, the selfless hero, realises the best thing he can do for Hagu is try to help Morita be less of a self-centred idiot while simultaneously dwelling on his fleeting youth and actively pursuing himself while debating whether or not to hit the road and leave his lovelorn friends to it. Mayama and Yamada, by contrast, are content to dance around each other, understanding the irony of their respective unreturned crushes while not quite bonding over them but both determined not to give up on their dreams (romantic and professional).

Despite the central positioning of our shy hero as he walks towards the end goal of being able to state his feelings plainly, the drama revolves around the enigmatic Hagu whose descent into an intense depression after an ill-advised moment on a beach is only eased by the careful attentions of her new friends finally realising that their artistic souls benefit from compassion for others rather than remaining solipsistically obsessed with their own romantic heartbreak. Despite its noble intentions, Honey and Clover misses the mark in charting the heady days of youth though our confused heroes do eventually manage to find themselves and each other along the road to adulthood as they chase down disappointments romantic and professional and discover what is they really want in the process.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, SABU, 1996)

Dangan Runner posterIt’s not difficult to see what might send three young men running like stray bullets from a random gun in the Japan of the mid-90s, but each of the various protagonists of SABU’s debut feature Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, AKA Non-Stop) is reaching for a different target. Like much of the director’s later work, Dangan Runner pivots on random circumstance which somehow conspires to bring our three runners together as if bound by cosmic thread while they too are chased by an oncoming storm in the form of vengeful yakuza and the bumbling cops hot on their trail.

Kickstarting the whole affair, lowly restaurant worker Yasuda (Tomorowo Taguchi), fed up with the petty humiliations of his life, decides to rob a bank. He has everything planned, even rehearsed and choreographed down to the second, but when the time comes he makes a mistake. Having left his mask at home, he decides to buy one from a local combini but panics and accidentally shoplifts instead, attracting the attentions of bullet two – Aizawa (Diamond Yukai), who is wounded in the arm by Yasuda’s nervous shot when his gun accidentally goes off. A drug addict and former rockstar, Aizawa, intent on revenge for the disrespect he’s just been paid, retrieves the gun dropped by Yasuda and chases him through the streets of Tokyo. Aizawa in turn continues the chain reaction when he bumps into a yakuza, Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who is “triggered” by a deep seated trauma into chasing off after Aizawa, knife in hand. Meanwhile, a rival yakuza clan is also after Takeda because of gangland politics while they too are being monitored by the police who have gotten wind of a gang war in the offing.

Though SABU’s film is not in the least political, it is like much of his work a mild satire even if its sympathy lies firmly with its three central heroes each desperately trying and failing to outrun themselves. Yasuda, a small man with a slight frame, is the lowest of the low. He has a terrible job as a kitchen assistant in a small restaurant where he is constantly bullied by the head chef and belittled by the other kitchen staff who are all much taller and stronger than he is. It’s not difficult to see why he might bristle so much when one calls him “good for nothing”, yet he’s not the type to offer more than an angry stare in return. To make matters worse, he runs into an old girlfriend who appears to have moved on and up. Walking arm in arm with a wealthy salaryman, she has apparently jettisoned the “common” name of “Midori” for the relatively more sophisticated one of “Yasuko”, presumably hoping to hook someone who is indeed the polar opposite of a “loser” like Yasuda.

Aizawa also has his share of woman troubles though his are of an opposing dimension. A failed musician with a drug problem, Aizawa alienated his loving girlfriend while hoping his addiction would save him from his unattainable dreams. Of course, it’s an entirely different “shot in the arm” that starts him running, but like Yasuda in the end all he can think of is the girl and how he did everything wrong. Takeda, by contrast, is a yakuza through and through. His regrets are bound up with homosocial bonding and male loyalty, mourning the death of the trusted superior he failed to save in dodging the blows of a random assassin. Yet as his superior tells him, all living beings run towards the same thing. A yakuza cannot control his death but he can control his life and the effect he has on others. He urges Takeda to run and find life in the process, but perhaps Takeda’s destination is the run itself rather than where it will eventually take him.

Indeed, Yasuda, accidentally landing up in the middle of the yakuza gang war, affirms that he never felt so alive as when he was running for his life. All three men, running fast from failure, finally achieve the freedom they’d dreamed of through the intense exertion of their flight which later literally becomes orgasmic as all three fantasise about a pretty woman seen on the side of the road. Like bullets fired from a gun powered by social impossibility, each is destined to explode on reaching its chosen target. Like many of SABU’s later protagonists, these are men brought low by life and circumstance, driven slowly mad by a conspiracy of cosmic coincidence, mere playthings of fate without power or agency. Angry young men are a powder keg waiting to ignite, but in SABU’s whimsically surreal universe they usually sort things out amongst themselves. For the Dangan Runners, they only need to look in the mirror to figure out where it is they need to go.


Dangan Runner is available on dual format DVD & blu-ray from Third Window Films. On disc extras include a video essay on the history of V Cinema from film scholar Tom Mes, and an expansive audio commentary by Jasper Sharp providing detailed background on SABU’s career and the Japanese cinema landscape of the mid-90s.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The 8-Year Engagement (8年越しの花嫁 奇跡の実話, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

8-year bride posterRomantic melodrama has long been a staple of Japanese cinema which seems to revel in stories of impossible love. The short lived boom in “jun-ai” or “pure love” romances which blossomed at the beginning of the century may have petered out gracefully after plundering every terminal or debilitating illness for traces of heartbreaking tragedy, but the genre has never quite gone away and is unlikely ever to do so. Takahisa Zeze’s The 8-Year Engagement (8年越しの花嫁 奇跡の実話, 8-nengoshi no Hanayome: Kiseki no Jitsuwa) is, however, a slightly different case in that it is inspired by a true story which became something of a hot topic in the relatively recent past. Romantic in a grand, old fashioned sense, the film shifts away from the melodrama of misery while praising the power of perseverance and the enduring potency of true love in bringing about unexpected miracles.

In 2006, shy and retiring car mechanic Hisashi (Takeru Satoh) tries and fails to get out of a party his chatty colleague is arranging for that very evening. Sullen and resentful at having been roped into a social occasion he was not mentally prepared for, Hisashi says barely anything and then manages to free himself when the others decide to go for karaoke. Just as he’s walking off mildly regretful, one of the other partygoers, Mai (Tao Tsuchiya), comes back to harangue him about his “attitude”. Hisashi explains that he’s sorry but he’s not very good at this sort of thing anyway and the truth is he wanted to go home because he’s got a killer stomach ache which being forced to eat fatty meat and down sake out of politeness has done nothing to help. Mai approves of this excuse, and even loops back after leaving to meet the others at the karaoke to hand him a heat pack she had in her bag in the hope that it might help with the stomach trouble. The pair start dating, become wildly happy, and get engaged. Three months before the wedding, Mai is struck down by a rare illness and winds up in a coma.

The romance itself is tucked up neatly into the first half hour or so and mostly conforms to genre norms – he is shy and extremely sensitive, she is extroverted and extremely kind. The love story proceeds smoothly, though there are signs of trouble to come in Mai’s increasing clumsiness followed by headaches which lead to memory loss and finally a painful hallucinogenic episode resulting in prolonged hospitalisation. Zeze wisely scales back on medical detail and focuses on Hisashi’s devotion and unwavering belief that Mai will one day open her eyes and return to him. Rather than cancel the wedding date, Hisashi decides to keep it open in the hope that Mai will be well enough to attend before booking the same date, the date of their first meeting, in every subsequent year just in case she should wake up and regret missing out on her dream wedding.

As the condition is so rare, no one is sure what the prognosis will be though the doctors admit there is a strong possibility Mai may never awaken or that if she does there may well be extensive brain damage and irreparable memory loss in addition to life long medical needs. Hisashi puts his life on hold and comes to the hospital every day, making short video messages he sends to Mai’s phone so she can catch up on what she’s missed when she wakes up. His devotion does however begin to worry Mai’s doting parents (Hiroko Yakushimaru & Tetta Sugimoto) who eventually decide to explain to him that as he’s “not family” there’s no need for him to feel obliged to stick around. They do this not because they’re territorial over their daughter’s care, or that they don’t like Hisashi, they simply worry that he’s going to waste his life waiting for a woman who will never wake up. As he’s still young and has a chance to start again, they try to push him away in the harshest way possible – through cool politeness, but are secretly pleased when he refuses to be pushed.

People making other people’s decisions for them as a means of reducing their suffering becomes a recurrent theme. Rather than say what they mean, kindhearted people say the things which they believe are for the best and will end someone else’s suffering through a moment of intense pain. Everyone is so keen to spare everyone else’s feelings, that they perhaps suffer themselves when there is no need to. Hisashi’s supportive boss remembers a rather odd comment he made during his interview – after replying that he enjoyed fixing things when asked what made him apply for the job, Hisashi’s boss asked him what he thought about while he did it to which he replied “love”. Love does it seems fix everything, at least when coupled with undying devotion and a refusal give up even when things look grim. A romantic melodrama with a positive ending The 8-year Engagement is a happy tearjerker in which love really does conquer all despite seemingly unsurmountable odds.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sekigahara (関ヶ原, Masato Harada, 2017)

Sekigahara posterWhen considering a before and an after, you’d be hard pressed to find a moment as perfectly situated as the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原). Taking place on 21st October 1600 (by the Western calendar), Sekigahara came at the end of a long and drawn out process of consolidation and finally ended the Sengoku (or “warring states”) era, paving the way for the modern concept of “Japan” as a distinct and unified nation. In actuality there were three unifiers of Japan – the first being Oda Nobunaga who brought much of Japan under his control before being betrayed by one of his own retainers. The second, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued Oda’s work and died a peaceful death leaving a son too young behind him which created a power vacuum and paved the way for our third and final creator of the modern Japanese state – Tokugawa Ieyasu whose dynasty would last 260 years encompassing the lengthy period of isolation that was finally ended by the tall black ships and some gunboat diplomacy.

Loosely, we begin our tale towards the end of the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kenichi Takito) though, in a nod to the novel, director Masato Harada includes a temporal framing sequence in which our author depicts himself as a boy during another war sitting in these same halls and hearing stories of heroes past. As well he might given where he was sitting, the narrator reframes his tale – our hero is not the eventual victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but a noble hearted retainer of the Toyotomi, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada).

Riding into battle, Mitsunari reminds his men that this is a war of “justice and injustice” – they cannot lose. Yet lose they do. The narrator recounts Mitsunari’s improbable rise as an orphan taken in by Hideyoshi on a whim who nevertheless became one of the most powerful men in late 16th century Japan. Despite his loyalty to his master, Mitsunari cannot abide the cruelty of the samurai world or its various modes of oppression both in terms of social class and even in terms of gender. He resents the subversion of samurai ethics to facilitate “politics” and longs to restore honour, justice, and fairness to a world ruled by chaos. Rather than the bloody uncertainty and self-centred politicking that define his era, Mitsunari hopes to enshrine these values as the guiding principles of his nation.

On the other hand, his opponent, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho) is famed for his intelligence and particularly for his political skill. Hoping to swoop into the spot vacated by Hideyoshi which his young son Hideyori is too weak to occupy, Ieyasu has been playing a long game of winning alliances and disrupting those other candidates had assumed they had secured. Unlike Mitsunari, Ieyasu is ruthless and prepared to sacrifice all to win his hand, caring little for honour or justice or true human feeling.

The framing sequence now seems a little more pointed. Sekigahara becomes a turning point not just of political but ideological consolidation in which Mitsunari’s ideas of just rule and compassionate fair mindedness creating order from chaos are relegated to the romantic past while self interest triumphs in the rule of soulless politickers which, it seems, travels on through the ages to find its zenith in the age of militarism. Mitsunari is the last good man, prepared to die for his ideals but equally prepared to live for them. His tragedy is romantic in the grander sense but also in the more obvious one in that his innate honour code will not let him act on the love he feels for a poor girl displaced from Iga whose ninja service becomes invaluable to his plan. With a wife and children to consider, he would not commit the “injustice” of creating a concubine but dreams of one day, after all this is over, resigning his name and position and travelling to foreign lands with the woman he loves at his side.

Working on a scale unseen since the age of Kurosawa, Harada patiently lays the groundwork before condensing the six hours of battle to forty minutes of fury. The contrast between the purity of the past and the muddied future is once again thrown into stark relief in the vastly different strategies of Ieyasu and Mitsunari with Ieyasu’s troops armed to the teeth with modernity – they fire muskets and shout cannon commands in Portuguese while Mitsunari’s veteran warriors attempt to face them with only their pikes and wooden shields. Unable to adapt to “modern” warfare and trusting too deeply in the loyalty of his comrades, Mitsunari’s final blow comes not by will but by chance as a young and inexperienced vassal vacillates until his men make his decision for him, betraying an alliance he may have wished (in his heart) to maintain. Goodness dies a bloody death, but there is peace at last even if it comes at a price. That price, for some at least, may have been too great.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Real (リアル 完全なる首長竜の日, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2013)

real posterKiyoshi Kurosawa has taken a turn for the romantic in his later career. Both 2013’s Real (リアル 完全なる首長竜の日, Real: Kanzen Naru Kubinagaryu no Hi) and Journey to the Shore follow an Orpheus into the underworld searching for a lost love stolen by death, but where Journey to the Shore is a tale of letting go, Real is very much the opposite (or so it would seem). Taking on much more of a science-fiction bent than Kurosawa’s previous work, Real adapts the Rokuro Inui novel A Perfect Day for a Pleisiosaur in which the boyfriend of a woman in a coma journeys into her subconscious through a process known as “sensing” in order to help her face up to whatever it is that’s keeping her asleep and lead her back towards the living world (or so we think). Strange and surreal, Real is a meditation on love, trauma, and the nature of consciousness in which “reality” itself is constantly in shift.

Koichi (Takeru Satoh) and Atsumi (Haruka Ayase) are childhood friends now living together as a couple. Despite their apparent happiness, one year after we see them enjoying a cheerful breakfast Atsumi is in a coma following a suicide attempt and Koichi is about to undergo an experimental procedure known as “sensing” to try and venture inside her consciousness to find out why she did it and possibly help her wake up.

Koichi makes contact and finds Atsumi living more or less as she had before, inhabiting their shared apartment and hard at work on a manga series, Roomi, which is now on hiatus following her indisposition. Roomi, like much of Atsumi’s work, is dark and macabre – the story of a serial killer who murders people in increasingly violent and disturbing ways. The brief flashes of bloody victims Koichi begins to notice in his peripheral vision soon give way to “philosophical zombies” or the NPCs of of the subconscious which take the form of badly animated third parties peopling Atsumi’s mind. What Atsumi wants from Koichi is to find a drawing of a Pleisiosaur she drew for him when they were children, because it was “perfect” and will help restore her faith in herself as an artist.

The Pleisiosaur turns out to be a little more significant than it first seems, taking Koichi and Atsumi back to the remote island where they first met. Almost like Stalker’s “The Zone” the island is a place of ruined dreams and frustrated inertia where some kind of accident related to the construction of a resort Koichi’s father was involved in building has permanently destroyed any idea of progress. This frozen, rubble strewn landscape perfectly reflects the lost world of the trapped dreamers as they battle the ghost of a shared yet half forgotten childhood trauma.

Though less obviously disturbing than some of Kurosawa’s previous forays into eerie psychological horror, Real has its share of typically J-horror tropes including a dripping wet ghost albeit this time one of a little boy popping up in unexpected places. Kurosawa opts for a hyperreal aesthetic, filming with harsh digital cameras which make little concession to the obviously cinematic, adding to the appropriately lifeless atmosphere of Koichi’s “real” world life and the surreal dreamworld of Atsumi. Koichi’s oddly pyjama-like clothing adds to the ongoing uncertainty as the two worlds blur into each other, becoming indistinct as the screen texture suddenly changes or the camera rolls to an unusual angle.

Shifting from Tarkovsky’s landscapes of desolation to Antonioni’s fog filled confusion, Kurosawa peels back the layers of repressed trauma to finally get to the core of what’s trapping the protagonist’s psyche within its frozen state. Childhood friends as they are, Koichi and Atsumi are trapped by a sense of guilt for something that they were both witness to all those years ago and so to overcome it, they will need to face it together. This time Orpheus descends but refuses to leave alone, battling literal dinosaurs from the distant past which must be placated with tokens of affection and, finally, heartfelt apologies. The “real” remains obscure, but Kurosawa does, at least, demonstrate his faith in love as salvation in a climax that echoes A Matter of Life and Death even if in a surreal and not altogether successful way.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Akio Jissoji, 2005)

Summer of the UbumeAkio Jissoji has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director to date. In a career that also encompasses the landmark tokusatsu franchise Ultraman and a large selection of children’s TV, Jissoji made his mark as an avant-garde director through his three Buddhist themed art films for ATG. Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Ubume no Natsu) is a relatively late effort and finds Jissoji adapting a supernatural mystery novel penned by Natsuhiko Kyogoku neatly marrying most of his central concerns into one complex detective story.

Freelance writer Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) and occult expert Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) become intrigued by the bizarre story of a woman who has apparently been pregnant for twenty months. If that weren’t enough weirdness, the woman’s husband also went missing a year ago and now her sister has approached the pair hoping they can investigate and figure out what’s really going on. Unbeknownst to him, Sekiguchi has a longstanding connection with several of the people involved and himself plays a role in the central mystery. Demons foreign and domestic, past trauma, infanticide and multiple personality disorder are just some of the possible solutions but as Kyogokudo is keen to remind us, there is nothing in this world that is truly strange.

The mystery conceit takes the form of a classic European style detective story complete witha drawing room based finale in which each of our potential suspects is assembled for Kyogokudo so that he can deliver his final lecture and tick them all off the list as he goes along. The tale takes place in the summer of 1952 and so the spectre of Japan’s wartime past, as well as its growing future, both have a part to play in solving this extremely complex crime. The original supernatural question concerns two otherworldly entities which have become conflated – the Chinese Kokakucho which abducts children, and the Japanese Ubume which offers its child to passersby. Needless to say, the answer to all of our questions lies firmly within our own world and is in no small part the result of relentless cruelty masked as tradition.

The opening scene includes a lengthy discussion between Kyogokudo an Sekiguchi debating the nature of reality. We only experience the world as we perceive it, seeing and unseeing at will. Everybody, to an extent, sees what they need to see, therefore, memory proves an unreliable narrator when it comes to recalling facts which may run contrary to the already prepared narrative.

Jissoji brings his trademark surrealist approach to the material which largely consists of interconnecting flashbacks often intercut with other dreamlike imagery. Filming with odd angles and unusual camera movements, Jissoji makes the the regular world a destabilising place as the strange mystery takes hold. The canted angles and direct to camera approach also add to a slight hardboiled theme which creeps in around the otherwise European detective drama though this mystery is much more about solving a series of puzzles than navigating the dangerously dark world of the noir. That said this is a very bleak tale which, for all its frog faced children weirdness, has some extremely unpleasant human behaviour at its roots.

Supernatural investigator Kyogokudo quickly dispenses with the demonic in favour of the natural but the solutions to this extremely complicated set of mysteries are anything but simple. Making space for the original novel’s author to show up as a travelling picture storyteller with some Shigeru Mizuki inspired illustrations on his easel, Summer of Ubume is not entirely devoid of whimsy but its deliberately arch tone is one which it manages to make work with its already bizarre set up. The enemy is the unburied past, or more precisely the unacknowledged past which generates its own series of ghosts and phantasms, always lurking in the background and creating havoc wherever they go. Occasionally confusing, Summer of Ubume is a fascinating supernatural mystery which takes its cues much more from European detective stories and gothic adventure than from supernatural horror or fantastical ghost story.


Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s source novel is available in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith (published by Vertical in the US).

Original trailer (no subs):